In 1873, Elizabeth (Mother M. Ignatius) Hayes (1823-1894) opened St. Anthony Girls' Academy in Belle Prairie; in 1874 she began publishing from Brainerd the world's first Franciscan English Journal - one which continued for 100 years through a number of printing houses in Rome and the USA.
Beginning with a log cabin and then a wooden convent-school which offered an impressive curriculum, Hayes' foundation served a growing number of students until it was reduced to ashes in 1889. Later it was replaced by other buildings and even a high school in 1963. This Belle Prairie foundation provided the roots of the development of the Little Falls Franciscan Sisters so well known in Minnesota for their ministry in nursing, as well as education.
The land between the Mississippi River and the old complex is now a park partly covered with virgin forest. Stones from the river were used to build the Belle Prairie Catholic Church founded in 1852. In many nineteenth-century cities and towns in Minnesota, committed religious women like Elizabeth Hayes served the people through the provision of schools and other institutions. Many of these women had arrived from Europe, particularly from Germany and France, in order to escape religious persecution, and they were ready to brave the hardships of Minnesota in order to be of service to others. The presence of these women brought about change in a number of ways, particularly in the fact that they not only educated children but they also help to raise the standard of Christian living, bring compassion and support to other women and to be a cultured presence within struggling local communities.
Elizabeth, born in 1823, was a Guernsey woman of English Anglican parents and her father, the Rev. Philip Hayes, conducted a successful St. Peter Port school that prepared boys for matriculation. Hayes' forebears were very musical and their names were associated with compositions, publications, and performances of Handel. Elizabeth was the youngest surviving child of the Hayes' ten children and her parents ensured that she received a sound education, was fluent in French and English and that her early love of literature was encouraged.
Living in London and Oxford in the 1840s, Elizabeth as a teacher was influenced by the leaders of the Oxford movement and in 1850 became a pioneer in the Anglican Sisterhood. After being a qualified principal and a religious leader for some years, she converted to Catholicism and soon joined a group of religious women who lived in Greenwich and later in Bayswater, London. This group became Third Order Franciscans and soon Elizabeth made her vows with the Glasgow Franciscans. She worked with Franciscans in Jamaica and in Europe then opened a convent in Sevres outside Paris. War, travel, and many trials strengthened her missionary dream and God directed her to the US where she opened schools and introduced her sisters to the Apostolate of the Press.
For the next twenty-one years Elizabeth showed herself to be an intelligent, caring and adventurous woman who with determination and intense love for God was able to inspire many other women in the Franciscan way of life. Her breadth of reading, editing and publishing was amazing for she had a great enthusiasm for evangelization. A particular element in her life was her desire to train Sisters in religious life and to send them out in service to God's people at a time when nineteenth-century missions flourished.
Once a pupil at Belle Prairie Convent School, Adzire (Mother M. Columba) Doucette (1869-1961) had become the Superior General of Hayes' community with its head house in Rome. Under her leadership, 1901-1913, the Franciscan sisters' work was much expanded to many parts of the USA. Of special interest to Minnesota was this woman's determination and success in revitalizing the original Belle Prairie Foundation.
~Sr. Pauline Shaw, Coomera, Australia