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Sisters of St. Joseph of Buffalo celebrate 160 years in Western New York

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Buffalo celebrated their storied past and the thousands of strong women who have made a difference in Western New York over the past 160 years as hundreds of sisters and friends joined them at an open house at their Clarence residence on Sunday.

Sister Jean Marie Zirnheld, the head of Sisters of St. Joseph Buffalo, said the order has had to adapt.

“We want to remind people that we are still around,” she said.

She added the theme of the day was “The lace is not finished yet,” referring to when the sisters made lace by hand.

In the Buffalo Diocese, the Sisters of St. Joseph at one time provided staffing for nearly 40 schools, including St. Mary’s School for the Deaf, which they founded. Now only a handful of those schools are open and St. Mary’s School for the Deaf is staffed by lay people.

Membership in the Buffalo convent was in the hundreds. Now there are only 78.

“We are trying to adapt to the changing needs. So many of us were in education. Now we are serving in different ways,” said Zirnheld.

Members of the order, started in 1650 in Le Puy, France, cared for the sick, poor and abandoned and created intricate handmade lace to support themselves. During the French Revolution they were persecuted and imprisoned. Seven sisters were sent to the guillotine.

But at the end of the Revolution, the sisters flourished and their good works spread throughout Europe. In 1836, six sisters were sent to teach the deaf in America in the Diocese of St. Louis.

Buffalo’s Bishop John Timon called the sisters to his diocese in 1854 to teach the deaf. They built schools and institutions. In addition to St. Mary’s School for the Deaf, they established Mount St. Joseph Academy, Mount St. Joseph School and Mount St. Joseph Teachers College/Medaille and also staffed elementary schools.

Sisters (and identical twin sisters) Loretta and Virginia Young, born and raised in Snyder, joined the order in 1950, right after high school, and have spent 65 years as nuns, including 44 years at St. Mary’s School for the Deaf. The school recently named its assembly hall for them.

Sister Virginia was the school’s elementary principal and Sister Loretta the high school principal.

Sister Loretta Young still teaches sign language at Canisius College, though she admits this may be her last year.

“I loved it from the very beginning,” she said.

Zirnheld said that the Sisters of St. Joseph of Buffalo are spread out across the community helping in missions such as the TRY (Teaching and Restoring Youth) program in Buffalo, for women who are homeless and abused, who may have been thrown out of their homes and need a place to stay.

They also staff the Sister Karen Klimczak Center for Nonviolence on Buffalo’s East Side, named for a member of their order who was killed in 2006.

“There’s other needs out there and we are there to meet the needs of the community,” she said.