Sisters of St. Joseph of Northwestern Pennsylvania taught and nursed.

It's why they came here, it's mainly what they did for more than a century.

"There was a need for teaching. There was a need for nursing," said Sister Mary Herrmann, president of the local sisters.

A few of the religious congregation's 100 members still serve in those fields. But with the announcement this month that their Villa Maria Elementary School will close in June, the group of nuns no longer runs or even sponsors a hospital or school in Erie County. The SSJs say they're trying to respond to other, increasing problems like homelessness and human trafficking, and to bring hope to people.

"We continually evaluate and look and try to meet whatever the needs are," Herrmann said.

She said the Sisters of St. Joseph don't plan to launch new ministries after Villa Elementary, but will work to enhance what they already have.

Herrmann said that, contrary to rumors and speculation, the Villa closing isn't because the land the school sits on has been secretly sold, or because Erie's Catholic bishop pressured the sisters to shutter the elementary to benefit a new Erie Catholic School System.

Herrmann said the sisters, who sponsor the school, are giving up that ministry because it can be met by others, specifically the new system.

"With the establishment of the Erie Catholic School System, the need is being met and we must let go and avail ourselves to respond to others," Herrmann said at the Oct. 4 closing announcement.

Back in 1892, when the sisters opened their first school for girls in Erie, education "was not that accessible for women," she said. Now, however, there is room for Villa Elementary's girls and boys at the six pre-K through eighth-grade schools that will be in the system, she said.

While the sisters only established three schools in Erie County — Villa Maria Elementary, Villa Maria Academy and Villa Maria College — they worked as teachers and principals in many more.

"We were involved in over 40 schools," Herrmann said.

Their Villa Maria College eventually merged with Gannon University, and Villa Maria Academy joined with Cathedral Preparatory School, becoming a diocesan-sponsored institution. Villa Maria Elementary was the last school sponsored by the sisters.

Herrmann said the sisters aren't abandoning students, but are doing education in less traditional ways and focusing their limited resources on needs like poverty, homelessness, violence and crime, which in turn affect children.

Dotty Hanna, from the Sisters of St. Joseph Mission & Ministries Foundation, said that just because the sisters don't sponsor schools or hospitals doesn't mean they're not still present and active in some way. She said the SSJs might not be doing as much brick-and-mortar ministry but they're still providing help and hope and mobilizing community resources.

Herrmann said she doesn't think the sisters have less of an effect.

"I think the presence is what's really important," she said.

The sisters ended their sponsorship of Erie's Saint Vincent Hospital in 2013, when it merged with Highmark Inc. The hospital got its start when sisters took a construction worker with a broken leg into their convent, Herrmann said.

In the decades after the hospital was established in 1875, sisters served in just about every role at Saint Vincent, from cook to administrator, she said.

Just like some sisters still work in health care, a handful of SSJs remain in schools, Herrmann said.

Only about a fourth of the SSJ members in northwestern Pennsylvania are employed in full-time paying jobs. Although the sisters' average age is 78, Herrmann said they don't retire. When a sister ends a career like hospital nurse, she might switch over to teaching religious education.

Even sisters who are bedridden minister through prayer, Herrmann said.

The Sisters of St. Joseph also continue to partner with Benedictine Sisters and Sisters of Mercy in Erie Dwellings & Advocacy for Women in Need. Through Erie D.A.W.N., sisters teach women about topics like household finances or owning a home.

Additionally, the three groups join for Take Back the Site vigils. The events, like one held Wednesday on East 21st Street, honor homicide victims and reclaim the sites for nonviolence.

On its own, the Sisters of St. Joseph sponsor Neighborhood Networks on Erie's west and east sides. One sister works with the networks on a regular basis and others help out.

Ministries there include activities for children, such as cooking class and tutoring in math and reading, and advocacy for adults, such as help with budgeting or emergency rent assistance.

"One of the big things we're doing with education is working with the Neighborhood Networks," Herrmann said.

She said the networks meet immediate needs but also try to help people with "the bigger picture," such as teaching children that they could potentially be doctors or nurses when they grow up.

The SSJ Neighborhood Networks "try to give people hope," Herrmann said.

Another sponsored ministry of the sisters, St. Patrick's Haven, recently held a groundbreaking for a new East 12th Street building to house the homeless shelter for men. A member of the Sisters of St. Joseph serves as the shelter's director.

St. Mary's Home, with east and west campuses, is another sponsored housing ministry, this one for the retired and elderly, Herrmann said.

A newer ministry for the sisters is an effort to end human trafficking.

Sister Mary Claire Kennedy, social justice coordinator for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Northwestern Pennsylvania, called human trafficking "one of the most egregious human rights violations of the 21st century." She said the SSJs made a commitment to bring the issue to the public's attention and to advocate for actions to bring an end to this "modern slavery."

Kennedy said the sisters, along with the Crime Victim Center of Erie County and others, were instrumental in forming the Northwestern Pennsylvania Coalition United Against Human Trafficking.

Financially, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Northwestern Pennsylvania can so far continue to support its ministries, Herrmann said. She said sponsorship of a ministry often, but not always, includes a financial commitment.

In addition to income earned by sisters and gifts from donors, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Northwestern Pennsylvania received $10 million when it severed ties with Saint Vincent.

Herrmann said the hospital money is meant to support the congregation, its ministries and other like-minded ministries.

Dana Massing can be reached at 870-1729 or by email. Follow her on Twitter at