Just a few blocks from Holy Name Church in Ebensburg, the 152-year-old history of the Sisters of St. Joseph in western Pennsylvania took root and flourished in schools, parishes, hospitals and social services agencies throughout the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. The pioneer sisters – Mother Austin Kean, Sister Hortense Tello and Sister Xavier Phelan – traveled from Flushing, New York, to open a convent on Horner Street. For Mother Austin, it was a “homecoming” that began with her birth at nearby Loretto where she was baptized by Father Demetrius Gallitzin.
Shortly after their arrival in Ebensburg, the sisters opened Mount Gallitzin Seminary, a boarding school for boys ages 4 to 12, that was advertised “as especially intended for children deprived of a mother’s care.” Decades later, the sisters opened a home for infants and toddlers who were orphaned.
“Ever mindful of serving the most vulnerable of God’s people, we are grateful to our pioneering sisters who anchored us in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown and inspired us to carry the Gospel message where most needed,” says Sister Sharon Costello, Congregational Moderator.
Since their founding in 1869, a total of 691 Sisters of St. Joseph were called to serve at 39 locations, including 27 schools and parishes, in the Diocese. The long list includes Holy Name in Ebensburg, St. Patrick in Gallitzin, St. Brigid in Lilly, Sacred Heart in Altoona, and St. Andrew, St. Patrick and St. John Gualbert in Johnstown.
“We cannot reflect on our rich history in the Diocese without acknowledging the generations of relationships that have been formed in schools, parishes, and other ministry sites along the way,” Sister Sharon says. “It is a privilege for the Sisters of St. Joseph to continue to be a caring presence to our dear neighbors in the Diocese through the work of our ‘mountain sisters’.”
The presence and prayers of the Sisters of St. Joseph continue to be a source of care, compassion, and spiritual enrichment in the Diocese. For Sister Honora McCawley, a native of Johnstown, her religious life has come full circle. She returned to Johnstown about 10 years ago to care for her mother and now serves as volunteer Director of the RCIA program at St. John Gualbert, the parish from which she entered the community.
“I am thrilled to be able to live and serve in the Diocese where our Congregation began, and I hope that I can live to see Prince Gallitzin declared a saint,” says Sister Honora whose ministries beyond the Diocese have focused on religious education and spiritual development.
Since 2011, Sister Carol Ann Ziecina has been a familiar face at Conemaugh Health System, where she is Manager of Volunteer Services and Spiritual Care. She encourages the 650 staff members to shift their focus “from self to others in word and action” in weekly email sermons. An educator for 40 years, Sister Carol Ann served as principal at St. Benedict in Johnstown from 2003 to 2010. Sister Carol Ann also signs Liturgy at St. Benedict for those who are hearing impaired. Affectionately referring to the “Sister Rose Rayburg” ministry, Sister Carol Ann credits Sister Rose, a mentor who was hearing impaired, for teaching her sign language.
Sister Nancy Kline, who entered the Congregation from St. Benedict in Carrolltown, volunteers at St. Michael in Johnstown where she visits homebound parishioners and distributes Communion. She previously served as a caregiver at Home Instead Senior Care in Johnstown, a Chaplain at Conemaugh Hospital, and a teacher at St. Patrick in Gallitzin and Our Lady of Victory School in State College. Sister Nancy says that her ministries have allowed her to affirm the dignity of all God’s people by “recognizing each individual as unique, special and loved by God.”
After serving as a missionary in Jamaica, Sister Jan Franklin moved to Lilly and began a 16-year ministry at Catholic Charities where she served as a counselor and helped individuals with financial assistance. Referring to Cambria County as “the soul of the earth,” Sister Jan says it was a privilege to serve in a history-laden area where Johnstown and its residents were ravaged by a major flood and devastated by the demise of the steel industry. But it was the personal stories of struggle in the midst of deep faith that inspired her work. Sister Jan recently moved to a convent in Pittsburgh where she is exploring her new neighborhood and ways to serve her neighbors.
Sister Patti Rossi, who entered the community from Holy Name Parish in Ebensburg, recalls volunteering as a young girl at the sisters’ home for infants and toddlers who were orphaned. Following service as a missionary in Brazil, Jamaica and Haiti, Sister Patti returned to the area, serving as Associate Director of the Altoona-Johnstown Mission Office from 2003 to 2018. She is greeted as “grandma-sister” at Mom’s House, a day care center in Johnstown where she volunteers weekly. She also is a volunteer teacher in the Literacy Program at the Cambria County Jail.
“I feel very blessed and graced to live and serve in the Diocese where our Congregation has its very roots,” Sister Patti says, adding that she embraces any opportunity to take others on a historical tour of Sisters of St. Joseph sites in Ebensburg. Among her stops is the sisters’ cemetery next to Holy Name Church, where Sister Patti says, “I love to remember the sisters who led the way for all of us.”
This article originally was published in Proclaim, a magazine of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.