The Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity are leaving Kauai after 71 years
By Sister Malia Dominica Wong, OP
Special to the Herald
KEKAHA, Kauai — From 1946 to the present, Hawaii school children and parishioners have reaped the blessings of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity. On June 7, they will say their final “aloha” as the last three sisters leave St. Theresa School in Kekaha, Kauai, and move back to their Wisconsin motherhouse and on to other missionary work.
Mahalo nui loa me ke pumehana dear Sister Michael Ann O’Donnell, Sister Janet Rose and Sister Mary Anne Tupy! God’s blessings forth!
They will be missed.
St. Theresa pastor, Father Emerson De los Reyes, said the sisters’ impact will be felt long after they leave.
“Their presence will continue to be here among the people because they have done so much for the people,” he said.
Sister Michael Ann, likewise, reflects the feelings of her fellow sisters when she says, “I will miss most the joy and friendliness of all the people I had the opportunity to work with and encounter — even the strangers walking the beach.”
From Wisconsin to Kauai
The Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, were founded in 1869 by Teresa Gramlich, Rosa Wahl and three other women who had come together three years earlier to teach catechism and start a school in Clarks Mills, Wisconsin.
Seventy-seven years later, on Aug. 7, 1946, four members of their growing congregation set sail for Honolulu from San Francisco on the S.S. Mariposa.
On Aug. 15, the Feast of the Assumption, Sister Rita Forgach, Sister Bridgetine Gauthier, Sister James Van De Hey and Sister St. Margaret Rufus stepped off a small plane on Kauai to begin their apostolate of education to the westernmost parish of the United States, St. Theresa in Kekaha.
The Franciscan Sisters had responded to one of the 108 letters the Kekaha pastor, Marist Father Joseph Robeck, had sent to Mainland religious communities requesting for school sisters.
On Sept. 1, 1946, Bishop James J. Sweeney blessed the new school built of recommissioned wooden Army barracks and restored Quonset huts. Grades kindergarten through three opened on Sept. 3 with 135 children. A new grade was added each year until a full elementary school was established.
Cathedral School was an all-boys institution founded in 1933 by the Marianist Brothers at the old Saint Louis College site in Honolulu near Chinatown. To meet a growing enrollment, the school moved in 1936 to the old Damon home site next door to the Japanese consulate on Nuuanu Avenue. Its new buildings were quickly filled, eventually reaching an all-time enrollment high of 322 students.
In 1956, Cathedral School welcomed its first girls and the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity who took over from the Marianist brothers. The sisters remained there until 1990 when the remaining two were transferred to St. Theresa School in Kekaha.
Nine years after coming to Cathedral School, the congregation opened a third school, this one on the Windward side of Oahu, in Kailua’s new development of Enchanted Lake. Franciscan Sister Mary Ann Harvey, former principal of Cathedral School, was named principal of St. John Vianney School which Bishop Sweeney blessed on Sept. 5, 1965. She was assisted by Sister Regine Marie and Sister Arlene Virlee.
The Franciscans ministered at St. John Vianney until 1979.
One of the many contributions the Franciscan Sisters brought to Hawaii was their scholarship. From the beginning they were all college-educated professionals in their fields of ministry.
Said Sister Mary Anne, “There is just a wealth of knowledge that religious sisters do have, especially in theology and the passing on of the faith. It’s just a part of our being.”
Sister Michael Ann recognizes the vacuum they will leave behind.
“What I am hearing from people now is, ‘Who is going to take your place? Who is going to be able to carry on the contributions you made here as educated women?’”
“In regards to our backgrounds and knowledge, whether it is in teaching, visiting the sick or homebound, or in catechetics, it is going to be difficult to find people who have the same skills and knowledge to fill in,” she said.
“We are looking for teams of people and individuals who can take one portion of that work and help to continue it,” she said.
Decision to leave Hawaii
Last summer, the fourth member of the Kekaha community, Sister Valerie Lemansky, fell ill and was not able to return to St. Theresa. Due to a lack of replacements and the aging of congregational members, the three mid-westerners will close the congregation’s Hawaii mission after 71 years.
