In the mid-19th century Sister Mary Ignatius (Elizabeth Hayes), a convert from Anglicanism, responded to a particular call from God to embrace radical Gospel living. She received her initial formation in the penitential lifestyle of Francis from the Franciscan Sisters, Glasgow, Scotland, who trace their history to a mid-15th century community known as the Grey Sisters of the Order of St. Francis from Comines, France. On November 26, 1859, Sister Mary Ignatius made her total commitment to Christ; in addition to the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, she made a fourth vow to dedicate her life to the foreign missions. It was this vow that led the future foundress to begin her pilgrimage from Glasgow to Jamaica, to Paris, to Rome, to Versailles, to St. Thomas Island, to Boston, and finally to Belle Prairie, Minnesota, in 1873.
From a study of the events of these 14 years of searching for the will of God, it would seem that Providence was preparing Sister Mary Ignatius for the real task that lay ahead. Purified by trials, she was learning that complete self-emptying, that utter indifference to success and honor which, as a foundress, she would need. Like Christ and St. Francis, she was a pilgrim living in joyful dependence on God during the long novitiate of her early missionary endeavors. At each new stage of her journey, she continued to say her “nunc coepi” (“let us begin”).
When God calls free human beings to enter a covenant, God remains faithful to it; and now in the designs of Providence the time was ripe for the hopes and plans of Sister Mary Ignatius to be realized. The year was 1873, the place Belle Prairie, Minnesota, USA, when our branch of the Franciscan family known as Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception became a reality in a small, one-roomed log cabin. The initial years of guiding the young community were years that called for a depth and breadth of vision that could have come only from a profound faith and a very deep sense that this call to mission was from God, and would therefore be sustained by God through even the severest trials. By 1878, the Belle Prairie community could count six professed sisters and a flourishing little novitiate. Her success only incited her missionary spirit, and she turned her attention to the black population of the South who, at that time, were the most underprivileged, deprived, and humiliated inhabitants of the United States. By the summer of 1879, Mother Mary Ignatius and a small community of nine were ministering on the Isle of Hope, Diocese of Savannah, Georgia. In obedience to the Pope, the novitiate was established in Rome, a symbolic action testifying that our mission was not confined to the peoples of any particular race or country, but that it was to extend to the universal Church.
Following the example of Mother Mary Ignatius, our sisters through the years have continued in prayerful discernment to search for the will of God before accepting commitments in the various countries. In this spirit, in 1898, four years after the death of the foundress on May 6, 1894, a mission was initiated in Fayoum, Egypt. Likewise, in 1912 a mission was opened in Montreal, Canada; in 1930, one in Kedron, Australia. In 1933, a center for vocations to the Institute was inaugurated in Bloomfield, Ireland; in 1949, Australia extended its missionary activities to Papua New Guinea. In 1970, our sisters from the United States accepted a new challenge in bringing their apostolic services to Bolivia and, in 1985, to Peru. In 1991, the sisters in Canada responded to new missionary challenges in Africa by sending sisters to Chad.
In 1964, 26 Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, the spiritual daughters of Mother Mary Elizabeth Lockhart of Braintree, England, amalgamated with our Institute, thus uniting the two communities whose foundresses, Mother Mary Ignatius Hayes and Mother Mary Elizabeth Lockhart, had been closely associated. In fact, it had been in Mother Mary Elizabeth’s community, directed by Cardinal Manning at Bayswater, England, that Mother Mary Ignatius had had her first experience of religious life in the Catholic Church.
The spiritual development of our sisters, as well as their response to the complex needs of an expanding Church, has always been the prime concern of the Institute. Called by God’s love to follow St. Francis and Mother Mary Ignatius, we are pilgrims on the way to the Most High. Turning continually to God in Christ, we turn also towards all peoples, especially in the persons of the poor and rejected, with whom Christ identified Himself. In loving concern for one another, we travel together as those who have here no permanent home or attachment, and are always in readiness for whatever awaits us on our journey. Thus, at all times we should be able to say “nunc coepi.”