Ursuline Sister Jane Falke had to grow up fast as the oldest of eight children. With her mother often pregnant with a new sibling, Sister Jane did much housework and gained adult skills at an early age.
She’d also learned from her father what it was like to make life-changing decisions at an early age. Frank Falke was born in Germany, but with the country in a great depression following World War I, his family sent him to live in the country at age 6 or 7. He was later sent to live with a tailor, but his parents didn’t think he was getting the education he needed, Sister Jane said.
“Some priests from America were visiting, they asked him if he wanted to go to America, and he said ‘yes,’” Sister Jane said. “He came from Germany when he was 15 without his family, in 1923.”
When Sister Jane was 15 years old, she entered a new and foreign world as well – she became an Ursuline Sister of Paola, Kan.
“My dad was fine, my mother was reluctant, but she didn’t stop me,” Sister Jane said. “I was very mature for my age, based on my responsibilities in the family.” It was common in religious life in those days for the sisters to finish raising the young women who joined their community, Sister Jane said.
Sister Jane is celebrating her 60th year as an Ursuline Sister this year. The Ursuline Sisters of Paola merged with the Ursulines of Mount Saint Joseph in 2008, but Sister Jane continues to minister in her native Kansas, at the office of Catholic Charities of Kansas City.
She was born Teresa Elizabeth Falke and grew up on a farm in Westphalia, Kan., a tiny community 100 miles from Kansas City. Her two sisters and five brothers are all still living, with her youngest sibling 15 years younger. “We always had chores to do, we milked the cows and gathered eggs,” Sister Jane said.
Her father worked on the Blaufuss family farm when he came to America, and was treated like a member of the family, Sister Jane said. Her mother was one of the nieces in the Blaufuss family, and that’s how her parents met. Teresa was born in 1939, so her experience during World War II was quite different than other children she grew up with.
“During World War II, my dad didn’t know if his parents and siblings were alive or dead,” Sister Jane said. “We’d send care packages, and my dad read the letters that came from Germany to my mother. I have a lot of those letters. My sister Jeanne had them translated after my father died, so we learned more about him and his family.”
Sister Jane visited Germany with her father once, and met several of her cousins, but she doesn’t speak the language. “I was a kid during World War II, you didn’t speak German,” she said.
Teresa was taught by Benedictine Sisters at St. Therese grade school and then went to Ursuline Academy, the high school run by the Ursulines at Paola. “The Benedictines had a boarding school in Atchison about 120 miles away. Paola was closer, it was only 60 miles,” she said.
Sister Jane skipped a grade in elementary school, so she was a high school freshman at 13. “The Ursulines were totally different, there was more freedom,” she said. She recalled a time when her family built a new home, but the Benedictines were not allowed to come inside. “The Ursulines could come in your house. That really appealed to me,” she said.
“You get close to the sisters in a boarding school,” Sister Jane said. “I was attracted to the closeness to the Church. I liked being at the center of the most important thing – the Church.”
It was that closeness that led her to join the Ursulines. She entered with a class of five in 1955, but is the only remaining member. However, there are six other Ursulines of Mount Saint Joseph who entered in 1955, so Sister Jane had a class to celebrate with this year.
She took the religious name Sister Jane Frances because her birthday was the same as the feast day for Saint Jane Frances de Chantal, Aug. 21. “They’ve moved her day a few times since then,” Sister Jane said, and it is now celebrated on Aug. 12.
Like most Ursulines of her day, Sister Jane became a teacher. She started as a first-grade teacher in a suburb of Kansas City, but eventually moved on to upper grades and then middle school and high school. She enjoyed teaching older children best and got her wish in 1967 when she began her 15-year tenure as a math teacher at Bishop Miege High School, the school the Ursulines began in Roeland Park, Kan.
She was elected to Ursuline leadership the first time in 1978, and had to leave teaching in 1982 when she began her first of two four-year terms as the assistant superior and treasurer for the community. From 1998-2006, she again served as assistant superior and treasurer, and was a councilor through 2008, when the merger with Mount Saint Joseph was approved. That means she was in leadership for 26 of the final 30 years of the Paola community – despite never aspiring to hold office.
Sister Jane has been blessed to have had unique ministry experiences, which include facilitating a master’s program through the Diocese of Kansas City, Mo., serving as a parish business manager, acting as a consultant for small religious communities through the National Treasurers Organization, and serving for years on the board of the Lakemary Center, a facility the Ursulines started in 1969 for children with developmental disabilities.
Since 2010, Sister Jane’s ministry has been to welcome the stranger at Catholic Charities, mostly people coming to Kansas City from Burma or Bhutan, a few African nations and some from Iraq.
“Religious life has been a great adventure,” she said. “I could never have dreamed 60 years ago what opportunities would come my way. Members of my religious community have provided support, encouragement, new ideas and much love. Religious sisters from all over the country have taught me so much about how to live this rich life through friendship, meetings, articles and books. I have been truly blessed in my choice of religious life!”