Iowa Franciscans say farewell to Chicago parish

Celebrate order’s legacy with African- American Catholics

By Jill Kruse
Witness Editorial Assistant

CHICAGO — As Sisters Marilyn Freking and Ann Rubly prepared to leave Chicago last week to return to Mt. St. Francis, their religious community’s motherhouse in Dubuque, the two women said they felt like they were returning home, and yet they very much felt like they were saying goodbye to home, too.

“Both places are our home; we’re leaving one home for another,” reflected Sister Marilyn.

She and Sister Ann have, between the two of them, served Corpus Christi Catholic Church, a predominately African-American parish in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side, for nearly 100 years. The two retired this June.

Sister Marilyn, 77, a native of western Iowa, whose home parish is St. Mary’s in Remsen, joined the Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque when she was 18 years old. After first serving at St. Christopher Parish in Midlothian, Illinois, Sister Marilyn was appointed to serve at Corpus Christi in 1963. She taught school there for a decade and worked in parish ministry as well. She spent the majority of her 53 years at Corpus Christi leading the parish’s social services program.

Eighty-two-year-old Sister Ann grew up near Petersburg, Iowa, where she and her family attended Ss. Peter and Paul Parish. She joined the Franciscans, together with her sister and a childhood friend, when she was 19 years old. After previous assignments in both Iowa and Illinois, Sister Ann began serving at Corpus Christi in 1972. During her time at the parish, Sister Ann worked with the homebound and brought them Communion; she visited hospitals and nursing homes and provided transportation to those who couldn’t drive.

“It has been a privilege and a pleasure to serve these wonderful people,” Sister Ann said of her 44 years working with Corpus Christi’s parishioners.

Corpus Christi was established in 1901 and originally served a community that was primarily ethnically Irish. With the Great Migration of the early 20th century, which saw many African-Americans relocate from the rural South to urban centers in the Northeast and Midwest, the community, along with the parish, transitioned from one that was mostly Irish to one that was almost entirely African-American.

In 1932, priests of the Franciscan Province of the Sacred Heart, who were serving Corpus Christi at the time, invited the Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque to teach at the parish’s new school. The Franciscan sisters accepted the invitation and began sending members of their community to the Bronzeville parish to serve as teachers and in other roles, and would continue to do so for more than 80 years.

Sister Marilyn said that though she and Sister Ann both grew up on farms in rural Iowa, they didn’t experience much for culture shock when moving to one of the largest cities in the country. “We were focused on doing our ministry at the parish, and that was the same kind of ministry whether it was being done in a small town in Iowa or in Chicago,” she said.

The parishioners of Corpus Christi also helped make the transition easy. “The people of the parish went out of their way to welcome us,” she said.

Sister Ann agreed. “The people of Corpus Christi were so warm and welcoming,” she remembered. “They have always treated us like family.”

The sisters said that through the years, parishioners invited them to join their families for holiday gatherings and to be part of important celebrations, such as weddings and baptisms. Parishioners would even invite Sister Ann over to their homes to watch her beloved Chicago White Sox play baseball on television.

The number of parishioners at Corpus Christi has declined compared to when the two sisters began serving there. The high school was already closed when they arrived, and the elementary school was forced to do the same in 1993 because of low enrollment. Today, the parish consists of approximately 100 families served by priests from the Missionary Society of St. Paul of Nigeria.

Sisters Marilyn and Ann are the last two Franciscan sisters serving Corpus Christi and their retirement and departure mark the end of an era for the parish since no one from the order is expected to replace them. “We just don’t have anybody else to send after us,” Sister Ann said.

A farewell Mass was held at Corpus Christi on June 5 to honor the two sisters and to thank them for their years of service. Many of the parish’s families and former members were in attendance. They were joined by a number of other sisters who were also able to be there that day, including Sister Cathy (Kate) Katoski, the current president of the Dubuque Franciscan’s leadership team.

After Mass there was also a meal. Sister Marilyn said parishioners went to great lengths in preparing the food and in decorating to make the occasion more festive. “It was a beautiful celebration. The people from the parish did so much to make it a special day. It really showed how much love there is in this place,” she said.

During the celebration, some parishioners took the opportunity to share their favorite memories of the two sisters. One story retold that day was the account of Sister Ann stopping a would-be robber who was trying to steal bingo money from the church. As the thief attempted to flee with the cash, Sister Ann grabbed his leg and held on until police arrived to arrest him. “It happened decades ago,” Sister Ann said with a laugh, “but people still like to talk about it.”

Three weeks after their farewell Mass, Sisters Marilyn and Ann returned to Mt. St. Francis in Dubuque. The sisters said they are looking forward to retirement, but are not entirely sure yet what retirement will look like. Both agree they are excited to see old friends and also plan to do some volunteering. They anticipate a little more leisure time, which they hope will allow them the chance to play more cards. “We like games like canasta and pinochle,” Sister Ann said. “We’re both very competitive.”

Sister Marilyn said while they look forward to retirement, there are many things they’ll miss about life in Chicago. She mentioned Lake Michigan, the view from atop the city’s skyscrapers and the local food as some of the things she was sure she would miss. She said, though, “it’s the people and the parish we’ll miss the most. Without a doubt, it’s the parish and the wonderful people.”

Information from a June 5 article from the Chicago Sun-Times and a June 23 article from the Chicago Tribune were used as sources for this article.

Jason Stapleton, a parishioner at Corpus Christi Catholic Church, chatted with Sisters Ann Rubly (left) and Marilyn Freking, alongside his wife, Ivy, and toddler daughter, Aria, after a recent farewell Mass for the sisters. (Mitch Dudek/Chicago Sun-Times)