Saint Francis Home serves 60 seniors in the county’s only Catholic assisted-living facility

By Cathi Douglas     9/17/2018

Facing the end of their lives, many elderly people want to give up. Sister Irma Guadalupe Padilla tells seniors instead to embrace life and prepare for God’s call home.

Sister Irma directs the Saint Francis Home, Orange County’s only Catholic assisted-living facility. Saint Francis Home is a private, nonprofit retirement residence for elderly women in a quiet, residential west Santa Ana neighborhood. It boasts a venerable 75-year history of service and has a capacity of 60; 57 women – Catholic and non-Catholic – live there now.

“In their last years, we bring God to them,” Sister Irma says. She helps the residents “know that they must be ready for our Creator. I tell them, ‘Don’t waste time. He wants you to live your life happily and find ways to see how much He loves you.’” Residents’ families tell her they feel at peace knowing their mothers, sisters, and aunts are safe and well-cared-for at the home.

On tree-lined grounds with a pretty chapel that offers two Masses daily, Saint Francis Home is surrounded by green lawns, a small shrine to St. Francis, and fountains, roses, and shaded sitting areas.

The secure home is operated by the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, who rely 100 percent on private donations, fundraising events, and resident income from pensions and Social Security. Ten sisters, 20 employees and many volunteers assist the elderly residents in bathing, dressing, eating, and more. Groups of volunteers, including children, enjoy visiting the home and entertaining the residents, helping in the kitchen, and assisting with housekeeping tasks.

“Our mission is to bring our ladies to Christ and help them feel at peace with themselves and with God,” Sister Irma explains. “In other places they sometimes live solitary lives.”

Saint Francis Home has a long history with roots dating back to 1926, when five Franciscan sisters escaped religious persecution in Mexico and traveled to the United States. After a series of moves from Texas to California they came to live in a little house in Santa Ana. In June 1942 they asked the county for permission to build an adjoining chapel to their convent on Sixth Street. On Dec. 12, 1945, the sisters received a county license to run Mater Dolorosa, a home for 12 senior women, and in the decades that followed they gradually increased the home’s size several times, by adding to the original home and buying neighboring homes.

Daily activities begin early each morning as caregivers wake residents, bathe and dress them, and accompany them to breakfast, which is served at 8 a.m. Mass and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy follow, led by 100-year-old Sister Illuminati Garcia. Exercise is at 10:30, snacks follow, and lunch is served at noon.

After a short nap, residents take part in various activities, including arts and crafts, manicures, and hairstyling, followed by another Mass at 4 p.m. Dinner is an hour later, and afterward some residents walk around the grounds or watch the news. Everyone has a snack at around 7:30, then they head to bed. The rooms accommodate either one or two women and most have attached bathrooms.

“No other facility offers Catholic seniors a daily Mass,” notes Saint Francis Guild President Sister Kathleen McCuistion, a Sister of St. Joseph of Orange and 30-year volunteer whose mother lived at the home. “A place like the Saint Francis Home is needed here for that reason.”

Sister Irma, who just celebrated her first year as the home’s administrator, was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and says she always wanted to be a religious sister. Even though she had a boyfriend in high school, she wasn’t completely happy. “I wanted to sanctify my soul, and help save souls,” she says. After spending a weekend with the Franciscan sisters, “I knew, this is what I want. I felt so happy.”

A former preschool director who loves ministering to children, she says working with youngsters helped prepare her for ministering to the elderly. “They both need a lot of love,” she says. “They’re both vulnerable. They each need a lot of attention.

“Children are beginning with everything new and are ready to meet the Lord,” she notes. “And the elderly ladies are ready to go to their Father at the end.”

The Saint Francis Guild, which helps generate support for the Saint Francis Home, hosts two annual fundraising events: a Mexican dinner held after Easter and a Christmas Boutique, which takes place this year from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 3 at the home, 1718 W. Sixth St., Santa Ana; 714-542-0381; st-francis-home.org.

Thanks to its fundraising efforts, Sister Kathleen McCuistion, CSJ, guild president, says this year it has repaired the roof of one wing, repainted and installed new flooring in hallways, provided new dining room chairs, made plumbing repairs, and installed a new big-screen television. In July, the guild worked with the Orange County Community Foundation on Giving Day, an online fundraiser that successfully generated donations for chapel repairs, flooring, and pews.