A Rebirth in France
In mid-17th century France, circumstances were ripe for new birth in the Church. ¹
Around 1646, Fr. John Pierre Médaille, SJ, kept meeting kindred spirits who wanted to nurture their contemplative spirit and dedicate their lives in responding to the poverty surrounding them. They were innovators in a new form of religious and on October 15, 1650, Henri de Maupas, bishop of LePuy, France, gave his blessing to this Little Design, as they called it.
The First 100 Years
During the first 100 years, sisters were present in cities, towns, and rural areas.
These unpretentious women served the neighbor in simplicity and did not appear important enough to enter into the annals of the nation or Church. They did not define themselves in terms of a particular apostolate or lifestyle and were ready to respond to any need in any place.
They ministered in parishes, cared for orphans, sheltered abandoned women, opened schools, administered hospitals, visited jails and taught manual arts to women and children to help them become financially independent. Although there are no precise records, it is clear that from 1650 to 1789, the Congregation continued to grow and adapt to the needs of their “dear neighbors.” The mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph was to form community and “undertake all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy of which women are capable.”²
Before the French Revolution
A steadily growing community of adept women devoted to bettering the dear neighbor:
This is the congregation into which Jeanne Fontbonne entered the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1778 and at the age of 26, she became superior of the Monistrol community.
While the seeds of the Revolution were germinating, the sisters at Monistrol continued their mission by partnering with Madame Chantemule, a noble lady of the region who provided funds to establish a workshop. Here they gathered women “without distinction”: women who had the resources to work on behalf of the poor, mothers who needed to work for their children, and young women who were apparently on their own. This group brought together people who, because of their differences, would rarely come together as equals.
After the French Revolution
The French Revolution violently disrupted the lives of The Sisters of St. Joseph.
The Congregation was outlawed. The right to teach was withdrawn and the sisters were denounced as unpatriotic fanatics and enemies of the Revolution.
In the Reign of Terror, nearly all sisters were imprisoned. The community was expelled from their property. Sisters were imprisoned on trumped up charges without trial and some were guillotined. Those who escaped the wrath of the Revolution returned to their families, went into hiding, or simply disappeared into French society. Several years after the revolution, Sister St. John Fontbonne responded to the call by Napoleon’s uncle, Cardinal Fesch, and in 1807 became the superior of all the houses in the Lyon Diocese. While a congregation with centralized governance was a radical shift from Médaille’s Little Design, it responded to the needs of the time, thus perfectly aligned to Médaille’s inspiration.
Journey to America
Instead of conceiving a plan and making it happen, she opened herself so that the plan of God could take flesh and become history in her and in the neighbor.
This is the congregation into which Jeanne Fontbonne entered the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1778 and at the age of 26, she became superior of the Monistrol community.
³The Countess de la Rochejaquelin, a wealthy woman with connections to nobility throughout Europe, was a benefactor of the Society of the Propagation of the Faith. Her enthusiasm for the missions inspired her dream to send Sisters of St. Joseph to Missouri. In a letter to Bishop Rosati, of St. Louis, she wrote, “… perhaps you do not know the Sisters of St. Joseph….The East of France is alive with the activity of these Sisters….the spirit of the Congregation of Saint Joseph is something without precedent.”³ Evidence leads to the conclusion that the Sisters of St. Joseph went to Missouri because of the tenacity of the countess. Mother St. John Fontbonne accepted her proposition and, at the age of 77, adopted a plan that was not hers, but which had appeared in her path with undeniable signs of being the will of God.
On January 4, 1836, sisters departed by ship for America, arriving in St. Louis on March 25. They were part of the great missionary movement of the 19th century. The courage, fidelity, and self-emptying love of these women who embraced the unknown gave birth to our congregation in the New World.
Requests grew rapidly for sisters to serve in schools. Within a few days of their arrival in each place, they opened schools. The third mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph in America was St. Joseph School for Negro Girls in 1845. Thus, the sisters entered into the heart of the most painful conflict in the history of the United States – the institutionalized violence of racism. When they confronted prejudice and violence, the little community discerned between the adaptation necessary to settle into a new culture and a prophetic stance that would denounce a system of institutionalized sin.
