Celebrating Our History
This article appears in the May Issue of Reflections and Connections.
The history of Fond du Lac is inextricably linked with the Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes. In 1870, when the sisters first moved from Barton, Wisconsin, to a plot of twelve city lots on East Division Street, Fond du Lac was the state's second largest city and a major railroad hub. Mother Agnes Hazotte knew that Fond du Lac offered sisters the opportunity to teach in the city’s parish schools while also continuing to teach in the towns surrounding the city. Within days of their arrival in Fond du Lac, she set up a school in a rented house in the city. The congregation would later establish St. Agnes School of Nursing, St. Mary’s Springs High School, and Marian College (now University).
The sisters, and particularly Mother Agnes, in partnership with civic leaders and doctors, were also instrumental in bringing modern healthcare to Fond du Lac. After repeated requests from the city, the sisters opened a hospital. Relying on their faith, administrative skill, and $55,000 in seed money from the Fond du Lac Business Man’s Association, St. Agnes Hospital opened on July 1, 1896. While the earliest sisters focused almost exclusively on bringing healthcare to Fond du Lac, others took their expertise to different states and countries. Over the years, their healthcare ministry expanded to care for the elderly, help people in addiction recovery, and support survivors of domestic and sexual abuse.
In the mid-60s, when Vatican II encouraged religious orders to reexamine their role in the modern world, the congregation expanded its areas of ministry. In 1990, their current mission statement was written to include “a broad commitment to systemic change for the quality of life, justice for the economically poor, furtherance of the role of women in church and society, and mutuality, inclusivity, and collaboration.” Through their collective voices, they have issued corporate stance statements on women (1989), peace & nonviolence (2002), the death penalty (2006), human trafficking (2007), and care of the earth (2016). Additionally, the sisters, recognizing the interdependence of environmental, economic, scientific, social, and cultural systems, strive to be peacemakers and stewards of the natural resources entrusted to the congregation. To further these goals, a Justice, Peace, and Ecology Committee was formed in 1990 which led to the creation of a full-time position: Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation Coordinator.
In the past few years, as immigration dominated headlines, CSA held demonstrations to oppose the immigrant family separations and the proposed Muslim travel ban. They met with government representatives to advocate on immigrants’ behalf, helped to organize the public prayer gathering in support of the LGBTQ+ community following the Pulse nightclub shooting, hosted a Trans-Forming Love workshop to assist people in understanding the transgender community, and sponsored numerous local events to end violence against women and girls. CSA currently hosts monthly meetings of Fond du Lac Pax Christi, a group that promotes non-violence, peacemaking, disarmament, and reconciliation locally and throughout the world.
Other notable impacts in Fond du Lac include:
- working with ASTOP and Agnesian Healthcare to provide counseling to survivors of sexual and domestic abuse;
- supporting the establishment of the Blandine House, named after Sister Blandine Eisele, a pioneer in the treatment of alcoholism;
- helping establish the first hospice program in the city, first at St. Agnes Hospital and eventually becoming Hospice Home of Hope;
- partnering with the Sophia Foundation (now Sophia Transformative Leadership Partners) to support leaders to learn and practice servant leadership
- modeling sustainable energy by installing 880 solar panels; the largest solar array in the county when it was installed in 2016;
- advocating equity in sports and supporting Title IX legislation;
- addressing the needs of local, low-income single parents by establishing the Marian University Working Families Grant Program which provides funding for tuition, rent, childcare, and food for the families;
- and serving victims of domestic abuse at Bethany House of Hospitality (now Solutions Center) through volunteer & board work.
The work of the sisters has rippled beyond the city’s borders to have similar impacts around the globe. With the support of the Catholic community, city leaders, and local citizens, the sisters have ministered to the Fond du Lac community in the spirit of their founders with simplicity, hospitality, and missionary zeal for 150 years.