A foundation of faith, perseverance
It must have seemed as far as the moon. On May 13, 1844, a 34-year-old Franciscan named William Unterthiner took one last look at the snow-capped mountains and meadows he loved and embarked on a journey that would take him more than 4,700 miles from his home in the Tyrolean Alps. His destination: a frontier city in America bursting at the seams with industry and immigrants.
Parish priest Unterthiner was responding to a plea from Archbishop John B. Purcell of Cincinnati to the Franciscans of St. Leopold Province in Austria. Clerics were desperately needed to serve Catholic German immigrants settling in large numbers in Over-the-Rhine, the northern reaches of Cincinnati. Arriving in July of 1844, Unterthiner zealously promoted the American mission, enlisting his fellow friars to move into German-speaking enclaves in southern Ohio, northern Kentucky, and as far as Chatham, Ontario.
They refused to leave
Called home in 1854, the majority of missionaries chose to stay in Cincinnati, acquiring property at the corner of Liberty and Vine streets on which St. Francis Seraph Church and Friary, the province’s motherhouse, were constructed. The Custody of St. John the Baptist was established in 1859. As the number of friars increased, the Custody became a Province.
By this time, Franciscan parishes had taken root in Indiana, Michigan, Kansas and Illinois. In 1893, the province launched a new kind of ministry, one with far-reaching impact – St. Anthony Messenger magazine, which continues today as one of the leading Catholic family magazines in the world.
In 1898 the friars established a mission on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona at the request of Mother Katharine Drexel, now St. Katharine. With her support, the ministry flourished, eventually leading to the formation of a separate Franciscan province, Our Lady of Guadalupe. During the 20th Century, friars responded to calls from throughout the U.S. and foreign lands, venturing into China, the Philippines, Japan and Africa.
The Slovak legacy
At the same time, another group of friars were heeding their own call to service. Franciscans from the Province of the Most Holy Savior in Bratislava, Slovakia, went to Pittsburgh in 1926 to work among the Slovak immigrants. Their ministry, which extended throughout the eastern and north central U.S., led to the establishment of the Vice Province of the Most Holy Savior. These friars and St. John the Baptist Province merged in 2000, broadening the scope of their ministries.
A love for the poor has taken friars to Jamaica, the hollers of Appalachia and inner city neighborhoods throughout the Midwest and the Deep South. Inspired by St. Francis, they minister with hope and joy in the service of God’s people.