It was the reputation of Holy Family Home, carried to Bavaria by a visitor from the United States, that drew the third member of the little community. Anna Dorn was born on March 8, 1834, in Gasseldorf (now Ebermannstadt). She was the fourth of the eight children of John and Magdalena Shriefer Dorn. Anna Dorn’s childhood bore a marked similarity to that of Anna Bachmann. John Dorn, a tailor, died of nerve disease on November 20, 1844, leaving his wife with their eight children, the youngest less than one year old. Anna Dorn was ten years old at the time and, much like Anna Bachmann, spent the rest of her childhood and teen years helping her mother with the other children and with the sewing that supported the family.
Anna Dorn had two desires: she wanted to become a Franciscan tertiary and she wanted to go to the United States. In September 1853, in Bamberg, Germany, she was invested as a novice in the Third Order Secular of St. Francis. A visitor from the United States rekindled her second dream when she spoke glowingly of a Mrs. Bachmann in Philadelphia; Anna’s soul was touched. Particularly inspiring to her youthful, pious imagination must have been the story of the “gentle Widow Bachmann,” as the visitor called her. Knowing that there were still young children to be cared for, yet called to this new and, for her, uncharted road, Anna Dorn pleaded with her mother to be allowed to emigrate. Finally Mrs. Dorn offered to borrow money for her daughter’s passage. Accepting her mother’s condition that she not enter into any vocation until the money had been repaid, Anna left Bavaria on August 1, 1854, before taking her vows as a tertiary.
Anna Dorn’s decision may look overly hasty. Mrs. Bachmann was unknown to her, and Anna’s plans were both tentative and vague. What was there, then, in the visitor’s account that so persuaded Anna to forsake the security of her humble home? How well those know who have served God’s mysterious and adored ways: His . . . counsel is not in [humanity’s] power (Tob. 3:20) . . . neither is there any searching out of His wisdom (Isa. 40:28).
Anna confronted several obstacles in her journey. When she arrived in Philadelphia, she was at first unable to locate Mrs. Bachmann and Holy Family Home. She did, however, find employment as a domestic, a position that she subsequently terminated because her duties prevented her from attending Sunday Mass. Skills learned as a child came to her rescue, and in early 1855 she found employment as a tailor. And it was with a true sense of providence, of “coming home,” that Anna Dorn learned on her first working day at this new job that she might obtain lunch at the home of a Mrs. Bachmann. On her first day at the job, a fellow worker asked, “Will you join me for lunch?” With her characteristic quickness and self-reliance, Anna accepted and then noted the other-worldly atmosphere of the modest boarding house to which her friend led her, including the simple gentility of the owners and their unabashed spirituality. She was informed that this was, in truth, the Holy Family Home she had intended to contact later. Two roads converged!
The meeting of the two Annas resulted in a long talk and immediate bonding. Anna Dorn asked to be allowed to live in the Holy Family Home and was accepted by Anna Bachmann as one of the family. Anna Dorn found there a home that seemed to be full of people: the Boll sisters—Maria Anna Boll Bachmann and her sister, Barbara—the Bachmann children, the young women employed there, and some ill people. She noted also the poverty of the older Anna’s room, which was “adorned” by a simple crucifix and the Holy Family enrollment plaque that had been given to Anna Bachmann by her late husband. There was no bed, leading Anna Dorn to believe that Mrs. Bachmann slept on the floor or on a chair.
Anna Dorn shared with the Boll sisters the Franciscan manual used by the tertiaries. The three found the Franciscan life appealing and consulted Father Hespelein about the possibility of becoming Franciscans. Unable to act without consulting the bishop, Father Hespelein wrote to John Neumann in Rome. And with that letter, the three women’s lives, dreams, decisions and choices, and divergent life journeys converged.
Anna Dorn became Sister Mary Bernadine, and later Mother Mary Bernadine as she became the first superior general of the Sisters of St. Francis’ Syracuse branch, which began in 1860.
Learn more about our history and see a short timeline of events here. Stay tuned for more spotlights on other founding members and superiors.