PEORIA — The move of OSF HealthCare's ministry headquarters to Downtown marks a homecoming of sorts for the organization.

Before formally establishing the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis a few months later, a group of six nuns originally from Germany and begging for support found their calling in Peoria in late 1876, beginning to care for the sick in Peoria.

They lived then in rented space at 708 Adams St. and accepted their first patient on Nov. 4, 1876, Mrs. Mary Honke, according to a published company history — "With the Greatest Care and Love."

It was from that space that they were asked by city leaders to take over the care of patients at the city hospital, and from there — with the encouragement of the Peoria Diocese's first bishop, John Spalding — that they formed their religious order.

"It means so much to our religious community to be able to return even closer to our original roots," said Sister Judith Ann Duvall, chairperson of the board at OSF HealthCare, shortly after the formal announcement that the group's headquarters would move to 124 SW Adams St.

"To imagine that this little group of sisters who could barely speak English, had few financial resources, little experience in health care — and yet just grew and flourished in this Peoria community, because this community was so receiving and warm and welcomed the sisters," she said.

Their ministry rose from that humble start, with the sisters sleeping in the attic of that space, performing home care and walking the neighborhoods to get acquainted with residents. Within a year the sisters moved to space on the East Bluff near where OSF Saint Francis Medical Center is today, property acquired from Lydia Moss Bradley.

Today, OSF HealthCare includes 11 hospitals, soon to be 13 in February when the group begins to run facilities in Urbana and Danville.

"We started with six sisters, and only one had experience in health care," Sister Judith Ann said. "And now we want to relocate 700 of our mission partners into one building so close to home. Who would've thought? Except God wanted it, and he enabled it."

Through the years, organization CEO Bob Sehring said, the sisters have "always been engaged, intertwined" with Peoria.

Today, "to be able to come now and relocate a significant portion of OSF's administrative services so close to our home base and let that benefit the city and the citizens of Peoria, that's just a wonderful win-win for both," Sister Judith Ann said.

Chris Kaergard can be reached at ckaergard@pjstar.com or 686-3255. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisKaergard