Driving around Rochester, it doesn’t take one long to look up and exclaim, What is that? From a distance, the traveler new to Rochester may wonder if the Mayo Brothers built a castle for themselves to watch over the Med City. The building is indirectly connected to the Mayo Brothers, but not the way you might think.
Assisi Heights, modeled after the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, was dedicated as the motherhouse for the Sisters of Saint Francis on October 4, 1955. The Sisters of Saint Francis have been a part of the history of Rochester since the late 1870s when they arrived in the area. Not too long afterward, a devastating tornado hit the area in 1883. In response to the catastrophe, Mother Alfred Moes spearheaded the building of St. Marys Hospital after she persuaded Dr. William Worrall Mayo and his sons to serve as primary physicians. The rest is a fascinating history. St. Marys Hospital is now a part of Mayo Clinic, and the Sisters still have an important presence on the campus.
When first built in 1955, Assisi Heights was a 1,000-bed facility, which housed an infirmary, a retirement home for aging sisters, a school for novices (those preparing to take the vows), common rooms, cafeterias, kitchens, a chapel, a sanctuary, laundry, garage, power plant, and offices. Today it is a home for retired sisters, and a spiritual center that hosts retreats, spiritual discussions, and classes throughout the year. Event rooms are available to rent, based upon the request.
When I first moved to Rochester I had the privilege of working at Assisi Heights as a nursing assistant. I’ll never forget walking into the front lobby and taking in the giant marble columns and beautiful arched ceilings. I started there because I just needed a job, but I gained so much more. I learned about the history of Assisi Heights, and the lives and callings of the Sisters. Franciscan Sisters focus on engaging in and serving the community as Christ served. Prior to retirement, many of them worked at St. Marys Hospital as trained nurses, pharmacists, nursing instructors, and administrators. Many were trained as teachers, serving at Catholic schools throughout Minnesota and the United States. Some were Professors, administrators, and deans at the former women’s College of St. Teresa in Winona, which they founded. Others were retired and spent much of their lives serving in Columbia and Cambodia. In addition to this, others lived out their calling by helping with the management of Assisi Heights. Listen to some of their own stories from their website.
I have fond memories of my year at Assisi Heights. The Sisters told stories about making hundreds of donuts in the kitchen, hiking up their skirts to climb up ladders to pick apples from the trees around the property in the fall, and of the changes in the 1960s, when many of them decided to leave their habits behind and wear a simple crucifix necklace instead.
I learned about aging well. One Sister, who was over 100 years old, still wrote out her Christmas cards to a number of people every year and had only recently retired from taking care of the lush rose gardens on the property. Another loved the Minnesota Twins and never missed a game. Still another Sister, in her late 80s, had a long list of individuals she emailed regularly, and she was always reading the latest bestselling books. I will never forget the anti-war protest sign that one sister in her 90s placed outside her door when the Iraq war was imminent. Indeed, Assisi Heights is not only a beautiful historic building, but also a unique treasure in our community.
Assisi Heights still remains the private home for many Sisters, but there are various ways that they invite you into their community so that you too can enjoy this beautiful place and peaceful grounds:
2020 Editor’s Note: Please call ahead to confirm the below information due to COVID-19
Tours: Held on Mondays at 2:00 pm and Saturdays at 1:30 pm. Please reserve a spot at least one day in advance. Other tours can be arranged by special appointment. Call: 507 282-7441 to register. Please ask for Sister Alice. The tour is free of charge, but donations are welcome.
Mass: Mass is held Sundays through Thursdays at 11:00 am.
Gift Shop: The gift shop is open from 12:15 to 1:15pm seven days a week. Ask for a visitor pass at the front desk and directions to it. At the gift shop, many handcrafted items are for sale: honey locally produced on the Assisi Heights grounds, books and DVDs about the history of the Congregation and community, and artwork and cards produced by the Sisters and Cojourners.
Community Events/Classes: Assisi Heights holds multiple different spiritual topic discussions and events throughout the year. Use this link to see all events for 2020 and how to register: Event Calendar.