Jersey-born Sister brings collective experience, unifying spirit to top post in Rome

Nicole Buchlmayer

Sister Frances Marie Duncan has wandered far from home, yet she seems to be exactly where she belongs, as the newly elected general minister of the School Sisters of St. Francis, leading an international community of some 350 Sisters, including 60 stateside.

Her journey here started on Kennedy Boulevard in Guttenberg, N.J. more than 60 years ago and continues today amid the stunning and spiritually significant sites of Rome, Italy. Sisters have always been a part of her life, as they were the only teachers in her primary school and, when she wasn’t in the classroom, she was helping them clean and set the altar at her home parish, St. John Nepomucene.

In those days, as difficult as it may be to comprehend today, Sisters were not permitted to go to the store unaccompanied. Little Frances, then only 6 or 7, would let go of her mother’s hand at the corner and — under Mrs. Duncan’s watchful eye at one end and those of the Sisters at the other — walk two blocks along 70th Street to the convent to accompany one of the Sisters to the store.

Even then, she was destined to join them. “From my earliest memories, I always wanted to be a Sister,” she says.

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Sister Frances Marie as a novice in 1968.Photo courtesy of Sister Frances Marie Duncan

Her calling to religious life grew louder when, in eighth grade, Frances attended a retreat at St. Francis Retreat Center in Bethlehem, Pa. The experience solidified her desire to enter the convent, news that she carefully delivered to her reluctant parents when she got home.

The family brokered a deal — she would attend a year of public high school and afterwards, if she still wanted to go to the convent, her parents would not object. The year at North Bergen High School did nothing to sway young Frances from her vocation, so after her freshman year, at age 15, she entered the aspirancy program at St. Francis Academy in Bethlehem.

“I was rather naive as a young sister, and my goals were fixed on a few things — not being sent home, professing my vows, and teaching,” Sister recalls.

Learning by teaching

Over the course of five decades, Sister Frances Marie, herself a Valedictorian and feverishly meticulous student, taught at schools in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Massachusetts, including 20 beloved years at St. Peter’s Preparatory School in Jersey City. At every stop along the way, she’s also ventured wholeheartedly into extracurricular activities and service trips to enrich her students’ education in the classroom and in life.

“I loved the thought of teaching and, as a teacher, I fully enjoyed my interactions with students and valued my vocation as a religious and as a teacher,” she says.

Sister Mary Xavier Bomberger was principal of St. Francis Academy when Sister Frances Marie taught science there from 1978 to 1986, even then demonstrating the stuff of bigger things.

“Frances was able to integrate the fine points of science with the practical everyday experiences of life. She was an all-around, down-to-earth teacher,” Sister Mary Xavier recalls. “Her many life experiences have, in some way, prepared her for the great responsibilities and opportunities that she has accepted.”

In 2006, at a critical time for our Sisters in the United States, “Frannie” — as she’s commonly called among the Sisters — was elected to the U.S. Provincial Administration to help foster unity amid the merger of the Pittsburgh and Bethlehem provinces at the dawn of 2007. “Frannie’s ability to comprehend and analyze situations was extremely helpful to me and the whole administrative team, especially with the challenges presented by the merger,” says Sister Elaine Hromulak, U.S. provincial minister from 2006 to 2011.

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The emails that Sister Frances Marie composes in her office at the Generalate in Rome reach the inboxes of Sisters around the world.Photo courtesy of School Sisters of St. Francis

When God calls

Even though a piece of her heart remained back in that Jersey City classroom with her science students, Sister Frances Marie eagerly tackled the duties with which she was charged.

“God’s plans are often not our own,” she says. “As I began to be called into leadership positions in the community, I realized that perhaps God was calling me to redirect my energy into new paths.”

She was called again to leadership in 2016 at another critical time for her religious community. With the Sisters aging and dwindling in number, she’d be charged with downsizing our physical footprint, consolidating assets and, in a precarious and emotional process, selling the motherhouse complex in Pittsburgh, Pa.

“I believe that God puts into place the person who is most needed for the task at hand,” she says.

