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FNS Photo by Wendy Reuer The St. Francis Convent in Hankinson now serves as a home for the Dillingen Franciscan Sisters and a ecumenical retreat center. The 1928 building was also once a boarding school.

2013 was year of Dillingen Sisters in Hankinson

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HANKINSON — Underneath the black and white veils worn by the Sisters of the Dillingen Franciscan Convent here, there is humor, intelligence backed by higher education and a curiosity about the world they share with all who visit the 1928-built retreat center on the edge of town.

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While the mammoth brick building towers over visitors on their way into Hankinson, sisters Ann Marie Friederichs, provincial superior, and Susan Marie Loeffen, vicar provincial and Retreat Center administrator, along with the two dozen nuns who call the building home, welcome with open arms all who pass through the heavy front doors.

The women’s welcoming personalities and inclusive manners may surprise those unfamiliar with their home, which was once home to hundreds of boarding school children and former sisters and now serves as an ecumenical retreat for events from quilting fairs to spiritual retreats.

But for the not quite 1,000 residents of Hankinson and the surrounding area who proclaimed 2013 the “Year of the Sisters” as a way to commemorate the Dillingen Sisters’ 100 years in the United States, their contributions and impact on the rural community and surrounding area are well known.

Throughout 2013, the Dillingen Franciscan Sisters of the Immanuel Heart of Mary Province have celebrated the centennial after 24 sisters arrived from Germany to St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., in August 1913. The first sisters arrived on a mission to help cook, sew and do laundry for priests and seminarians.

Eventually, the sisters wanted to build a convent, and looked for an area where the population was comprised of mostly German Catholics and in a fertile area for farming near rail lines. After a group settled in at the Bauer family home in Hankinson, the motherhouse, at 102 6th St. E., was opened in 1928.

Life as a Dillingen sister

After serving for 12 years in Germany, American-born Friederichs, who has earned a master’s degree in social work, moved back to Hankinson and was named the provincial superior of the Hankinson convent.

She and Loeffen oversee about 40 staff who are employed at the provincial house and work alongside the 25 sisters in the province, 16 of whom live at the Hankinson convent with Loeffen and Friederichs.

“The sisters are just people who love life and love God,” said Mary Schmitz, a retired journalist who first got to know the Dillingen Sisters in Oakes, where the province still administers a hospital.

Schmitz said Friederichs has a natural charisma that helps make all who visit the Hankinson site quickly at ease.

“The first time I met this lady, I felt a charisma about her,” Schmitz said. “You can sense when Sister Ann Marie walks into the building, and I think that carried over to help her head up a congregation, and Sister Susan is the same way.”

Inside the walls of St. Francis, the sisters begin their daily regimen about 5:30 a.m. each day with meditation and morning prayers. After breakfast, work and lunch, evening prayers are followed by watching the nightly news.

“We’ll have FOX News on one TV and MSNBC on another,” Friederichs said. After dinner, it’s the sisters’ time for recreation, which often includes hands of cards such as pinochle and rummy.

“I didn’t know sisters could have so much fun. It’s a big family, and it does all the same things family does,” Schmitz said.

That means the sisters love, play and even sometimes disagree, Friederichs said. But living together also means they grow together.

The sisters are all trained in a variety of vocations, from education and social work to agronomy, and most hold advanced degrees, Friederichs said.

“There are opportunities for us to use our education in various forms no matter what we are doing,” Loeffen said.

In their province, sisters only wear a black and white veil rather than a full or half habit, which makes them easily recognizable when often outside the walls of the convent.

However, the sisters are aware of and welcome the curiosity their attire can bring, especially from children.

Through the years, Loeffen and Friederichs laugh at the range of questions that can stem from a veil sighting, which have ranged from the personal — such as if a nun uses the restroom — to the spiritual.

“Actually, people will often open up to us,” Loeffen said. “They feel very free to come up and visit, and that’s just fine. (Our appearance) allows them to be open because they definitely know and feel they can trust you.”

Friederichs said approaching the sisters and working in the community gives them a chance to share their caring mission.

Education remains a priority.

Teaching always has been a part of the sisters’ mission work in and around the convent.

“Education has been important to the sisters to not only share but to obtain for their own,” Schmitz said. “I think you would be amazed at how educated these women are, the things they have done.”

Shortly after the St. Francis Convent was built, the school, St. Francis Academy, was opened in 1929 with 142 grade school students.

The boarding school housed hundreds of students, including Friederichs, until it closed in 1969. Grade school classes remained there until 1971. After the Academy closed, the Hankinson School District housed classrooms in the building until 2007.

Over the years, the Dillingen Sisters’ work has expanded from domestic work to farming, then their current focus of social work, education and health care.

One of their first ventures into health care administration was in 1953 when the sisters donated money for a 30-bed hospital in Hankinson, which was open until 1991. It now serves as an assisted living facility — St. Gerard’s Community of Care — and is still administered by the sisters.

The sisters also have helped open hospitals in Cando and Drayton, Gettysburg, S.D., Mercy Hospital in Oakes and St. Anne’s Guest Home in Grand Forks, along with five schools in Rugby, Karlsruhe, Selz, Lidgerwood and Wahpeton. The sisters have traveled to many other areas to teach.

The convent today

With the closing of the last classes in their Hankinson convent, the sisters looked to give their building a new life. In 2011, the St. Frances Retreat Center and Providence Auditorium opened.

“There was a huge need in this area for a retreat center,” Loeffen said. “We have groups that come from Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota and some of the groups that have been here are regional groups.”

Today, pristine halls that students once roamed are adorned with colorful artwork that blends in with historical artifacts that have been donated or made especially for the Dillingen sisters.

Each dorm room, some of which can accommodate single guests or multiple in a dormitory setting, is colored in cheerful blends of vintage and modern décor the sisters have cared for and collected over the years.

Small and large groups of as many as 90 can be housed at the retreat, which boasts two chapels, handicap accessibility, an auditorium, two conference rooms and an exercise room.

Inside the large kitchens, meals are prepared for retreats and catering, as well.

A summer quilting retreat has continued to grow in popularity, Loeffen said.

While the sister’s province has decreased in numbers, young women remain interested in the dedicated life, Friederichs said.

“We just have much invested here, and it’s still alive and it’s still growing,” Friederichs said. “Nobody’s thought about moving out, that’s for sure.”

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Wendy Reuer
Wendy reports for The Forum and West Fargo Pioneer, where she is also assistant editor. A University of Minnesota Morris graduate from North Dakota, Wendy started her career in television news and entertainment in Minnesota and and at CBS Television City, Calif. before working at newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota. 
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