St. Louis, Philadelphia, NY, and Boston
The numbers of sisters grew quickly in the 1840s and 1850s and so did their outreach in St. Louis and beyond.
A bold move was made to expand beyond the St. Louis diocese by accepting the invitation to send sisters to Philadelphia in 1847. Their adaptation and service-oriented activities enabled them to carve a niche in American society and public life that reduced bigotry and supported the growing Catholic population.⁴
The sisters in Philadelphia sent sisters to New York and, in 1873, thirty-seven years later, the New York sisters responded to a call to send sisters to Boston.
Settling in Boston
In 1873, the Sisters of St. Joseph from Brooklyn came to Boston at the invitation of Father Thomas Magennis,
pastor of St. Thomas Parish in Jamaica Plain and Roxbury. Even before the church was finished, he began his search for religious who would start a school.
He talked with Archbishop Williams about securing Sisters to teach the children of his parish. The Archbishop opened the Catholic Directory, ran his finger on a page saying, “Sisters of St. Joseph… in charge of many Parochial Schools.” Father Magennis visited New York to see the sisters in action. He was so impressed by their work that he asked Archbishop Williams to ask the Motherhouse at Flushing, NY, for sisters. Arrangements were made for the Sisters to come as soon as possible to take charge of the school.
On October 2, 1873, four sisters, with Sister Regis Casserly as superior, arrived in Boston. They settled in a “cozy” five-room house that had been moved from another part of the village. Four days after arriving, they opened a school in the church basement. Two hundred girls applied the first day.
The fledgling community led by the 30-year-old Mother Regis seemed very well situated. In 1874 the sisters opened a second school and were also involved in that favorite ministry of Father Médaille, a sodality, allowing them to share their spirituality with the laity. Through her years of leadership of the Boston Sisters of St. Joseph, Sister Regis Casserly would prove to be a woman with a keen grasp of what needed to be done and the ability to accomplish it. When Mother Mary Regis died in 1917, the community she had begun with three companions had grown to 400 sisters and were teaching in 24 schools. Thus, she left the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston with more sisters, more missions, and more stability than she and Father Magennis ever dreamed possible in 1873 when they first met as two 30-year-old descendants of Irish immigrants who hoped to serve the Church and the people in Boston.
The Dawn of New Ministries
Near the turn of the century, the Boston Pilot newspaper refers to the Sisters of St. Joseph saying, “their rule opens them to all the good works of which the intelligence, strength, and zeal of women are capable.”⁵
In 1899, the sisters began two new ministries…
The Daly Industrial School in Dorchester welcomed girls who were “deprived of their parents’ aid.”⁶ The Boston School for the Deaf educated children to be “conversant with all that the world offers those who speak and hear.”⁷ Both ministries carried on the original spirit of the sisters – a mission of universal love that embraces all without distinction. The first quarter of this century was a time of national growth and expansion. Unifying love flared in the growth of vocations that corresponded to requests to initiate new elementary and secondary schools throughout the archdiocese. When Mother Domitilla opened Regis College in 1927, her mission was to provide a quality education rooted in values.
She wrote, “We must espouse the quest for academic excellence, instill an appreciation for Gospel values of social justice and peace, and exhibit in our lives a respect for all life on earth.”⁸
The Birth of the Liturgical Movement
A profound shift from individual piety to praying with the universal Church took place after two papal encyclicals in 1943 and 1947.⁹ Thus began the Liturgical Movement which found strong support from the Sisters of St. Joseph.
For more than 15 years, Sisters Francille, Reginald, and Tarcisius (Anna Mary Kelly) edited a journal titled Mediator, an archdiocesan publication aimed to teach the importance of full and active participation in the liturgy. By 1956 Mediator had readers in 48 states and 13 countries.
On the Sister’s 75th anniversary in 1948, Cardinal Richard J. Cushing remarked, “Theirs is the traditional story of small beginnings, of hard pioneer work, that grew with years of toil and sacrifice. The first Sisters courageously and confidently embraced the seemingly insurmountable difficulties common to all great works. They were building for the future… Today there is hardly a section of the Archdiocese where they are not known and loved for their contribution…” ¹⁰
Spreading to New Mexico
On the 300th anniversary of our Le Puy, France, foundation, our first mission in Santa Rosa, New Mexico opened. The pastor had written to 115 communities asking for sisters to staff a school…
…All replies were negative. A priest in the parish, a native of Lynn, MA, had been a student of Mother Euphrasia in grade two. In desperation he wrote her and received a positive response. The pastor sent an immediate telegram, “Your thrilling letter fills us with joy and expectation.” Shortly after their arrival, he wrote again, “What thrills me is the way the sisters have with the little ones…They are doing the very thing I most wanted: integrating God with all the children are taught. This is a real tribute to the way the sisters have impressed everyone.”
