The Hospital Sisters of St. Francis, who have served the sick in central Illinois since 1875, have their headquarters on a 300-acre site northeast of Springfield. The order of Roman Catholic nuns purchased the property (then 500 acres) in 1917 to construct St. John’s Tuberculosis Sanitarium and St. Francis Convent.
The first structure on the site was the sanitarium, which opened on July 18, 1919. The site offered “needed fresh air and sunshine, the recommended treatment for tuberculosis patients at that time,” according to the Hospital Sisters’ web site. The sanitarium closed in 1973.
The site now houses the convent and Motherhouse of the American Province of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis; the administrative centers of both the province and the Hospital Sisters Health System; Crucifixion Hill Cemetery; Hospital Sisters Mission Outreach; and the Chiara Center, a conference and meditation center.
At its peak, the motherhouse was home to 700 nuns. About 80 live there now, most of them elderly. A small, but sophisticated museum at the Franciscan Life Center outlines the history of the Franciscan order and its role in central Illinois.
The religious centerpiece of the center’s expansive facilities is St. Francis of Assisi Church, designed by the Springfield architectural firm of Helmle & Helmle and built by local contractor Frank Fitzsimmons from 1920 to 1924. The church was dedicated on April 29, 1924.
The church was described in 2008 by Paul Helmle, professor emeritus of architecture at California State Polytechnic University, and a relative of Springfield’s architectural Helmles. In an illustrated guide to the church posted on the Hospital Sisters’ web site, Paul Helmle called St. Francis of Assisi Church “one of the undiscovered treasures of Springfield.”
Although the architects built almost 400 buildings and were a major player in the 20th century physical image of Springfield, this church is certainly one of their finest works. Its exterior brings to mind images of German Romanesque architecture of the 12th century, with its eastern towers sitting confidently against the immense nave recalling medieval monasteries. Inside the terra cotta-clad nave there is harmony between the architectural elements. The astonishing scarlet dome hovering over the baldacchino with columns of richly patterned marble and the elaborate golden tabernacle recreate a past world of overwhelming splendor.
The church is traditionally cross-shaped, 133 feet long and 115 wide, rising 84 feet to the top of the dome. Its focus is the ornate sanctuary, designed in Belgium and surmounted by a bronze- and gold-covered canopy (the “baldacchino” referred to above).
Also among the church’s many notable features is a reputed fragment of the True Cross, once owned by Pope Pius IX (1846-78), which has been displayed in the church since 1945.
No church in the Springfield area, including the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, comes close to matching the Church of St. Francis of Assisi in terms of lavish display of Catholic religious art and ornamentation.
For a much more detailed understanding of the church, its purpose and the symbolism of its decor, interested readers are strongly advised to view the tour booklet or, better yet, arrange for an in-person tour of the church, museum and other facilities. The church also is open to the public for Sunday Mass, normally held at 9 a.m. (The time of Mass is sometimes changed to accommodate special events; visitors are asked to call in advance to verify the timing of services.)
To check Mass timing or to arrange for a free tour: (217) 523-0901.
Hospital Sisters ministries in Springfield since 1875
St. John’s Hospital, founded Nov. 11, 1875
St. Lucas Wabash Railroad Hospital, staffed 1884-1903
St. John’s Hospital School of Nursing, founded Oct. 4, 1886; became a college in 1991
St. John’s Sanitarium, founded July 9, 1919; closed Dec. 31, 1973
St. Francis Convent High School, founded 1920; closed 1965
St. John’s Crippled Children’s School and Hospital, founded Feb. 5, 1921; closed June 30, 1958
Diocesan Bishop’s Rectory, staffed 1923-80
Rita Club for Business Women, 1928-1971
St. John’s Breadline, founded 1929
St. Francis Convent, founded Aug. 4, 1930
Latin School Diocesan Seminary, staffed April 4, 1956-June, 1977
St. Monica’s Hall, staffed Nov. 1, 1948-1978
Franciscan Apostolic Center, Dec. 3, 1974-Dec. 31, 1992
Hospital Sisters Health System, incorporated Dec. 26, 1978
Hospital Sisters Mission Outreach, founded Aug. 20, 2002
Chiara Center, founded March 22, 2007
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