You could say that Sister Shirley Shafranek, OFS/T, was born a Franciscan and that, as her life unfolded, so did her realization that God was calling her to religious life. Now a vowed Franciscan sister with the Sisters of St. Francis in Tiffin, Ohio, Sister Shirley’s early life subtly hinted at her future with the Franciscans. She was raised in rural Chelsea, Iowa, along with four brothers, in a devout Catholic family. Despite their religious conviction, Sister Shirley and her brothers attended public school because money was tight. However, faith was a huge part of their home lives. “I remember kneeling down by [my mother’s] chair each night and saying my prayers,” Sister Shirley says. “I could even tell you the order we all learned them in.”
Every path to religious life is unique, no matter how many similarities or trends that the stories share. Sister Shirley was first called to the roles of wife, mother, and teacher. After graduating from high school in 1970, she attended Iowa State University, completing a degree in secondary physical education. While she was in college, Shirley met and married Lyle, and the couple later moved to his family farm near the small town of Keswick, Iowa.
There, they raised three children (one son and two daughters), with Lyle working as a farmer and Shirley as a teacher at the same school her children attended. On top of teaching science in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grade, Shirley was involved in coaching many of the sports at the school. “That meant I taught my kids plus had them on the teams I coached,” she says. “They couldn’t get rid of me if they tried!”
Sadly, Shirley’s marriage to Lyle was an unhappy one. After 28 years of trying to make their relationship work, she made the tough decision to divorce her husband. But as that door closed in her life, another was opening. Sister Shirley would go on to boldly walk through the door God left open for her.
Discerning Next Steps
“At that time, I was working as the religious education director at our two local parishes,” Sister Shirley recalls. “A year later, I moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with one of the Tiffin Franciscan sisters. I taught for eight years in a Catholic school in inner-city Milwaukee. We were a voucher school, so we accepted low-income students. The majority of the students were African American, non-Catholic, and living below the poverty line. It was eight of my most enjoyable teaching years, in spite of and even because of the challenges.”
Prior to her teaching position in Milwaukee, Sister Shirley recalls working alongside a Tiffin Franciscan sister in their parish in Keswick. It was an eye-opening experience for her that nudged her along her vocational path. “When Sister Angie introduced me to the Franciscans, I discovered my soul was always a Franciscan, I just did not know it,” says Sister Shirley.
Sister Shirley tested the waters by becoming an associate with the Tiffin Franciscans in 2002, but she immediately felt called to more. Her heart was set on becoming a Tiffin Franciscan sister. To do that, though, she had to have her marriage annulled, a process that took a year and a half to complete. With her path clear, Sister Shirley went through formation and took her final vows in 2011 at the age of 59. She is only the second mother in the Tiffin community, with the first being their foundress, Elizabeth Schaefer.
“I haven’t stopped being a mother and grandmother,” says Sister Shirley. “I have just added another role onto my life. My kids know that they can always call me—and they do. If they have a problem in their lives, I get lots of calls from them. I have six grandchildren. The oldest is 22, and the youngest is 9. My first role in life since I had my kids has been to be a mom. I love my kids and grandkids fiercely and pray for them daily.”
Finding God among the Weeds
For 11 years, Sister Shirley worked as an environmental educator with her community’s Franciscan Earth Literacy Center (FELC). “I worked with children of all ages to promote sustainable living and care of creation,” she explains. “I ran the summer camps, school programs, Boy Scout and Girl Scout programs, homeschool classes, and adult programs. We served about 4,000 children a year.”
Sister Shirley’s efforts with the FELC were rooted in St. Francis’ love for and deep connection with nature.
“I tried to show everyone how amazing our world is by taking them into nature and letting them see what God has created,” she explains. “And if I could show people—especially children—how amazing it was, maybe they would start to respect it and in the end take care of creation.”
In 2019, Sister Shirley transitioned from her role with the FELC and restarted her community’s Seeds of Hope Farm, which had been shuttered some years before. “The farm is a small produce farm that was started in the early 2000s,” she says. “I restarted it with the goal of hiring developmentally disabled adults to work on the farm. We are meeting that goal. This past year we hired six people to help on the farm.”
As she spends time working alongside volunteers at the Seeds of Hope Farm, the example of St. Francis of Assisi is never far from Sister Shirley’s mind. “St. Francis inspires me by his devotion to prayer and alone time,” she says. “He was a contemplative. I try. I love my alone time, even if it is weeding the spinach or planting lettuce. Those are the times I can feel the presence of God, listen to what God is telling me, and share with God what is on my mind.”