Later, ministries flourished in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Clovis, New Mexico.
The encyclical On the Renewal of Religious Life was published in October 1965. It stated, “The adaptation and renewal of the religious life includes both the constant return to the sources of all Christian life and to the original spirit of the institutes and their adaptation to the changed conditions of our time.” ¹¹
From 1956-1966 Liturgical Lectures hosted at Fontbonne Academy and elsewhere prepared sisters for profound transformation to come after Vatican II. These monthly lectures, led by prominent theologians, ecumenists, and Taizé brothers, were attended by more than 500 sisters eager to enhance their ministry. Thus, the Sisters of St. Joseph were poised for this renewal. “They realized that even if they had not known how to articulate it clearly, their identity as Sisters of St. Joseph was rooted in relationships and orientated by the mission to promote unity of neighbor with neighbor and neighbor with God.” ¹²
This has become a lifelong personal and communal process.
In 1965, Cardinal Cushing approached Mother Catalina to ask if she would send sisters to Peru. The two were lifelong friends and she replied, “Your Eminence, I’d be happy to mission six sisters to Lima and I’m sure their pastors would be happy to hire teachers to
replace them.” ¹³
When the sisters boarded the plane for Lima, Peru, the Cardinal said, “Sisters, yours will be a secondary position. You are in business to go out of business. You are to train Peruvian teachers in San Ricardo Parish so the Peruvians can assume responsibility of the school.”
This they accomplished within eight years. During the next 27 years, other sisters joined them. A team consisting of pastor, sisters, and Peruvian laypeople planned how to empower parishioners to assume responsibility for the life of their parish. By 1991 a native priest became pastor and native parishioners continued their active participation.¹⁴
Formation of the CSSJ US Federation
As early as 1951, Pope Pius XII called sisters beyond the separateness of individual congregations to collaboration. The U.S. Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph was officially founded in 1966. Its first major project was the creation of a research team to study the congregation’s origins in France. Julie Harkins, CSJ Boston, was one of the “powerhouses moving the project forward.” ¹⁵
Speaking of the initial days of our Federation, Kathy McCluskey, CSJ, commented, “I wonder if the Council Fathers could have imagined that this call to renewal would have positioned the Sisters of St. Joseph in the U.S. and around the world for this moment of chaos and hope. The miracle was in the collaboration.”
Along with most other women religious, each of our communities responded with vigor to the invitation to renew by returning to the Scripture and reading the signs of the times. But when it came to plumbing our own CSSJ resources, we turned to one another. “
Changing Habits, changing names, changing lifestyles… In the early 1970s the Congregation was in the throes of implementing Vatican II. This Council called religious women and men to renew their life in community by capturing their original spirit, pray with Scripture and seriously consider “the signs of the times” in all deliberations. As Boston CSJs we were very committed to this new Spirit that was moving within and around us.
Signs of this new Spirit were visible when sisters changed from wearing a “traditional” habit to dressing like their neighbors, as did our first sisters. We also changed from the names given after entering to names given at baptism in keeping with Vatican II’s emphasis on the baptismal call of all. In addition, many sisters changed their lifestyles by discerning with leaders regarding their choice of ministry and living situations.
Small communities sprung up around the city where the sisters lived among their neighbors in a spirit of prayer and presence much as did our first sisters in the regions around Le Puy, France.
During these challenging days, there were initiatives to sustain the congregation as a cohesive whole. A. Catherine Murphy, CSJ, then president, knew instinctively the need for a renewed spirituality to support this emerging “way of Life” and recognized that other supports would be essential to move from a hierarchical way of living to shared decision-making. Sisters were sent to international programs for initial and ongoing formation. As these sisters returned, their new learning spawned a variety of exciting initiatives to enhance the spirituality, mission, and charism of the community.
