November 1, 2019

2019 Vocations Awareness Supplement

‘Adopt-a-sis’ program instills values of Franciscan sisters in high school students

Franciscan Sister Kathleen Branham, center, smiles with her “adopted” students in the lunchroom at the motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Francis of Oldenburg in Oldenburg on Oct. 9. The sisters invite students from the Oldenburg Academy of the Immaculate Conception to eat lunch together twice a month. The students are, from left, Kate Walke, Emerald Simmonds, Lleyton Knecht and Kate Voegele. (Photo by Katie Rutter)

Franciscan Sister Kathleen Branham, center, smiles with her “adopted” students in the lunchroom at the motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Francis of Oldenburg in Oldenburg on Oct. 9. The sisters invite students from the Oldenburg Academy of the Immaculate Conception to eat lunch together twice a month. The students are, from left, Kate Walke, Emerald Simmonds, Lleyton Knecht and Kate Voegele. (Photo by Katie Rutter)

By Katie Rutter (Special to The Criterion)

OLDENBURG—One of the unique, and perhaps providential, features of the Oldenburg Academy of the Immaculate Conception in Oldenburg is its close connection to the Sisters of St. Francis of Oldenburg, the religious community that founded the school.

The high school and Franciscan motherhouse share a campus. Students daily eat lunch in the same building that the sisters call home.

Seeing an opportunity in the proximity, the sisters have built close relationships with many of the high schoolers. Most of these relationships are thanks to a program that the sisters call “Adopt-a-Sis,” in which students eat lunch with a sister twice a month for an entire school year.

For half an hour, the generations mingle over pizza and peanut butter sandwiches. Each sister sits, laughing and asking questions, with a group of four or five young people.

“I see her as a friend. I think of it as going to see a friend that I don’t normally get to see during the week,” said sophomore Emerald Simmonds, speaking with The Criterion during lunchtime on Oct. 9.

“It’s just a great experience to be able to learn from someone who has so much knowledge,” said Ben Kraus, a senior at the academy.

The Sisters of St. Francis founded what would become Oldenburg Academy in 1852. The proactive group taught in the school and staffed other parish schools in Kentucky, Ohio, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois and Kansas while, later, conducting mission work in foreign countries such as Papua New Guinea and China.

Like many other religious orders, however, the number of new vocations declined as the 20th century drew to a close. In 1994, the sisters turned over Oldenburg Academy to a board of lay members.

Today, none of the sisters teach at the school. Of the about 125 sisters living at the motherhouse, many are in nursing care, and the vast majority are retired.

Yet the Franciscans were determined to continue being present to the younger generations. When they first invited the students to lunch 19 years ago, about 40 students took advantage of the opportunity.

“Our sisters are so rich in experience, education and spirituality, they’ve got a lot to share with the students,” said Franciscan Sister André Burkhart, who organizes Adopt-a-Sis.

This year, 189 of the 230 high schoolers at the academy signed up to have lunch with the sisters.

On Oct. 9, the buzz of pleasant conversation was heard throughout the room. Topics ranged from daily activities like sports or fishing to cross-generational differences.

“I think you get to learn about someone that’s not part of your generation. It’s very interesting to hear their stories and where they came from and what they think,” said sophomore Kate Voegele.

“The age difference is so big that she grew up without most of the stuff that we’re living with now,” said senior Owen Hudepohl, sitting at the table with Sister André.

“We think without phones or TV we wouldn’t be able to live, and back then they thrived,” he concluded.

“They wouldn’t live five minutes with outdoor toilets,” inserted Sister André with a laugh.

Sister André herself was taught by the Sisters of Oldenburg during her school years.

Franciscan Sister Kathleen Branham, the order’s vocations director, was also taught by the Oldenburg Franciscans. She believes that their influence gave her a passion for social justice that led her to work in the foster care system and, eventually, to join the order.

“There was just something about the joyfulness, the caring and the compassion that I remembered growing up,” Sister Kathleen recalled.

Some of the connections and lessons made over the shared lunches last a lifetime. Brian Knueven, now a German and music teacher at Oldenburg, began his high school career eating lunch with Franciscan Sister Jean Michael Sauntry.

“She did mission work in Papua New Guinea, so she told me about that and being in her village and what things were like there,” Knueven recalled.

Their correspondence continued even after his graduation until, eventually, Sister Jean Michael celebrated with him when he was hired at Oldenburg. Knueven says that his regular interactions with the sisters helped build a Franciscan foundation for his spirituality.

“It’s a lifestyle, it’s not this thing that I believe and this thing I hear about. It’s a lifestyle and you kind of choose to really live it,” he explained.

When the bell rang for the lunch period to end, the students and sisters exchanged smiles and hugs. As her “adopted” students headed to their next class, Sister André expressed big hopes for their future.

“I hope they remember when they’re in leadership, because we hope that they’re leaders of tomorrow,” said Sister André, “that there is a God, and that there’s someone who cares and that we’re always here for them.”
 

(To learn more about the Oldenburg Franciscans, visit oldenburgfranciscans.org.)

 

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