Sister Fran Wilhelm, OSU: January 7, 1929-November 5, 2020

Maple Mount — Sister Fran Wilhelm, 91, an Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph, died Nov. 5, 2020, at Mount Saint Joseph, in her 73rd year of religious life.

Ever joyful and untiring, people often said, “I wish I had her energy” when they spoke of Sister Fran. She graduated from St. Joseph Junior College in Albuquerque, N.M., in 1957. She was a teacher, a missionary to South America, a leader of Catholic Charismatic Renewal, the first director of the Owensboro Associate program, and an elected Ursuline Council member. In the Owensboro, Ky., area, she will be forever remembered for 25 years of helping Hispanics with Centro Latino.

A native of Waterflow, N.M., her first ministry was there as a teacher at Sacred Heart Academy (1949-50). She continued to teach in New Mexico at St. Rose School, Blanco (1950-51), Sacred Heart School, Farmington (1951-53 in the classroom, 1953-62 as music teacher) and St. Joseph School, San Fidel (1962-64). She was a music teacher at St. Catherine School, New Haven, Ky. (1964-66) before moving to South America. She taught at St. Thomas More Academy, Caracas, Venezuela (1966-68) and Colegio San Ignacio, Santiago, Chile (1968-73).

She served in Charismatic ministries in California, first as a councilor for Charis Missions, La Puente (1975-80) and then as director of Charismatic Renewal for the Diocese of Orange County (1980-83). She was director of the Jyotiniketan Prayer House at Maple Mount and the first director of the Ursuline Associate program (both 1983-92).  She was an elected member of the Ursuline Council (1984-92). In 1992, she began working in Hispanic ministry in the Diocese of Owensboro and the next year founded Centro Latino in Stanley, Ky. (1993-2000). Centro Latino moved to Owensboro in 2000 with Sister Fran as its director, a ministry she continued until 2018. The people she lovingly served called her “Hermana Panchita.”

Survivors include the members of her religious community; a sister, Lee Andriakos, and her husband George, of Warwick, Pa., a sister-in-law Jean Wilhelm, and nieces and nephews.

In compliance with health and safety measures, the wake service and funeral will be private. There will be visitation from 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday at Glenn Funeral Home and Crematory. All who attend the visitation for Sister Fran shall be within current health and safety directives. Visitors shall wear personal protective masks and enter the doors under the canopy on the Triplett Street side of the building.

The wake service is at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8, and the funeral Mass is 10:30 a.m. Monday, Nov. 9, at Mount Saint Joseph.

Gifts in memory of Sister Fran may take the form of donations to the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, 8001 Cummings Road, Maple Mount, KY 42356.

In Remembrance

Sister Fran Wilhelm, OSU, “Hermana Panchita”

Sister Pat Lynch, OSU

Assistant Congregational Leader

November 8, 2020

Our dear Sister Fran was called to her heavenly home on November 5, 2020 in her 73rd year of religious life. She was so ready to meet her loving God face to face.

Joan Frances Wilhelm was born on January 7, 1929 in Waterflow, New Mexico in a two-room adobe cabin at the northeast corner of the orchard at Sacred Heart Academy. Her parents were Frank Leo Wilhelm and Mary Lucille Warren Wilhelm. She was the third daughter in the family and, after her, there was a son and another daughter. Sister Fran said her Mom frequently called out the five names before finally settling on the one she REALLY wanted: Florence, Edna, Joan, Harry and Leora! Her mother insisted that her name be pronounced Joann, but she still wanted it spelled Joan.

Sister Fran is survived by one sister, Lee and her husband George of Warwick, PA, a sister-in-law Jean Wilhelm, and nieces and nephews. We extend our sympathy to Lee and to the rest of her family, and also to the many people to whom Sister Fran ministered. We are also grateful to the staff of the Villa and to the Hospice personnel for their kind care for Sister Fran.

Sister Fran was baptized on January 13, 1929 and confirmed on August 27, 1931 at Sacred Heart Church in Waterflow. If you quickly did that math, you may have noticed how young she was at Confirmation. Sister Fran explained that the entire state of New Mexico was one diocese, and every five years the bishop would come from Santa Fe and confirm every person that had been baptized. So, Sister Fran was confirmed with her older sisters when she was not yet three years old! At the age of five, she started school at Sacred Heart Academy and was in the same classroom with her sisters, Florence and Edna. Sister Fran told someone much later that when she and her sisters did the dishes, they put tea towels on their heads and pretended to be nuns.

In her autobiography she wrote: “Daddy was a farmer and he usually gave up on trying to make a go of a farm after three years, so we moved frequently. During my third-grade year, we moved to a tiny country school called Jumbo, Texas, where all eight grades were taught in two classrooms. After one year in that school, we moved again, most likely because of Mom’s protesting that we needed to be in a ‘Sisters’ School.’ We moved into the basement of a tall white house six miles from Hereford, Texas, where we crowded into the car of a neighbor in order to go to St. Anthony School.”

