ALLEGANY, NY – The Franciscan Sisters at St. Elizabeth Motherhouse start their days exactly how they end them: in prayer and devotion to God.
The convent for retired sisters at 115 E. Main St. is separated into four sections. The first level, named after St. Francis, houses sisters in need of memory care. The second floor houses two sections: St. Claire's for residents with physical needs and St. Elizabeth's for residents requiring assisted living. The third floor is reserved for sisters in independent living.
Each floor has a parlor, dining area, TV and living space and private rooms and bathrooms. Most importantly, each floor has a small, silent chapel with a few chairs and a tabernacle. The red candle flickering beside each tabernacle reminds the sisters that God is present on every floor.
Religious pictures and icons, including depictions of the lives of St. Francis and Mary, the mother of Jesus, adorn the walls.
While many of the retired sisters struggle with physical or mental burdens, their commitment to live a life of prayer and work in community with one another is unwavering.
The devotions at the motherhouse include morning and evening prayer, daily Mass, and a daily 11 a.m. gathering of the sisters for praying the Franciscan Crown, comprised of seven decades of the rosary.
The sisters also receive three meals and participate in at least three activities a day.
On a recent Wednesday, 32 of the 64 sisters gathered in the main chapel on the first floor for a penance service. Following the service, 98-year-old Sister Thérèse Joyce, OSF, reflected on her life and how she came to the motherhouse.
When she was just 13 months old, Joyce and her family left County Galway, Ireland, and settled in Boston, where her father worked on the railroad while her mother did housework.
Joyce realized in the fourth grade that she wanted to be a religious sister, admiring the work her teacher, a member of the Sisters of Charity, did for her in school.
Before entering the convent, Joyce worked for two years at a local 5 & 10, first selling cosmetics and then selling treats at the candy counter. She recalled that her manager, also a Catholic, always teased her for eating too much candy behind the counter, even though she ate none.
Within that time, Joyce actively discerned a call to religious life. As her faith continued to grow, she encouraged others to live a life devoted to Christ. For instance, when one of her co-workers stopped going to Mass, Joyce’s constant invitations brought that friend back to the sacraments.
Joyce remembered being attracted to the Franciscan Order because “Francis could be anything he wanted to be.”
Son of a rich fabric merchant, Francis decided to give up what he had to help the poor.
“He would give the shirt off his back for the people around him,” Joyce said.
When she finally decided to enter the Franciscan Order, Joyce’s family was extremely supportive. Joyce recalled that, unfortunately, other women discerning a religious vocation with her were met with more hostility.
One sister’s family refused to let her back into the house if she decided to enter the order. The sister never returned to her family’s home again. Another sister, while initially met with hostility, ended up converting her whole family before she died.
As a sister, Joyce worked in the library of St. John the Baptist High School on Long Island for 34 years until she suffered a severe stroke.
Joyce couldn’t move, eat or talk. By her own admission, Joyce was not supposed live. “The nurses were told to keep me comfortable,” Joyce recalled.
In 2006, after being helicoptered to the Olean area, she stayed in the motherhouse and made a miraculous recovery. Today, she is more active than most women her age, walking with the help of only a lightweight walking frame decorated with flowers.
Joyce said that she feels completely at home at St. Elizabeth.
“I love everyone and everything about the motherhouse,” Joyce said.