When Sister boarded a plane for Rome this summer to attend the 2021 General Chapter — two weeks of leadership meetings at the international headquarters known as the Generalate — she had every intention of returning to her post stateside and, if reelected, piloting her own province through a second term. Instead, the international congregation offered its overwhelming endorsement of her leadership qualities when it elected her general minister in July. She is only the fourth American Sister to serve in the top role over the congregation’s 133-year history.

“I feel humbled by my election to this office,” she says. “I pray that God will give me the wisdom to know what is mine to do and the strength to achieve it.”

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Sister France Marie Duncan (left) participates in the School Sisters of St. Francis 2021 General Chapter in Rome this past summer.Photo courtesy of School Sisters of St. Francis

A world away

Before she could even begin to grasp her new leadership challenges, Sister Frances Marie needed to tackle the logistical ones, including moving her entire life halfway around the world. As a Franciscan, she lives simply and limits her possessions, yet she’d take only what she could strategically wedge into a few suitcases. There were also matters of family and friendship, and driving from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia at the 11th hour with her fingers crossed and a prayer on her lips to pick up the international visa paperwork for her relocation to Rome.

She also faces a language barrier, challenging her 71-year-old brain to learn Italian and pick up some Czech, Slovak and Malayalam, the native languages of the other Sisters who serve at the Generalate. Reading and writing at her own pace is not nearly as great a task as keeping up with quick-fire conversation during meetings and around the dinner table, so she’s enrolled in a class to become conversational and is settling into her new home.

“The advantage of living here is that it is central to all the places where our Sisters live and minister,” Sister says of Rome. “As the center of the Church’s life, it also offers many opportunities to enrich myself spiritually and culturally.”

Her days are filled with tasks large and small, both mundane and less ordinary. As in her earliest days in community leadership, her current vision is one of unity. This time, it’s among Sisters ministering around the world. She will visit them in all the places where they work and live to witness our community charism in action and enrich her understanding of their diverse cultures and challenges.

“I need to be aware of the various situations where our Sisters minister and live and remember that solutions that work in one area may not work in another,” Sister says. “Culture and language vary widely, and being open to all the Sisters and understanding their reality will be a new experience and a challenge for me.”

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Sister Frances Marie (center) is surrounded by a diverse team of provincial councilors.Photo courtesy of School Sisters of St. Francis

Enduring sisterhood

Sister Frances Marie insists that the Sisters have much to celebrate about the work they are doing everywhere they serve — the Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Italy, India, Chile, Central Asia and, of course, the United States.

“One of my main goals is to make the Sisters more aware of all the good that is happening in all of our jurisdictions,” Sister Frances Marie says from her tidy office along the busy corridor of Via Nicolo Piccolomini. “We should be as proud of our Sisters’ ministries throughout the world as we are of those in our backyard and support them through our prayers and praise.”

She’s only been in the job a few months, with many miles to go in her five-year term. “As in many ministries, there are moments of intense worry and moments of blessed joy, there are times of chaotic busyness and times for reflection,” she says. “The challenge is to balance it all.”

Sister Mary Xavier has been there, serving as General Minister from 2001 to 2011. Now back in leadership as vicar of the U.S. Province, she offers this sage advice: “Find your quiet space to enjoy, take time for peaceful walks and deep breathing,” she says. “And please remember, Sister, you are not alone in any of this because, ‘we are here with God for you.’”

Religious communities aren’t welcoming new members at even a fraction of the pace they did in the 1950s and 1960s. As current membership dwindles with age, Sister Frances Marie is grateful for the good works of the past while focused on the diverse roles that Catholic Sisters still play today in the Church and society.

“I am most energized by the enthusiasm and ministries of our Sisters throughout the world as they spread the message of God’s love,” she says. “In many places, there are still many Sisters in their prime with all the energy that accompanies that time of life. It is good to see all the good that they do. It also reminds me of all the good that has been done by our Sisters throughout the ages.”

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Currently communications coordinator and webmaster with the School Sisters of St. Francis, Nicole's three decades as a communications professional have included stops in community newspapers, corporate communications, freelance feature writing, publications design, nonprofit outreach and, more recently, digital communications. Over the past 10 years as a communicator for Catholic Sisters, Nicole has reported on the diverse people that they serve and the complex people that they are.

Pittsburgh, PA
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