They actually moved three more times in the Hereford vicinity, but she managed to stay at St. Anthony School and graduated from the 8th grade. She went to Hereford High School and graduated from there in May 1946.

Sister Fran then wrote a letter to Mother Laurine Sheeran, the Ursuline Superior of Maple Mount, Kentucky and in the letter, she “timidly indicated” that she might like to enter the convent. She received a response with an application form, as well as the book, From Desenzano to the Pines, which she admits she never read. The Superior suggested that, since Sister Fran would be so far away from home, she should come to the Mount and spend six months at the Mount Saint Joseph Junior College and then enter the community in February. Sister Fran jumped at the chance and was delighted to learn that she could have music lessons for free. She said her only other piano teacher had been her mother, who had taught all five of her children to play by note and by ear.

Sister Fran became a postulant on February 1, 1947 and she continued her studies at the Junior College. She entered the Novitiate on August 14, 1947 and made her first profession of vows on August 15, 1949. Her first mission was in her own birthplace—Waterflow, New Mexico, where she taught Grades 5-8.  The next year she was asked to teach 2nd and 3rd grade at Blanco, NM and the following year she went to Farmington, NM where she eventually taught music for seven years after teaching 5th and 6th grades and then 1st and 2nd grades. She professed final vows on August 15, 1952. Summers were spent studying at Saint Joseph College on the Rio Grande in Albuquerque. She graduated in 1957 with a degree in Elementary Education and a minor in Music. She was moved to San Fidel, NM to teach music for two years and then back to Kentucky at New Haven where she again taught music for two years. She majored in Music Education at Brescia College in Owensboro in the summers.

In her autobiography, Sister Fran states “I was suddenly called to go to Caracas, Venezuela, fulfilling a childhood dream of becoming a foreign missionary!” After two years there, she and Sister Susan Mary went to language school in Bolivia for two months. Then they went to Santiago, Chile where they joined three other Ursulines, a Benedictine Sister and a Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Sister Fran continued to teach there for six years. Then she went to study in Medellin, Colombia for a year.

In 1974, she returned to the U.S. for a vacation and she was invited to speak at the first Latin American Encounter of the Charismatic Renewal. She said then the Lord changed all her plans, and she went on a crusade to Korea and Taiwan. She then began work at CharisMissions in La Puente, California and was there for six years. Her charismatic spirit soared, and she moved to Orange County California to be the Coordinator of the Charismatic Renewal in the diocese for three years. Sister Fran helped many people to have a closer relationship with Jesus and to be healed through the power of the Holy Spirit, which all received at baptism. She was quoted as saying “A sign that the renewal will have moved out in the Church would be that everyone would have a personal relationship with the Lord and that there would be a high expectancy of power of the Spirit in individual lives and the Church.”

Sister Fran was elected to the leadership team of the Ursuline Sisters and served as a Councilor from 1984 to 1992. During that time, she was also the Director of the Associates and the House of Prayer. Many people were inspired through making a retreat with Sister Fran.

She had a dream to establish a center where Spanish-speaking people could celebrate their culture, worship in their own language, and find a home away from home. With the Bishop’s blessing and the sanction of the pastor and parish council, she founded Centro Latino in 1993 at the former Catholic school at Saint Peter’s Parish in Stanley. She knew what it was like to not be able to speak the language in another country. She said that, even though she lived in South America for nine years, and knew a lot of grammar and vocabulary, it took her eight years to really feel comfortable with conversational Spanish. She recognized the difficulties faced by immigrants to this country, who do not speak the language, are separated from their families, work in low-paying jobs for 12 hours a day, and encounter discrimination and the threat of deportation. She and her helpers provided food, shelter, education, and a place to form community. One of the most-needed services was for transportation to doctors’ or lawyers’ offices and translation with medical or legal personnel. Sister Fran could get a phone call at 3:00 in the morning from someone in need and she would get up and go. In the year 2000, Centro Latino moved to a house owned by the diocese on Locust Street in Owensboro. Sister Rosemary Keough lived with Sister Fran and they ministered to many people, continuing to provide whatever people needed. The mission statement of the Center highlighted the sacramental presence of Jesus, sharing of Latin culture with the local community, and providing opportunities for a cross-cultural experience for people of the Diocese of Owensboro and the surrounding area. In 2018, the two Sisters retired to Mount Saint Joseph and their hearts remained with the people.

I was told that Sister Fran was called Hermana Panchita. The person who told me wasn’t sure what it meant so I looked it up. I found that “panchita” could mean: 1) little peanut, 2) little piece of bread, 3) small jar of wine and 4) A really cool girl; someone who is always there when you need them; someone you can trust. I think the last one just begins to describe Sister Fran. She shared her gifts with everyone she encountered, whether it was music, dancing, poetry or prayer.  She was a great storyteller and even started writing a book. She lived a lifetime of ministry with and for the poor. She was known as “the Mother Teresa of Owensboro” and a living saint. Many newspaper articles have been written about Sister Fran and she received several awards from various organizations. We pray that she is finally enjoying her eternal reward with Jesus.