The Sisters of St. Joseph in Florence, Arizona: 1883-1889
In 1883 Florence was a poor desert town eighty-five miles north of Tucson. Although a commercial center for nearby mining ventures, its people were principally engaged in farming, living on small ranches barely able to sustain them. Water from the Gila River, conveyed through canals, supplied the town and the fields.
Father Edward Gerard, who was pastor at that time, asked for Sisters to teach the children of his parish. Responding to his request, Reverend Mother Agatha of the Sisters of St. Joseph sent him four Sisters: Mother Hyacinth Blanc, Sister St. Barbara Reilly, Sister Mary Joseph Franco, and Sister Angeline Fitzpatrick.
The school, which was the former church, had been built in 1870. Known as "La Capilla del Gila" (The Chapel of the Gila), it was of adobe architecture of the Spanish Colonial style with deep windows and clay floors. The floors were kept firm by daily sprinkling. The ceiling consisted of saguaro ribs laid across cottonwood beams which supported them. Over this was a dirt roof several feet thick which insulated those below from the hot, desert sun.
A second church had been built when Florence showed promise as a growing community because of silver mines in the area. It had a slanted roof, belfry, gothic windows and provided accommodations for the added number of Catholics.
The convent was a separate building made of adobe with low windows. The community room and the superior's room had plank floors, and the Sisters' dormitory was kept comfortable with braided rugs of old habit material sewn on burlap backing.
The Sisters got their water from a barrel kept by a canal near their grounds. Their lifestyle included shaking out clothing and shoes each morning to dislodge scorpions and centipedes, a precaution to be taken before dressing and hurrying to morning prayers.
A few Irish and French families sent their children to the Sisters' school but the majority of the students were of Mexican and Indian backgrounds. All the pupils, however, spoke Spanish, and this language predominated in the recitation of prayers and hymns and in some of the instruction. English was part of the curriculum, however, along with religion, Spanish, arithmetic and music. The children attended school plainly dressed but always neat and clean. The boys were fine riders and came to school on horseback with their hair blowing in the wind.
During the second year of the Sisters' stay, Mother Hyacinth was replaced by Mother Florence who arrived with Sister Isabel as her companion. Sister St. Barbara had been changed to Yuma. That year Mother Florence taught about sixty girls from the fifth to the eighth grade. Sister Isabel had the young boys up to the fourth grade when the boys' schooling was finished.
When Sister Agnes Orosco came to Florence she was assigned to teach catechism classes in Spanish and to help Sister Isabel with the language. Sister Isabel's boys were either Mexican or Indian and knew no English. Sister's English lessons consisted of putting columns of English words on the blackboard after she had learned the Spanish equivalents.
Father Gerard was unable to support the Sisters and the pupils paid their tuition with vegetables and honey. Potatoes were plentiful and honey was abundant as the bees foraged on the desert sage. Asparagus and wheat were greatly prized when they were available. A Mr. La Mean provided the Sisters with fresh milk every morning and frequently brought a gift of vegetables. A French family showed great kindness to the Sisters as also did the Sweeney family.
Sister Angeline, never physically strong, died at twenty-three years of age in 1886. During the last two months of her life she was faithful to all her religious duties, starting at five each morning and remaining up during the day. On her last day, weaker than usual, she went to lie down; but after a while she arose and went to the community room where the Sisters fixed her a chair. She said she would die that night, and as she lay in bed she prepared herself with fervent prayers. She died after a short struggle. She was buried in Florence and her remains were carried to the cemetery by six young girls.
The town of Florence did not develop as was expected because of its remoteness from railroad systems built across Arizona from 1873-1883. Its economy failed, and its limited water supply affected its agricultural growth. Conditions were so poor that it was impossible for the people to supply the Sisters with the barest necessities. Lacking this support, the Sisters were forced to leave, and their withdrawal was a source of sorrow for the people and their pastor.
Sometime after the Sisters' departure, children reported seeing a Sister in the field near the old convent. The pastor and some people hurried to the convent but found it in its usual abandoned condition. It then began to be rumored that the children had seen an apparition of Sister Angeline. Similar apparitions were reported, but the rumors ceased after the priest celebrated Mass for the repose of Sister Angeline's soul. Sister's grave was at that time in the cemetery near the church, but later her remains were transferred to a nearby cemetery out of town between Chandler and Florence.