The year of 1860 brought drastic changes to the lives and history of the Oblate Sisters of Providence. There was personal loss in the death of Sister Angelica, who had been in charge of the boys’ school since it opened. There was congregational loss when the Redemptorists had to give up their directorship.
There was spiritual loss when they were informed that their beloved chapel would be closed. Darkness seemed to surround them on every side. They had lost their beloved Father Thaddeus Anwander to a new field of labor in New Orleans. His successor, Father James Poirier, was in ill health and died after a short time, as did Father John B. Vogien after him. The last Redemptorist, Father Dominic Kraus, left them in November of 1860, with the news that the Redemptorists would have to give up their directorship altogether.
The sisters, true women of providence, placed their trust in the God who had shown them in remarkable ways his providential care. A remarkable series of events now transpired. When the archbishop placed them under the direction of the rector of St. Ignatius Church, Mother Gertrude, re-elected for the fourth term, went to pay her respects to him. He informed her that Father Peter Miller had been appointed their director and would say Mass for them twice a week, as well as hear their confessions whenever it suited the sisters.
The reason for closing their chapel now became apparent: The Jesuits had opened the lower church of St. Ignatius to the colored, where a congregation was already attending. Soon St. Francis Xavier Church would also open. Under these circumstances, St. Frances Chapel would have been an unnecessary duplication.
It is now 1861 and the Civil War cast its influence upon the fortunes of the congregation. The parents had great difficulty making payments for their children. With permission of the director, there took place a number of concerts which cleared hundreds of badly needed dollars and the school continued to grow.
In the summer of 1863, Father Barbelin, a Jesuit, made application for a branch of the congregation to be established in Philadelphia. The sisters consented. Details were studied and arrangements perfected so that on August 26, Sister Alphonsa Messonier, local superior, Sister Frances, second and Sister Martha Boyd, housekeeper, departed from St. Frances with some sadness. It was the first time that there had been a parting.
Because the Civil War had resulted in a large number of orphans, Father Miller decided to open an orphan asylum for them. It was opened formally on the anniversary of the day the congregation had been approved by the pope 37 years before, on October 2.
During the Second Plenary Council of 1866, the various bishops and priests attending it came to say Mass at the convent, so that altogether, during this time, there were 106 Masses said in St. Frances Chapel. Since the Sisters no longer had daily Mass, this was a great privilege for them.
In November of 1866, Father Peter Miller, realizing that the St. Frances institutions had outgrown their buildings, advised them to buy the house adjoining theirs on Richmond Street. The Sisters had no money and were afraid to borrow. Jesuit Father Clarke offered to help them if they would do the washing and mending for Loyola. They accepted gladly.
Meanwhile, the school at Fells Point was discontinued because of financial reasons. In spite of persistent poverty, the Oblates continued to expand their ministry. A lack of money prevented their immediate response to an invitation from Bishop John Odin to come to New Orleans. Bazaars, concerts, vestment making and fine sewing, as well as the contract to wash and mend for Loyola, were all essential if the Oblate ministry were to continue.
Future decades will show that the congregation would move not only into other states, but into other nations as well.
Sister Mary Alice Chineworth is an Oblate Sister of Providence and has served as superior general for the religious community.
On July 2, the Oblate Sisters of Providence will celebrate their 180th anniversary since their founding. All are invited to celebrate with them at Mass at 6:30 pm at the Oblate Sisters of Providence Motherhouse located at 701 Gun Road.