Franciscan Life Center (former Franciscan motherhouse)

Sr. Renita Brummer (in red) guiding tour of St. Francis of Assisi Church.

Sr. Renita Brummer (in red) guiding tour of St. Francis of Assisi Church.

The Hospital Sisters of St. Francis  operated a convent and church on a 300-acre site northeast of Springfield from 1917 until 2021.

The order of Roman Catholic nuns, which began providing medical care in central Illinois in 1875, bought the property (then 500 acres) in 1917 to construct St. John’s Tuberculosis Sanitarium and St. Francis Convent.

However, the order’s enrollment fell sharply in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. With only 35 Franciscans left, the order announced an agreement in May 2021 under which the Catholic Diocese of Springfield would take over the property.

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.

As of 2013, the site still housed the convent and Motherhouse of the American Province of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis; Crucifixion Hill Cemetery; and the Chiara Center, a conference and meditation center. The Chiara Center closed permanently at the end of March 2021.

At its peak, the motherhouse was home to 700 nuns. 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 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).

Reputed fragment of the True Cross

Reputed fragment of the True Cross

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.

Under the nuns’ administration, interested people could arrange for tours of the church, museum and other facilities. The church also was open to the public at times for Sunday Mass.

According to a news release when the diocesan takeover was announced, the diocese planned to lease the property and create “a new institute for religious life and intellectual and spiritual formation” for teachers, parish teams, priests, and lay people. The arrangement was to take full effect in January 2022.

Living arrangements for the remaining Franciscan nuns and smaller numbers of Franciscan friars and Ursuline nuns would not change under the agreement.

Hospital Sisters ministries in Springfield since 1875

St. John’s Hospital, founded 1876
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; closed March  31, 2021
Hospital Sisters and the Catholic Diocese of Springfield announce lease arrangement, May 21, 2021, to take effect Jan. 1, 2022
bridge

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society. Learn how to support the Society. 

This entry was posted in Architecture, Arts and letters, Churches, Public health, Social services, Women and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Franciscan Life Center (former Franciscan motherhouse)

  1. BRUCE TREAKLE says:

    My grandmother Edith Mae Dugan died their sometime in the early 1940’s
    it would be nic to know if you have any records on this as her only child my Mom
    is still living.

  2. Sandra S. DeMoulin says:

    My grandmother died at St. John’s Sanitorium around 1920. Did it only have patients suffering from TB? Sandra S

    • editor says:

      Ms. Demoulin: I believe so, although I suspect many of the patients probably had other conditions as well. Thanks for reading.

  3. Patti Wauters says:

    I have heard that there is a way to be added to the Sister’s prayer change, may I inquire how please?

  4. Patricia Myers says:

    My grandmother died at the sanatorium in 1950. Are there any admittance records available? I cannot find a death certificate for her in either Illinois or Missouri. She is buried in Rutledge Missouri. Thank you.

    • editor says:

      Ms. Myers: You should check with the Sangamon Valley Collection, the local history collection, at Lincoln Library, Springfield’s municipal library. I don’t know if St. John’s Sanitorium’s records still exist, but one of the librarieans may. They’re very good.
      Sorry I can’t be more help.
      Good luck.

  5. Dr.Ulrich Albers says:

    Two of my wife’s great aunts went to Springfield Illinois as Mauritz Franciscans for the Order in 1888. One died relatively early, the second was still working in St. John’s Sanitarium in 1934. Is it still possible today to get information about their life in the Order in the USA?

    • editor says:

      Dr. Albers: Your best bet is to contact the Franciscan Motherhouse. The phone number is 217-523-0901.

      Thanks for reading SangamonLink.

  6. Debra Maurer says:

    My grandmother died of TB at St. John’s Sanitarium in 1926. Her name was Lucile S. Milwood Mueller (née Gibson), she was born in 1904. Would there be any records of her? My mother was adopted during Lucile’s illness, and I have just found her birth name. Thanks very much for any information you may have.

    • editor says:

      Ms. Maurer: One key question is whether Mrs. Mueller was a Sangamon County resident before her illness. Assuming she was:
      — The Sangamon County Clerk’s office should have her death certificate, but it looks like you might not qualify to request it. Information here: https://www.sangamoncountyclerk.com/Vital-Records/Death-Records/Default.aspx.
      — The sanitarium is long gone, of course, but the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis still have their motherhouse on campus; you can call them at (217) 522-3387.
      — I checked the Illinois State Journal, but found no notice of Ms. Mueller’s death there, unfortunately.
      — The other place to contact would be the Sangamon Valley Collection at Lincoln Library, 217-753-4900, ext. 5634.
      Good luck to you.

  7. Elizabeth says:

    IDPH also does death records, including Sangamon County, for less than what Sangamon County charges for.

    http://www.dph.illinois.gov/sites/default/files/forms/formsoppsapplication-illinois-death-record-2018_0.pdf

    I have used IDPH for several members of my family and they are the actual legit death records, even though I had went the genealogical route for different reasons. The only thing that’s different is that the word “GENEALOGICAL” is stamped diagonally across it so you are unable to submit if for any kind of legal reasons.

    Good luck and I hope you find her somehow.

Leave a Reply to Elizabeth Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *