By Tom Held Special to Published Feb 17, 2014 at 4:36 PM Photography: Tom Held

The most impressive bowlers in Milwaukee don’t knock down pins in the AMF Bowlero, but share dignity, grace and camaraderie by Wii bowling in a placed called the Motherhouse.

The retired Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi take their turns with wrinkled and shaky hands, wrapped in shawls and sweaters, and surrounded by symbols of their deep faith. There are no beer frames or swear words, only the joyous laughter of good friends in community and spirit.

I first heard about the sisters and their Wii bowling exploits from a friend who works at the St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care, one of the 10 service and educational operations run by the religious order founded along Lake Michigan in 1849.

I immediately thought it would be a fun, even comedic story, describing what these nuns were doingAfter visiting with them, I found the more impressive and accurate tale rested in what they have done.

Many of them left large families and small rural towns in their late teens and ventured across the country to Milwaukee in the 1930s and '40s to devote themselves to helping others. Patient and unquestioning, the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi spent decades teaching children in schools and people with special needs at St. Coletta of Wisconsin in Jefferson, Wis., and similar centers in Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts. They answered a calling and filled a need.

"I listened to what the Lord was saying," said Sister Ramon Negrette, who drove through the wilderness of Idaho to help minister in small parishes. "I didn’t argue with him."

In the quiet of their convent, the gray-haired sisters tell their stories. One taught a young girl to read the letters sent by her mother. Another coaxed mumbles then words from a young man who refused to talk after he watched his father burn in a fire. Another helped immigrants learn English to overcome bigotry and become U.S. citizens in the 1940s.

Their work brought no monetary riches. Others were the true beneficiaries of their labors.

"Rehabilitation of the children is our reward," said Sister Theodora Bies, 97. "To see their growth and how they could achieve."

Retired and many approaching 100 years old, they have returned to the Motherhouse on S. Lake Dr. to share their community and faith.

Near the end of their lives, they take joy in the simple call to "pray and be present."

"So often, when I talk to our retired sisters, they tell me how grateful they are for what they have," wrote Sister Marcia Lunz, who chronicles the stories of the Sisters in the Franciscan order.

"They had their hard times, but they worked together," she wrote. "Today, they continue to live very simply. Infirmity and frailty are now a part of their daily lives, but their trust in God gives them a hope-filled perspective on life. They are certain that their commitment to live a religious life was the right decision."

Even with the sound of pins crashing on a large-screen TV, they emanate a quiet, inner peace. Their calm is overwhelming and overshadows the brightness of their minds and spirit.

"When I first started here, it seemed strict: ‘Watch yourself around the sisters,’" said Kim Karshna, recreation coordinator for Community Care, which provides health care for the nuns. "I quickly found out they are beautiful, loving women who have a good time.

"They are brilliant, and well-educated. I have the best job in the world," she said.

Karshna said the sisters picked up Wii bowling before she started to work at the Motherhouse three years ago. She continued the weekly sessions and helps organize competitive matches against the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

In a sunlit room adorned with a large crucifix, a portrait of the Last Supper and an aerial photograph of the convent, 12 to 15 nuns gather in the early afternoon and take their seats with their teammates. A diminutive spitfire, Sister Martina D’Amour stamps her feet and whips her hand as she prepares for her turn.

As the game progresses, the sisters laugh and encourage each other, with more than a hint of competition. Many of them are reliving their childhood experiences, playing baseball and basketball with brothers and schoolmates. Karshna divides them into three teams and goads them a bit when their total score dips close to the 100 mark.

"I remember back in the days when you ladies knew how to throw strikes," she laughed after a series of errant shots.

On the day I watched, I counted 13 bowlers, seven wheelchairs, two walkers and two oxygen tanks. The exercise is nearly as important as the time together.

"It seems so little, but when you have the sisters who spend a lot of time sitting, and are getting older, just standing up is not easy," Karshna said. "It’s a way to exercise without knowing that you’re really doing it."

As in all bowling, there are moments of frustration. The sisters sometimes struggle to push the right buttons on the controller, and spares are hard to come by. However, they are grateful for the chance to play.

"With this shaky hand, I would never be able to bowl, but I’m making strikes," said Sister Lucille Pritzl, 89.

And word of a 200 game quickly spreads from the Motherhouse to the adjacent Clare Hall and over to St. Ann’s.

The sisters may boast about a high score, but they speak humbly about their greater achievements.

"I had wonderful, beautiful years," said Sister Leona Steilen, 88. "I can reflect back on my days with gratefulness, from the day I was born until today."

Tom Held Special to

Memories of running cross-country for the Slinger Owls motivated Tom Held to get his body moving again when he turned 30. Almost two decades later, he's still on the move. The 49-year-old bikes, runs and skis, and covers news for similarly active people as a freelance writer and blogger.

He spent 26 years as a daily news reporter, and applies that experience to dig out stories about athletes, races, endurance sports, fitness and self-propelled transportation. His work has appeared in Silent Sports Magazine, Wisconsin Trails and Cross-Country Skier.

Held lives in the Bay View neighborhood, where he counts being Dad to twin daughters part of his daily workout.