The Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes was founded on American soil in 1858 through the efforts of Father Caspar Rehrl. The pastoral zeal of this Austrian missionary had led him to the newly created diocese of Milwaukee, which was under the leadership of Bishop John Martin Henni and included all the Wisconsin Territory. Father Rehrl ministered tirelessly to the immigrant people in the area between Lake Michigan and Lake Winnebago, from Milwaukee to Green Bay.
After unsuccessful attempts to bring religious women from Europe to help him in his work, he received approval from Pope Pius IX to establish at Barton, Wisconsin, a sisterhood of young pioneer women, under the patronage of St. Agnes of Rome, to whom he had a special devotion. On August 12, 1858, the Congregation of St. Agnes came into existence when Father Rehrl received three women into his new society. Among them was Gertrude Rehberg, the first young lady to respond to Father Rehrl's plans to found a sisterhood. That day she became Sister Mary Agnes Clara and would be the first permanent "Agnesian."
According to his proposed constitutions, the "Agnes Sisters" were "united for this purpose, that by means of their united strength they may train and educate children in such a way that they may. . .come to God in heaven." This early rule of life also envisioned a hospice and infirmary at the motherhouse for those who were not members of the congregation.
At first the small group suffered such untold hardships and difficulties that, for a few months in 1861, it was reduced to one blind member. The arrival of Mary Hazotte in 1863, however, gave Father Rehrl his "child of destiny." She was received into the community as Sister Mary Agnes and was elected its general superior the following year on her profession day, at the age of seventeen.
As the society grew, so did the tensions between Father Rehrl and Sister Agnes. He wanted to send the sisters and candidates into ministry after minimal training; she insisted that they remain at Barton for a more thorough preparation. In June of 1870, Father Rehrl, now aging and burdened with pastoral work, resigned as director of the congregation. A month later, Rev. Martin Kundig, administrator of the diocese, came to Barton to disband the sisters because they had no definite rule and no ecclesiastical approval. Providentially, at that same time the co-founder of the Capuchins in the United States, Father Francis Haas, was present at Barton conducting a retreat and revising Father Rehrl's earlier proposed rule. Through the intervention of Father Francis, the institute was not disbanded. Moreover, Father Kundig named Father Francis its spiritual director.
On August 1 of that same year, 1870, the sisters made the historic move to Fond du Lac, which was a more favorable location. With the help of her sisters and the guidance of Father Francis, Mother Agnes led the small group to become a lasting apostolic institute. Repeatedly re-elected, she served as general superior until her death in 1905. Through her faith and courage and that of the other early sisters, a living flame of apostolic zeal spread its light and warmth beyond the fieldstones of Barton and Fond du Lac to the far-reaching areas of the United States. Before long, the Sisters of St. Agnes were responding to many and various needs of the church through education and the care of immigrants, orphans, the sick and the elderly.
Today, as in its early years, the mission of the congregation extends beyond any one culture or nationality. Women of all ethnic groups and races are welcome as members, just as from its beginnings women from diverse backgrounds have enriched the congregation and been enriched by it.
From Constitutions, Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes, pages VII and VIII