Little sisters of St. Francis of Assisi - USA Mission

Sr-Lilia-Sr-Margaret
Sr. Lilia and Margaret Celebrate silver jubilee (25) years in the service of the Lord.

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JAMES CITY A modest white clapboard and brick-fronted ranch house nestles on Hickory Signpost Road, off John Tyler Highway. A few leaves scattered about the yard are the only indication that the season is transitioning. Everything looks orderly, as we follow the driveway behind the house to park alongside the tired-looking Ford Econoline van and a pickup truck that clearly has seen some better days. A knock on the front door brings no response, but we are given a broad wave from the rear deck to come into the kitchen. Welcome to Martha's Place, one of four residential homes for disabled adults operated by the Little Sisters of St. Francis and the Franciscan Breathren of St. Philip.

In this communal family reside individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities, people with autism and those with impairments that need support to meet daily challenges. A tall, strongly built woman, her hair tied in a brown floral kerchief that matches her caftan, greets us with a warm handshake and beaming smile, which belies the fatigue in her eyes. She bids us take a seat on one of the stools at the kitchen counter. She, however, alights only briefly, as there is a minor night situation to be resolved, morning food to be prepared, and a day to be organized.

This is Sister Agnes Norocho, administrator of the Little Sisters of St. Francis, an order of African Roman Catholic nuns who, with a group of lay Franciscans, came together to minister to individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities for the last 16 years in the Williamsburg area. They are non-sectarian, nonprofit, state certified and licensed by the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disabilities. Each home is located in a residential neighborhood and is licensed to have six to eight residents. The homes provide meals, medication management, laundry services, 24-hour supervision and individualized training. They also have a fifth home to offer day support programs for senior adults with disabilities, and are in the process of establishing a sixth for part-time senior day care. All, along with two convent residences, are in the Williamsburg general area.

Sister Agnes hails from Nairobi and a family of eight children. The neighborhood that makes up Martha's Place is a world away from her original intention of joining the cloistered, contemplative Dominicans. On an early home visit, her father's encouragement to "do what you have to do" led her to the Little Sisters of St. Francis. Without pause, Sister Agnes compares her spiritual and professional path to the seasons, how "one must plant, plow, and then harvest. But first you must prepare and create the rains; and don't forget the weeding." To prepare, she attended the University of Rochester and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, where she lived with the Sisters of Mercy; and then Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., where, with her background in special education, she decided that she could best serve God and her community by the opening of residential homes for the disabled.

This realization has been a thorny process at times, with financial and visa obstacles to overcome, and her passion was not always embraced by others. "Some say I am crazy," she chuckles, "but they eventually come around." She also says she prays a lot. Sister Agnes believes one person can make a difference, and views the homes the Order operates much like the small farms in Kenya, where the cow's milk nourishes the family, which then enables them to grow the crops that feed the village.

The complexities of operating six homes has meant her circle of caring people has expanded, along with her own knowledge and needs. A few compassionate individuals have offered wise tax and mortgage advice, and she rolls her eyes at the term "interest rates," and acknowledges her gratitude toward others' expertise. She is unaccustomed to asking for help, and when asked said, "as demands get greater we all have to work harder." Few people know about her and what she's doing, and with her nine other sisters, staff and a few local supporters she is pretty much on her own. I don't think she would admit to that, however, for you can tell she knows that the Holy Spirit is always by her side.

She did admit that she needs a handyman to fix things around the homes and do minor maintenance. When asked about someone to do yard work, she absolutely beamed. She pays cash for these services out of a limited budget, and that money can be better spent on residents. When pressed, she said she would love to have volunteers come to the homes and help the staff, as well as socially interact with the residents. A nurse experienced with working with such residents for a few hours a week would be ideal. She talked about how nice it would be if a group could come to the residences periodically with a couple of pizzas and cokes, and how much it would mean to everyone there.

After our conversation it was obvious that the foundation of a more organized approach for getting her such help had just been defined, and the creation of the "Friends of the Little Sisters of St. Francis" was another seed to sprout. Sister Agnes has planted roots that have brought forth greater community understanding. The residents who reside in these homes are our neighbors. They are people achieving to the best of their ability. Sister Agnes, the other sisters of the diocese, and those who work with these individuals provide an abundance of support. At times they nurse, teach, listen, remember holidays and birthdays. She has taken a dream and, with her faith and determination, brought it to fruition.

The Little Sisters of St. Francis was founded in 1923 in Uganda as a Franciscan mission. There are over 600 professed members and over 60 candidates. The Motherhouse is located in Nkokonjeru, Uganda, with English being the language of communication. The Little Sisters of St. Francis serves God and the needy worldwide. Richard Kowaliw is a former technical consultant to the U.S. Navy and defense industry who retired to the Williamsburg area from Kilmarnock a year ago. In addition to recently "adopting" Sister Agnes and her Order, he is actively involved with the homeless program of the Greater Williamsburg Outreach Mission, as well as being a past Advisory Board member of the Virginia Beach Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center.

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