Saint Francis Residential Community: 125 Years and Counting

By Steve Sears

On May 25, 2020, Saint Francis Residential Community – originally founded in 1895 as Saint Francis Health Resort – turned 125 years old.

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, no grand anniversary celebrations were held. However, there is good news. “The good news is we are here for the 125th year,” says Saint Francis Residential Community Executive Director, Sister Johnice Thone. “The residents are healthy. We’re not having big celebrations, but every day we celebrate what a wonderful place we have.”

“And we’ve had no COVID here,” adds Debra Shay, Director of Resident Services. “We have had no positive residents at all.” 

An independent senior-living community located in Denville, Saint Francis offers 58 private rooms and 63 apartments, and a variety of activities and amenities for its residents, including lovely grounds, a library, and a chapel for prayer and reflection. 

The Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother in 1895 ventured to Denville with Father Joseph Joch, who had encouraged Mother Frances Streitel, the founder of the order, to purchase the property for $18,000. Per background info, the group of one priest and seven sisters arrived a week later and found “…the buildings at their new home were ramshackled and filthy, and the Sisters rolled up their sleeves to shovel out debris, fighting rampaging cockroaches and shooing away mice and rats.  Within a week, they had their first guest.”

Sister Johnice, who grew up in the community, often recalls the words spoken to her by retired Sister Freida Voegerl, who told her that Saint Francis Residential Community was born before Denville’s incorporation in April 1913. “She would always say, ‘Saint Francis founded Denville.’ And that’s pretty much true; there was not much of anything here when the Sisters first came. And because it was a health resort and people were coming from the city, Denville got on the map.” Saint Francis started out on good footing and embraced the area – and so did those that visited the resort. “For years, we always tried to address the needs of the community. People came out here from the city for healthy living.  People would come out here not for a couple of weeks or a couple months; people would come out and want to live here.” 

The Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother also had a hand in founding Saint Clare’s Hospital in Denville. Initially it was to be a new wing at Saint Francis, but the nuns in 1945 purchased for $12,500 fifteen acres of land between St. Francis Health Resort and the Rockaway River.  Dedicated on August 12, 1953, the hospital opened on September 24, 1953, and the first baby was born in the hospital that same day. 

“Life without COVID, I hope,” says Sister Johnice when asked what she envisions for Saint Francis Residential Community in 2021. “Let the doors open and let the residents see their families all the time. They see their families, but it’s not the same. We will overcome.”

“And we want to welcome the community back in here,” says Shay. “We do a lot with the community. We can’t let them in; we can’t let the blood drives in, we can’t let the schools in.” Reciprocally, the Township of Denville has pitched in to aid Saint Francis. The Denville Strong group has done shopping for the residents, cards have been written for residents by Denville children, art classes have drawn and painted pictures to make residents happier, and much more. 

Saint Francis Residential Community is located at 122 Diamond Spring Road. For more information, please visit www.saintfrancisres.com or call 973-627-5000. 

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