PHOENIX — No commemoration of the 175th anniversary of the congregation’s founding would be complete without a remembrance and celebration in the U.S. Southwest. In a somewhat adapted version of the era’s popular invitation, the Sisters of the Precious Blood did, indeed, “Go West, young sisters, go West!” Their impetus, though, was not panning for gold or homesteading for land, but service to God’s people.
In 1903, a little group of five early pioneer CPPS traveled from Ohio to Arizona, accepting the invitation of the Franciscan friars to open a school — St. Mary’s Elementary School (and later high school) at St. Mary’s Basilica parish in Phoenix. They served there, their first Southwestern mission, until 1996.
It was fitting, then, that St. Mary’s was the site for a celebration of thanksgiving on Saturday, March 21. Twenty-one CPPS sisters from across the country converged on Phoenix for the anniversary event, highlighted by a Saturday evening Mass in St. Mary’s Basilica followed by a reception. The celebration — a true Southwestern fiesta — provided a great time for sisters to reconnect with former students, former members, and multiple generations of families who remember CPPS sisters as teachers and catechists, nurses, and providers of social services and outreach to the poor of all races.
From those first days in Phoenix, CPPS branched out to other Southwest mission sites in the Diocese of Tucson and Gallup, N.M., serving in 30 schools, parishes, orphanages, retreat houses and social services, including ministry to the Native American and Hispanic peoples of the area. Across the span of 106 years, some 300 Sisters of the Precious Blood served in this region of the Southwest. The 21 sisters who attended the Phoenix celebration were among those who ministered there or are native Southwesterners themselves.
Months of behind-the-scenes planning and coordinating went into the Phoenix celebration, primarily by CPPS of the “Western Hope” cluster (clusters are the congregation’s structure for community living). Cluster members came from California, Colorado, Arizona and Guatemala, and were joined by members from other states as well.
First on the day’s schedule, before the 5 p.m. Mass, was an afternoon gathering in St. Mary’s Hall of CPPS sisters, relatives and former members. Eighteen former members were on hand, many with their families. Participants shared memories and laughter, funny and poignant reminiscences, and caught up on news. A PowerPoint presentation, complete with old photos, traced the timeline from the early days with pioneer hardships to the large classes of later years. Refreshments included native foods, including a regional favorite, prickly-pear salsa, prepared by a former CPPS. The gathering also marked the debut of the new multi-paneled historical display. The full-color mounted display was produced under the direction of CPPS archivist Sister Noreen Jutte.
Franciscan Father Vincent Mesi, pastor of St. Mary’s Basilica, presided at the Eucharistic celebration and welcomed the sisters and guests to the parish. His Franciscan confrere, Father Howard Hall, was the homilist.
Father Howard is a long-time friend of the community. He arrived at St. Mary’s in 1954 as a newly ordained priest, and later became pastor of St. Mark Parish in Phoenix, where CPPS sisters taught. Later he returned to St. Mary’s as pastor. His homily was a warm affirmation of the educational and spiritual life CPPS brought to the Valley of the Sun.
“The Sisters of the Precious Blood were the true desert lighthouses leading to safety and salvation,” he told the assembly at Mass.
During the Mass, the gifts of bread and wine were presented by two sisters with long service in the Southwest, Sisters Dorothy Koenig and Mary Louise Hoelscher.
Among those attending the Phoenix celebration from Ohio was Sister Jeanette Buehler, vice president of the congregation. Sister Jeanette’s own Southwest connection comes through her great-aunt, Sister Electa Fleck, one of the early Phoenix sisters. During the liturgy, Sister Jeanette led the sisters in their renewal of vows, an always-moving ritual for the sisters and assembled faithful alike.
The CPPS legacy in the Southwest was firmly rooted in a very tangible way at the end of Mass. In the name of the congregation, Sister Jeanette presented a check for $17,500 to Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Phoenix. The gift is intended to offer direct assistance to immigrants who are eligible to legalize or secure their status in the United States but do not have funds.This legacy donation was made in memory of the CPPS community and Sister Luca Junk, an energetic and much-loved presence for many years in Phoenix and the surrounding areas.
Sister Luca was a dedicated advocate for the poor, especially for the area Hispanic population. As a leader in Catholic Charities Community Services, she became known affectionately by the Spanish-speaking as “Mama Luca” – Mother Luca, and by Anglos as “God’s lady of Phoenix.” In his homily, Father Howard noted that “she became the …answer for many recent immigrants and marginalized in South Phoenix who needed food, shelter, the English language or transportation.”
After Mass, the celebration continued back in St. Mary’s Hall, this time with a reception with the public. Many parishioners, former students and area guests came down to celebrate with the sisters, as did Franciscan friars. One of them, Father Alonso de Blas, a 1952 graduate of St. Mary’s and now its associate pastor, recalled good times with his eighth-grade teacher, Sister Mary Thomas. Today known as Sister Eleanor McNally, this Californian and Western Hope cluster member was delighted to reconnect with former students.
Father Alonso, who grew up across the street from the sisters’ convent, learned from them in school and took music lessons at the convent. Even though he was just a youngster at the time, he remembers the sisters as more than teachers. “They really had an eye for people who needed help,” he said in an interview with The Catholic Sun, newspaper of the Diocese of Phoenix.
Guests from the town of Guadalupe took to the microphone to share the praises of some CPPS sisters they especially remembered with gratitude. The sisters, they said, not only enhanced the village educationally and spiritually, but also took a courageous political stance to defend the human rights of the people.
Even starting a high school required bravery in those days. One participant narrated the courage of two early CPPS sisters in 1917 in founding Arizona’s first Catholic high school. The story goes that the faculty of two, with 17 students in tow, marched up to the second floor of the Mexican School, and without text books or desks, in two rooms of accumulated junk, founded what became St. Mary’s High School.
But Saturday didn’t mark the end of the celebration.
On Sunday morning, the sisters drove out to St. Francis Cemetery where 15 Precious Blood Sisters are buried. The first died in 1904, the last in 1997. In a prayer service, they celebrated the lives and dedication of each of these sisters — from young women from Germany, Ohio farm girls, the first Mexican vocation — who await the Resurrection in the shadow of Camelback Mountain.
In 1903, Mother Emma Nunlist and a little band of four pioneer sisters crossed the Rockies and eventually made their way into the little squatter town of Phoenix, in an Arizona that was not yet a state. They were heading into an unknown future, and could never have imagined how their poor and simple beginnings would grow to a region-wide network of ministry.
Thanks to the vision and determination of their leadership, and the love and commitment of hundreds of sisters, the Sisters of the Precious Blood began more than a century of service in the Southwest. Although fewer in number today, their commitment endures, in the Southwest and beyond.
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