In late 1862, Mother Mary Francis Bachmann was diagnosed with tuberculosis. When Mother Francis died the following year at age 38, Mother Mary Agnes Bucher succeeded her as superior general. During her 43-year tenure as superior general, Mother Agnes earned recognition as the second founder of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia and contributed substantially to the growth of the community and to its mission and service.
Mother Agnes was born Verena Boucher on January 20, 1833, in Niederweningen, Switzerland, near Zurich. She was the youngest of Heinri and Magdalena Bucher’s five children and was raised in the Evangelical Reformed Church. Verena’s family owned a small potash business and vineyard. As young men, Verena’s brothers—Heinrich, Frederic, and Hans—sailed for America and then urged their sisters, Regula and Verena, to follow their example. It was likely in 1852 that the sisters joined their brothers in finding employment in Pottsville, Pennsylvania.
Regula was soon employed by a devout Catholic family and before long converted to Catholicism. Verena was initially dismayed by Regula’s conversion, which she termed “treachery,” and threatened to cut off communication with her. But within a short time, Verena sought instruction in the Catholic faith. Taking the name Theresa, she was baptized by Father Joseph Hamm in St. Boniface Church, St. Clair, Pennsylvania, on August 12, 1856.
After Theresa’s (Verena’s) confirmation, Bishop Neumann spoke to her about religious life and mentioned a small congregation in Philadelphia. Two years later, on October 15, 1858, Theresa was invested as Sister Mary Agnes. Both Mother Francis and Bishop Neumann quickly recognized Sister Agnes’ admirable character and competence. Less than two months after her profession, which took place October 19, 1859, Sister Agnes was appointed novice mistress, taking over from Mother Francis. A year later, she became the superior at St. Francis Convent, on Reed Street, Philadelphia.
Nevertheless, when she assumed leadership after Mother Francis’ death, Mother Agnes was just 30 years old and had converted to Catholicism less than 10 years earlier. She was, however, the third oldest sister in profession within the small congregation after several had been transferred to Syracuse or Buffalo or had left the congregation. When, on February 10, 1864, Bishop (later Archbishop) of Philadelphia James Frederick Bryan Wood chose Mother Mary Agnes to lead the Philadelphia community as superior general, the appointment prompted strong objection from some of the other sisters.
Sister Adele Francis Gorman quotes Mother Agnes’ written thoughts from that time: “I am young in the Order and inexperienced. . . . The Lord made me understand that He would give me His grace, if He were served faithfully and fervently in all our houses” (59). Mother Agnes proved that the other sisters’ concern about her inexperience was needless. As Sister M. Jeanette Clare writes, “At the end of six years in office, Mother Agnes had so won the confidence and the respect of the Sisters that they freely named her their superior general [after her interim service]. More, they repeated that choice in every one of the next five elections” (31).
From December 1859 until her death in 1918, Sister Agnes lived in her congregation’s motherhouse, first in St. Francis Convent and then in Our Lady of Angels, in Aston. In 1863, when Mother Agnes became superior general, her 13 sisters’ service was limited to the recently founded St. Mary Hospital and to St. Alphonsus School, both in Philadelphia. By the end of her tenure, in 1906, the then nearly 800 Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia were serving in a total of 88 missions spread through 19 dioceses from coast to coast. Mother Agnes’ contributions included, for example, the revision of the Rule and the founding of 54 schools in the East and eight in the West and of seven hospitals in the East and three in the West. Mother Agnes also formally incorporated the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, who had previously been “identified simply as Third Order Franciscans” (Gorman 70).
Among the most notable events of Mother Agnes’ tenure was the building of the motherhouse in Glen Riddle (Aston), Pennsylvania. When Mother Agnes first visited the location that is now the Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, the site had housed the Aston Ridge Female Academy, run by the Episcopal Church. The diocese had then purchased the buildings and grounds in 1859 for use as a seminary. According to Sister M. Jeanette Clare, “Mother Agnes, in 1871, found the building very ancient and in great need of repairs. Its secluded location and extensive, fertile grounds appealed to her, however” (36). The property was purchased for $12,000. Sister Jeanette continues: “It was September 25, still in 1871, that Sisters Eusebia, Christina, Appollonia, Helena, and a postulant were sent to Glen Riddle to prepare the Little Seminary for residence. How frightened they were of the mice that infested the place!” (36). In 1873, the foundation was laid for the first section of Our Lady of Angels as it exists today. On May 18, 1879, Archbishop Wood laid the cornerstone for Our Lady of Angels Chapel, which was in use by October of the following year.
Sister M. Jeanette Clare provides an apt summary of the enormous contributions by Mother Francis and Mother Agnes: “An official of the Community has stated that Mother Mary Francis was the foundress and Mother Mary Agnes the builder of this Institute” (37). Before her 1906 retirement, Mother Agnes joined the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia in celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the community’s founding.
Mother Agnes died on December 20, 1918, and is buried in Our Lady of Angels Cemetery.
Learn more about our history and see a short timeline of events here. Stay tuned for more spotlights on other founding members and superiors.