One of these initiatives happened in collaboration with the Center for Planned Change, a renewal program that was designed and embraced to respect members’ differing perspectives. Differences were examined in light of Scripture, Charism, and Mission. Every sister was invited to participate in a congregation-wide process that provided maximum participation in shaping decision-making for the future.
In 1971 the Rerum Novarum Revisited [RNR] Committee began to involve the Congregation in many of the critical issues facing the poor
and oppressed. ¹⁶
Justice and Peace
The Justice and Peace Office was established in 1986 to give public voice to the social consciousness of the Congregation on critical issues. The office is responsible for coordinating our public response to critical social issues — especially those that affect human life and dignity — and our interconnectedness with all creation. This office gives public voice to the social consciousness of our sisters, associates, and agrégées by promoting awareness, encouraging reflection, initiating appropriate responses, and calls to action.
In subsequent years corporate stances were developed on:
- 1984: the use of nuclear weapons & non-violence,
- Commitment to the poor,
- 1992: respect for Earth,
- 2009: anti-human trafficking.
- We also join with LCWR and the CSSJ U.S. Federation in advocating and speaking on critical social issues as they arise.
During this time, sisters renewed their conviction of the primacy of prayer, both personal and communal. In 1974, St. Joseph Retreat Center in Cohasset, MA opened. Eventually it became a place of prayer for women and men of all faiths seeking to deepen their spiritual life.
For 42 years, the Retreat Center was an investment to spread our mission. We made it available to all people…the wide world, the Dear Neighbor…
— Joan McCarthy, CSJ
1970s & 1980s:
During the 1970s and 1980s, our outreach continued to widen as Sisters of St. Joseph founded new ministries.
These are a few of the ministries:
- Bridge Over Troubled Waters, a social service agency for youth on the streets of Boston;
- a group home for girls in Quincy;
- the Archdiocesan Office of AIDS Ministry, which included Seton Manor and extensive HIV/AIDS education ministry throughout the archdiocese;
- and a religious education program for mothers of children living with Down Syndrome, which began at Sacred Heart, Weymouth, and eventually spread throughout the archdiocese.
The 1970s witnessed greater collaboration with lay partners. Dedicated laywomen and men chose to minister in diocesan schools, in schools and colleges we had founded throughout the archdiocese, and at Bethany Health Care Center.
¹ We are grateful to Mary McGlone, CSJ, for permission to use and adapt excerpts throughout this timeline from Comunidad par el Mundo, Chapters 1-3 © 2004, (Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet)and to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, CA, for the use of excerpts from, The Little Design © Providence St. Joseph Health Care, 2018.
² Jean-Pierre Médaille, SJ, The Règlements of the Daughters of Saint Joseph, circa 1646
³ McGlone, Comunidad par el Mundo, 90
⁴ Carol L. Coburn and Martha Smith, Spirited Lives: How Nuns Shaped Catholic Culture and AmericanLife, 1836-1920, Chapter 2 Creating an American Identity. © 1999 (The University of North Carolina Press), 64-65 passim
⁵ The Pilot, on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston, October 1, 1898.
⁶ A Sister of St. Joseph, Boston [unnamed], Just Passing Through: 1973-1843, © 1943, 80.
⁷ Rev. Thomas Magennis, Annual Report of the Boston School for the Deaf, 1909 (Randolph, MA: Archives, Boston School for the Deaf, 1909).
⁸ Anna Mary Kelley, CSJ, and Joan M. McCarthy, CSJ, At the Dawn of a New Age, chapter 3 (Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston, A forum envisioning the future of the past, May 17, 1998), 12
⁹ The Mystical Body of Christ and Mediator Dei
¹⁰ Words of Cardinal Richard J. Cushing – Preface in booklet commemorating 75th anniversary of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston.
¹¹ Perfectae caritatis
¹² See Mary McGlone, CSJ, Called by the Dear Neighbor, pg 452
¹³ See “Telling the Story” March, 1997, by Anna Mary Kelly, CSJ – archdiocesan Archives.
¹⁴ Carlotta Gilarde, CSJ, consultant
¹⁵ McGlone, Called by the Dear Neighbor, pg 307
¹⁶ Rerum Novarum, the 1891 encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, is an open letter, that addressed the condition of the working classes.