S. Florence St Onge
List of deceased Sisters
Date of death 20/02/2017
Sister Florence St Onge, smsm
(Formerly: Sister Mary Francine smsm)
February 23rd, 1915 – February 20th, 2017
Sister Florence St Onge was born in Brunswick, Maine on February 23rd 1915, one of four daughters
and one son of George St Onge, from Quebec, Canada and Delia Tardiff St Onge, from Brunswick. Two
of her sisters also became Religious: Sr. Therese St Onge smsm (formerly known as Sr. Mary Martine)
and Georgette, who became known as Sr. Therese St Onge OSU. Her only surviving sibling is her
brother, John, who is retired and living in Florida.
Sister Florence entered the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary on February 15th, 1938, and made
her first vows on August 15th 1940. She was soon asked to become the assistant to the novice directress
and remained in that post for 8 years, partly because the War in the Pacific intervened and prevented her
and other Sisters from being sent out on mission at that time. During those years she obtained a BA in
Church music from the Gregorian Institute of America and also completed a Teacher’s certificate from
St Joseph’s College in Maine.
When she was finally missioned to the Solomon Islands in 1949, she was one of six SMSM who
boarded a cargo ship, The Pioneer Star, in New York Harbor, setting out for the Pacific Islands.
According to her account, there were still post-war travel restrictions for ships going to the Pacific, and a
lot of secrecy about their itinerary. All the passengers were told was that their journey would last from
six to eight weeks.
Arriving in the Solomon Islands, Sr. Florence was soon asked to become the novice directress for the
local diocesan congregation, the Daughters of Mary Immaculate. But just two years later, in 1951, she
was called back to the United States to become novice directress for the SMSM here. She served as
novice directress in Bedford from 1951 to 1959. Afterwards she attended Framingham State College and
obtained a B.Sc. in education in 1966.
Shortly after graduation she was missioned to a new parish school in Ewa Beach, Hawaii. In those years
in Hawaii about a third of the population was military - men coming and going back and forth to
Vietnam. Many military families lived on a base near the school, and Sr. Florence could see the effects
on the children of the anxieties they experienced. It was there that she developed her keen interest in the
mental health of children and the effect of violence on their lives. She began studies in Counseling at the
University of Hawaii. She and the other Sisters teaching at Ewa Beach visited the homes and sought the
collaboration of the parents. In addition to the usual religious and academic requirements for this
school, Florence wrote that the Sisters “developed social learning strategies to foster a positive
relationship between the diversity of cultures.” They introduced more sports and music groups – ukulele
and guitar playing - to bring children of different backgrounds and cultures together.
By her second year there the Director of the Psychiatric Department at Tripler Army Hospital
recognized her talents and he asked her to join their staff to do testing once a week.
In 1974 the congregation decided to withdraw the Sisters from the school at Ewa Beach, because of the
decline in religious vocations. This was a great disappointment to Florence, but she returned to
Massachusetts where she worked as a receptionist at Maristhill, earned her certification in Counseling
from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and practiced at a Family Center in Newton. In 1975 her
next great challenge and opportunity arrived: her mission to Memphis, Tennessee.
For the first two years in Memphis Sister was Director of Religious Education at a parish. But by 1977
she had the opportunity to work in a new “Home Intervention Program” sponsored by the University of
Tennessee Mental Health Center. The aim of this program was to help children who could be
considered “at risk” by teaching the young mothers and families about nutrition, parenting skills, child
care, home management and discipline through positive reinforcement.
Many of the mothers were African American teenagers; some were still going to school and living with
their parents. The whole family needed to be involved. Many administrators at the time were skeptical
about the idea of Home Intervention, thinking that the families would see these visits as intrusive or that
it would be embarrassing to have a counselor come to their home. In fact the opposite proved to be true.
No doubt the gentle and respectful manner of Sr. Florence was a major reason for the success of this
program that became known as “Smart from the Start”.
Sr. Florence was also very courageous. There were at least two instances where she was mugged and
robbed in the course of walking through some of the very poor areas of Memphis. She was always very
matter-of-fact about these events, and was undaunted. She was back on her rounds as soon as possible.
Over the years, Sr. Florence’s work was recognized by many and became a model for similar initiatives
in other cities. In 1998 she received the Good Samaritan Award from the Catholic Development
Conference, and twice she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her work in promoting Non-
After 25 years, at the age of 85, she retired from being the Director of the “Smart from the Start”
Program, but remained as a consultant. Two years later, in 2002, she returned to Waltham because of ill
health. Nevertheless she kept a hand in teaching by tutoring at the Bright School in Waltham. In 2004
and 2005 she travelled to Jamaica and then to California to give workshops to our Sisters and other
groups in “Working for the Prevention of Violence”.
In 2006 Sister moved to the Marillac Residence in Wellesley Hills. Even there she found one child to
tutor and she also gave a course on Non-Violence to the nursing staff and nursing assistants. She was
very attentive to the Sisters who were ill, and made her contribution to the community by creating
beautiful greeting cards on the computer to send out for special occasions.
In 2014 when she needed more care, Sr. Florence moved to the Elizabeth Seton Residence. Two years
ago she celebrated her 100th birthday, sitting on the stage and talking about some of her memories. Sr.
Florence has taught us so much about what it means to be a Marist, and what it means to be “Missionary
for the whole of our lives, wherever we are sent by the congregation.” We treasure her memory and
hope to follow where she has led.
Gratefully in Mary,
Sister Mary Jane Kenney, smsm (Regional Leader)
Sister Virginia Fornasa, smsm (Communications Secretary)