Sister Mary Anne, who teaches grades five and six, will return to the motherhouse in Manitowoc to assist with driving until her upcoming knee surgery. Sister Janet, who teaches first grade, will return to Immaculate Conception School in Yuma, Arizona, as a tutor. Sister Michael Ann who coordinates St. Theresa Parish’s religious education programs, will also return to the motherhouse. She has a passion for working outdoors and said the flowerbeds and weeds are waiting for her.
The sisters are leaving as lasting impression.
Dee (Luiz) Young, a 1963 graduate of St. Theresa and the parish secretary, said, “Just having the religious in our Catholic school makes it all the better for the children to realize that God is around there. I have listened to the children say, ‘You better watch out. The Sisters are angels from God.’ Just their presence inspires the kids.”
Father De los Reyes believes the sisters have had a strong impact on the parish community.
“When I came here, I was anticipating that one day the sisters will be leaving,” he said. “It’s sad. But we understand that it is the reality we have to face.”
“We are most grateful though that over these many years, the sisters were able to educate the young people, and most importantly, to serve as witnesses to the Gospel,” he said.
Sister Janet will miss the island’s beauty.
“When the plane landed and as we were driving here, I was just so taken by the beauty here that you cannot find in any other place. I remember the first day in my classroom. I walked in and looked out, and exclaimed, ‘Wow!’ How many people can say that they have the Pacific Ocean outside their classroom door?”
“When I came after (Hurricane) Iniki, I met people with strength, faith and resilience to bounce back after a hurricane that destroyed the convent, rectory and school,” Sister Janet said. “They really wanted the school, and so they rebuilt it. Being a part of that rebuilding and sharing faith with them was important to me.”
“I have known many of the grandparents. I know their children, have taught their children, and am now teaching their grandchildren,” she said.
Sister Michael Ann will miss the ohana spirit.
“When I first arrived, it was the warmth and openness of the people embracing us in welcome that impressed me,” she said. “The people embraced us 100 percent.”
“After three years of being here, I have come to see the strength and the depth of the bonding, caring and loving in the families that spills over into the community,” she said.
Through the sadness of departure, the sisters have hopeful expectations for St. Theresa School.
“My hope is that the school will continue to grow and be a vital spirit on this island,” said Sister Mary Ann. “We already have over 100 kids registered for next school year, far more than in the past.”
“I will miss the kids, especially my class this year,” she said.
“My hope is that the people on the island will always keep the faith and be strong in following the Lord,” Sister Janet said. “The fact that we are being changed is part of God’s plan. And the Lord has promised that he will be with us always.”
Today the convent is nearly empty as the sisters prepare for departure. Much of their household goods were sold at St. Theresa’s carnival last month.
Acknowledging that aloha doesn’t necessarily mean forever, Sister Michael Ann extended this author an invitation. “When will you get to come to Wisconsin, our Motherhouse? Don’t you want to see where all this wonderful cheese comes from? It’s worth checking out,” she said with a twinkle in her glistening eye.
The influence of the sisters spread beyond the classroom. Inspired by their religious charism of “simplicity, faith in God, joyful acceptance of poverty, love for the church, and selfless dedication to the service of other” (Constitutions 7), 14 young local women from four islands joined Franciscan order.
They were Roselani Gomes (Kekaha), Malia Aana (Honolulu), Leandra Onaga (Maui), Gemma Kamaka (Honolulu), Mara Gandia (Kilauea), Elissa Kamaka (Honolulu), Lolita Cabacungan (Eleele), Evalani Chung (Honolulu), Gwendolene Ventura (Kalaheo), Nora Santos (Kauai), Thereselle Arruda (Maui), Antolynn Lee (Kauai), Lourdette Gandia (Waimea) and Diane Espino (Kauai).
Following the Franciscan call to service in education, health care, spiritual direction, parish and community service, they ministered in the rural and off-the-beaten-track areas of Arizona, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin.