Sisters of Saint Francis of Oldenburg

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Faith Perspective
This briefing paper introduces the reader to the work and women of the Sisters of Saint Francis of Oldenburg Indiana. The briefing paper will help students identify the Sisters’ philanthropic work, and help students to consider how they can make a difference in his or her communities and world. The briefing paper is intended for a Catholic or Christian school audience.

Authored by Maxwell L. Hagan


The Sisters of Saint Francis of Oldenburg have witnessed many philanthropic and transformational women who have shaped ministries, communities, state, and world.  The mission of the Sisters of Saint Francis of Oldenburg Indiana is,

“We, the Sisters of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis, Oldenburg, are women of prayer, committed to the Gospel values as lived by Saint Francis and Mother Theresa Hackelmeier. From our life in community we are sent to extend the mission of Jesus through our presence and service. Enlivened by a spirit of justice, reconciliation and peace, we collaborate with others in responding to the needs of the world" (Sisters of Saint Francis Oldenburg).

The Sisters achieve this mission through actions and prayer by “being women of prayer in the ministries we do and the places where we are present…we minister in education, parish ministry, social service, healthcare and social justice” (Sisters of Saint Francis Oldenburg).  The Sisters of Saint Francis Oldenburg have ministries across the spectrum, but can be highlighted into three categories, education, caring for the poor, and sharing the faith.  

Some of the women who had impacted the Order include Sister Theresa Hackelmeier, founder of the order, Sister Olivia Brockman, pioneer in education, Sister Clarissa Dillhoff, moved Marian College from Oldenburg, IN to Indianapolis, IN, and present day Sisters like Sister Norma Rockelage and Sister Jean Marie Cleveland, who both work for Marian University (Our Franciscan Heritage, p. 4-5).  In each ministry the Sisters started, they shared four core values of their faith.  The four values are the dignity of the individual, peace and justice, reconciliation, and responsible stewardship (Marian University).  These four values epitomize the Sisters’ faith in action because the values direct their work.  


Historic Roots

Sister Theresa Hackelmeier, in 1851 at the age of twenty-four, arrived in Oldenburg, Indiana from Austria to start an Order to train Sisters and teach children (Raver).  After recruiting three other women in the town to join her, “by the end of the (first year in Oldenburg) year, the four women had established a boarding school for six students and a village school for twenty” (Our Franciscan Heritage, p. 4).  The courage of the twenty-four year old Sister Hackelmeier to leave her home and travel to a foreign land all in the name of faith and philanthropy is absolutely remarkable.  

The Sisters of Saint Francis Oldenburg follow the example of Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi.  Saint Francis, born in 1182 in Umbrian Valley, was a man who had an awakening to the importance of faith in his life (Bodo, p. 3).  It was through the miracles performed by God that Saint Francis heard his call and responded. (Our Franciscan Heritage, p. 6).  Saint Clare, living in the time of Saint Francis, led a life of prayer and simplicity modeled after the works of Saint Francis. She led others to connect with God in a deeper way (Our Franciscan Heritage, p. 8).  The Sisters of Saint Francis Oldenburg draw inspiration from and our founded on the work of these three individuals.



The Sisters of Saint Francis of Oldenburg had a positive impact on the community of Oldenburg, Indiana, the state of Indiana, and the world.  In education, the Sisters of Saint Francis Oldenburg have started schools in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, and Kansas (Our Franciscan Heritage, p. 4).  Today, many schools that the Sisters founded carry on the values of the Sisters, but the Sisters of Saint Francis Oldenburg only sponsor two schools (Sisters of Saint Francis Oldenburg).  The Sisters’ formed teacher training schools, like the St. Francis Normal school that, “grew into a four year, state-approved institution that became Marian College in 1936.”  Today, we know this school as Marian University (Our Franciscan Heritage p. 5).  “In 1892, the Sisters opened Saint Ann’s, the only school for African-American children in then-segregated Indianapolis” (Our Franciscan Heritage, p. 5).  The Sisters of Providence took over management of a new school building that absorbed St. Ann’s in 1935 (Taylor).

The Sisters of Saint Francis Oldenburg have cared for the poor in many ways.  “In the 1850’s, they cared for children orphaned by the 1847 cholera epidemic; again in 1898” (Our Franciscan Heritage, p. 5).  The Sisters also, “accepted the care of orphans from New York’s overcrowded Foundling Hospital… and in 1918 the Sisters established a mission in New Mexico” (Our Franciscan Heritage, p. 5).  The Sisters have also aided around the globe to the poor including in China, Papua New Guinea, Montana, and many other places (Our Franciscan Heritage, p. 5).  Due to a declining number of Sisters in recent years, many of the ministries have transitioned to other organizations or have ceased operations.  Today, the Sisters sponsor two schools, Marian University and Oldenburg Academy, support a fully functioning sustainable farm, run a retreat and conference center, and provide spiritual guidance to Native Americans in Appalachia (Sisters of Saint. Francis Oldenburg).


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The Sisters of Saint Francis Oldenburg are tied to many philanthropic sectors in our society.  Through the Sisters’ work in education, healthcare, service to the poor, faith formation, donations, and many other areas, the Sisters take a hands on and proactive approach to philanthropy.  They take a vow of poverty, which means the Sisters’ donate everything they earn to the Motherhouse to support the ministries in which they work (Sisters of Saint Francis Oldenburg).  They exemplify each day Payton and Moody’s definition of philanthropy, which “is voluntary action for the public good” (qtd. in Payton and Moody 6).  

The beginnings of Catholic philanthropy in America mirrored the beginning of the Sisters of Saint Francis in Oldenburg.  Mary Oates describes the first Catholic organization in the early years of America as, “a rapidly growing church community…gradually developed the extensive network of orphanages, hospitals, schools, and social agencies that came to represent so visibly the Catholic way of giving” (Oates, p. xi).  The Sisters of Saint Francis Oldenburg continued to grow in numbers and ministries during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, which coincided with the national trend.  In early America, “the religious principle that the gift of personal service was an essential component of the definition of charity came alive with the development of religious sisterhoods dedicated to philanthropic service” (Oates, p. 13).


Key Related Ideas

Women and Philanthropy:  Briefing paper by Tricia Tomson that details the history of women in the philanthropic sector throughout history (Learning to Give).

Religious Basis for Charitable Giving: Briefing paper by Yvonne M. Brake and Yvette McMillan that examines similarities in religious reasons for charity (Learning to Give).

Courage to Venture: Many things the Sisters of Saint Francis Oldenburg did throughout their history was difficult, but they had the courage and faith in God to make the tough choices.  

Sponsorship Values: Dignity of the Individual, Reconciliations, Peace and Justice, and Responsible Stewardship:  These values guide the Sisters in their Philanthropic work.  More information about the values can be found in the Our Franciscan Heritage pamphlet.


Important People Related to the Topic

Saint Francis of Assisi – 1182-1226 – Founder of the Franciscan Order, and declared a Saint in 1228 (Our Franciscan Heritage p. 7) (Bodo, p. 3).

Saint Clare of Assisi – 1193-1253 – One of the first female followers of Francis, and declared a Saint in 1255 (Our Franciscan Heritage p. 9).

Mother Theresa Hackelmeier – Founder of the Sisters of Saint Francis Oldenburg (Our Franciscan Heritage p. 4).


Related Nonprofit Organizations

Marian University: Catholic university founded by the Sisters located in Indianapolis, Indiana.  Currently, the only Catholic university in the United States with an Osteopathic Medical school.  (

Mikala Farms: Fully functioning farm run by the Sisters in Oldenburg.  Promotes education and practice of sustainable farming and care of creation.  (


Reflection Questions

  • Through the example of the Sisters of Saint Francis Oldenburg, what philanthropic work can you do to help the sick, the homeless, and the less fortunate?  
  • Where and when will you need the courage to venture when things get difficult in your philanthropic work?  
  • The Sisters answered their call wherever it led them.  What are you being called to do, and how will you answer that call?


  • Bodo, Murray O.F.M. The Way of St. Francis. Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1985
  • Marian University, Franciscan Sponsorship Values.
  • Oates, Mary J. The Catholic Philanthropic Tradition In America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 7 Nov. 2016.
  • Our Franciscan Heritage, Marian University, Fourth Edition, 2013.
  • Payton, Robert, and Michael Moody. Understanding Philanthropy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.
  • Raver, Diane. "Sisters of St. Francis: 'We're Always Educators'" The Herald-Tribune, 29 May 2015.
  • Sisters of St. Francis Oldenburg, Mission Statement and History.  
  • Taylor, Stephen J. "African American and Catholic in Early Indianapolis." Historic Indianapolis All Things Indianapolis History. N.p., 15 June 2015. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.

This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.