Turn west off Alden Nash Ave. NE onto Downes Street, and you’ll find yourself on a dirt road that dead ends at a farm. That in and of itself is not remarkable – this is Lowell, after all. However, there’s something on this farm that is rather remarkable: the Franciscan Life Process Center.
Built in 1991 and with roots dating to 1974, the center is the hub of activity for the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, who offer programs including environmental education, music therapy, counseling and art workshops. While the sisters now also have a Grand Rapids campus, Lowell is where it all started.
Putting Down Roots in Lowell
The first Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist came to West Michigan in 1971. They worked in a variety of jobs, from cleaning houses to assisting at nursing homes, while they searched for a home base. In 1972, they were gifted with land and a house on Downes Street by the late Peter Wege.
“Our original dream was…to develop a program where we could work with people with special needs,” explains Sister Colleen Ann Nagle, executive director of the Life Process Center. That mission is reflected in the center’s name – “to integrate people from every stage of the life process,” according to Nagle.
One of the earliest initiatives of the Franciscan Sisters in Lowell was to establish the Franciscan Life Process Child Development Center. Formed under the direction of Mother Rita Brunner, it was one of the few preschools that operated in the area for decades.
The preschool closed about 15 years as new options for early education became available, but the same spirit that led to its creation – a desire to meet the needs of community members from all walks of life – has been a defining trait in all the sisters have done at the Franciscan Life Process Center.
Evolving Services to Meet Community Needs
Shortly after the preschool was formed, one sister in the community — Sister Mary Margaret Delaski — decided to earn her master’s degree in music therapy. Using music to promote wellness and improve skills was virtually unknown in the late 1970s, and the Franciscan Sisters were among the first to offer music therapy in West Michigan.
“Sister Mary Margaret would go to schools to self-contained classrooms,” Nagle explains. There, she would work with autistic students and other children with special needs. From those humble beginnings, the music therapy program has grown to today include 26 contract sites and 500 clients per week.
Lowell’s Franciscan Sisters were at the forefront of more than just music therapy. In 1980, they opened Franciscan Heritage Foods in Ada. The bakery was open five days a week and well known for offering a different type of heritage bread each day.
“We were about 25 years ahead of our time,” Nagle laughs. “We had our own blend of coffee.”
The location also housed the Franciscan Rhythm Music Studio, which was the home base for music therapy operations for more than 20 years.
The 1980s were a period of experimentation for the sisters. “We were dabbling in a number of different things,” Nagle notes. The sisters held retreats, hosted farm tours and partnered with the Kenty County Juvenile Court to offer services, among other things.
It soon became clear that the facilities at the Downes Street farm were inadequate for all the programs being offered, which by this point included a growing preschool and counseling services. In 1990, ground was broken for what is now the main Life Process Center building. With many people traveling from Muskegon and Ottawa Counties for therapy, a second campus was opened in Grand Rapids in 2010.
Focus on Four Areas to Unlock Potential
After years of trying out different services and activities, the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist have found four core areas of focus for their current ministries.
Given the sisters’ farm, it is only natural that programs connected to the land should have a starring role in the community’s activities. “People always do better when they are connected to the land,” Nagle notes.
Opportunities to do so at the Life Process Center include a trail system that is open for everyone to enjoy (although visitors are asked to check in at the front desk first), community workdays and rental spaces that can be used for retreats and similar events. Those spaces include two yurts and a house on the property.
Plus, the sisters offer an education program that brings students from various schools, including St. Patrick School, to the farm for hands-on learning. The program is broken down into three one-week sessions which allow students to experience learning activities appropriate to three seasons.
Music therapy continues to be a cornerstone service offered by the Life Process Center. Now completely run by lay therapists – meaning no sisters currently offer therapy themselves – the program includes music assessments, individual therapy and group therapy, among other things.
The annual Franciscan Rhythms Trail Run is the center’s major fundraiser each year to support the music therapy program.
About 150 people received counseling services through the Life Process Center during the 2021-2022 fiscal year. “Our counselors are both for marriage and family counseling,” Nagle says. Individual, couples and group counseling is available as is play therapy.
The center also offers fertility education which helps couples plan for their families without the use of hormones or artificial means. These natural methods are used by some couples to delay pregnancy while others turn to them to address infertility issues.
The art programs at the Franciscan Life Process Center are intended for professional-level artists looking to hone their craft. The sisters hosted 38 art workshops last year which were attended by nearly 450 people.
Running through all four of these focus areas is a common thread: “Our whole goal is to let people know they are an endless source of potential,” Nagle says.
Franciscan Mission in Action
As a religious community, Nagle says the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist fully embrace their Catholic faith and their order’s rich heritage.
“We follow the teaching of St. Francis of Assisi,” she says. “His whole passion was to bring Jesus Christ to the common person. We really are committed to bringing Christ to everyone.”
There is no requirement for those using the center’s services to be Catholic, Christian or even spiritual, though. The programs are open to all, and there is no proselytizing involved.
Still, there are opportunities for a religious encounter for those who seek one. The property includes a rosary walk that features a prerecorded rosary three times a day, and there are also Stations of the Cross for those who would like to pray privately. An onsite chapel is used for spiritual retreats.
About ten sisters now live in Lowell while others may arrive from the order’s Mother House in Connecticut throughout the year. “When people encounter us, they feel seen,” according to Nagle. “Hopefully, our encounter will make them better.”
Sandy Koteskey, the center’s director, notes that they strive to be responsive to community needs. “Always, the hope and desire is that we, as the Franciscan Life Process Center, continue to ask and respond to the community in what we offer,” she says.