By GREG MELLEN     12/15/2021

From its humble beginnings 78 years ago, when a group of Franciscan Sisters began to care for a pair of elderly women in a small house on 6th Street in Santa Ana, the Saint Francis Home has evolved into a caring and loving home for the elderly.

Since then, the Mexico-based Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception have expanded their mission in Southern California. Saint Francis Home is one of their two assisted living facilities.

Although it remains one of the better kept secrets in the local Catholic community, Saint Francis Home has grown into a two-story, 73-room, 102,000 square-foot facility with its own chapel and adjacent convent on land that now encompasses an entire block from W. Fifth to W. Sixth and N. Raitt to N. Pacific streets. It hasn’t always been easy, and never were circumstances more dire than at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, when a number of residents and nuns were stricken. Many were moved to hospitals or returned to their families. One nun and seven residents passed away.

Earlier this year, Sister Elia Caro was summoned and has taken over both as administrator and Superior. Like most of the Sisters, she has done rotations at Saint Francis Home, in her case dating back to 1992.

Although there is capacity for 90 residents, the community dropped to 20 and is working to rebuild and weather the lingering pandemic. Saint Francis Home has openings for residents who are COVID-free and vaccinated.

Saint Francis Home is a private, non-profit 501 (c) retirement residence for the elderly, with affordable rates. Although not formally affiliated with the Diocese of Orange, the Sisters have separate oversight, they walk similar paths and serve the same population.

That is why, when the situation at the house was at its worst, the Diocese sent volunteers to help care for and feed residents.

The Saint Francis Home relies on donations, fundraisers and income from residents to continue. The pandemic took a big chunk out of fundraising efforts, which included chicken, spaghetti and steak dinners in earlier years. This year, the main fundraiser was a yard sale, Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 4 and 5 on the Home’s grounds.

The devotion of the Sisters shines through in all they do, as it has since 1944.

The Sisters came to Southern California in 1926, fleeing the bloody Cristero War between Catholic loyalists and the Mexican government. Invited to settle in Orange County by Archbishop John J. Cantwell, eight Sisters eventually settled into the little gray house where the convent and Home are now located.

Soon after, they were deeply involved in community and religious activities, including teaching in Spanish and English, visiting the sick and shut-ins and even making altar bread for churches.

But it was the advent of the Home where they eventually found greater purpose.

Marie Michaels, 93, has been a resident for the past four years. She attends daily Mass with other residents in the Home’s chapel at 7 a.m. and never misses her monthly confessions. Fathers from Our Lady of the Pillar Church, run by the Catholic Order of Augustinian Recollects and located across the street, lead the Masses.

“It’s wonderful,” said Msgr. Stephen Doktorczyk of the Diocese of Orange. “It’s a real service.”

The chapel was the main draw for Michaels.

“That’s why I came here,” she said. “I want to be close to Jesus.”

She also prays Rosaries, Chaplet and Stations of the Cross every day.

“I have to make up for 93 years of sin,” she said with a laugh. “I’m just hoping to get into purgatory.”

And she adores the staff.

“The Sisters are like angels,” Michaels said. “It’s like a mission for them, not a job. We’re all special to them.”

Although the residents are mostly elderly Catholic women, the Home is open to men and women ages 62 and older. Religious and spiritual services are optional. Rooms are modest studios mostly for single residents, although some are large enough to be shared. Residents must have some mobility.

Amenities include three meals a day served in a large dining room. Sister Rachel leads the kitchen and fulfills dietary needs and culinary preferences, including eggs for Michaels perfectly cooked and over-easy.

The Home has free housekeeping, linens and clothing laundry. Medications are professionally administered and managed. On-site and offsite activities and transportation are offered. Last but not least, the Home has a free beauty and barbershop.

Maricela Alegria has been Activities Director for 14 years. She learned about working in nursing homes by assisting her mother.

“She taught me about working with seniors,” said Alegria, who started at Saint Francis Home as a volunteer. Alegria said in 2007 when she was looking for a job, she asked Sister Elia for a reference and came out with a job.

“I didn’t have to think about it Alegria recalls.

Throughout the week, she leads Rosary prayers, conducts exercise classes, arts and crafts activities and games.

Norma Aslagsen, 90, first brought her mother to Saint Francis Home 20 years ago. She is now a resident.

“I like it fine,” she said. “There’s bingo and several classes.”

Alegria also organizes live entertainment and other events with nonprofits.

Sister Iluminada Soto is 104-yearsold and still gets around and visits with residents.

“I like to work with the ladies and help them,” said the Sister who has been at the Home off and on since 1980.

In between she has taught and done missionary work in El Salvador and Honduras.

In many ways, Sister Iluminada is emblematic of the sisters at the Home and its adjacent convent, loving, committed and caring.

It is a quality Msgr. Doktorczyk said is invaluable.

“You are cared for by sisters who have dedicated their lives to this,” he said.

When Alegria looks on her involvement she says, “I love this job. It’s not a job, it’s an apostolate.”