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Fontbonne, Saint John, Mother


Mother superior, educator, and second foundress of the Sisters of St. Joseph, b. Bas-en-Basset, France, March 31, 1769; d. Lyon, Nov. 22, 1843. Jeanne Fontbonne was the daughter of Michel Fontbonne and Benoîte Theillière, the second oldest of five surviving children. She was educated by the Sisters of St. Joseph in Bas-en-Basset, where two of her aunts taught in the school. Later she completed her studies at Le Puy-en-Velay. On July 1, 1778, she and her sister Marie accompanied their aunts to a new foundation at Monistrol, where they were to become the first postulants. Bas-en-Basset and Monistrol are located about mid-way between Le Puy and Saint-Etienne, in the department of Haute-Loire.

On Dec. 17, 1778, Marie and Jeanne received the religious habit and the names of Sisters Saint Teresa and Saint John, respectively. Sister Saint John's leadership qualities were already evident, and she was elected superior of Monistrol in 1785. She immediately undertook the establishment of a training school where the poor could learn a trade, and obtained financial help from a wealthy citizen, Madame de Chantemule. Bishop de Galard encouraged her efforts; the hospital and schools progressed.

With the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789, the work of the sisters was in danger. Bishop de Galard, who had refused the constitutional oath, was forced to flee. Father Ollier, the local pastor, took the oath and became hostile toward the sisters, who also refused to swear allegiance to the new government. On Sept. 29, 1792, most of the sisters abandoned their convent and returned to their families. Mother Saint John remained along with her sister and Sister Martha. They continued their charitable work in the hospital in secular dress, but Father Ollier's insistence that they participate in the religious services that he conducted eventually drove them away, and on Oct. 14, 1792, they returned to the Fontbonne family home in Bas, where they observed the rule as much as possible.

Late in 1793, the three sisters were imprisoned at Monfranc (St-Didier-en-Velay), where others, including their aunts, were later condemned. Here they continued their life of prayer. They rejoiced as the day of their execution drew near, only to learn that they had been spared by the fall of Robespierre (July 27, 1794). When liberated, they returned to the Fontbonne home, where they resumed a life of service while in secular dress. Mother Saint John always regretted that she was not worthy to die as a martyr, but other great works awaited her.

In 1807, the need for religious education among the generation raised during the Revolution was imperative. Joseph Cardinal Fesch of Lyon, the uncle of Napoleon, through the intermediary of the Vicar General Father Claude Cholleton, called Mother Saint John to direct a group of women in St-Etienne, called the "Black Daughters," or popularly, "the Sisters of a Happy Death," because they attended the sick and the dying. She left her home on Aug. 14, 1807, to meet this unknown group, in whom she found kindred spirits. She gave them the Rule of the Sisters of St. Joseph that Father Médaille had drawn up and taught them to temper their austerities and combine the interior life with service to others. On July 14, 1808, she received twelve of them into the Congregation at the Maison Pascal. Father Piron addressed them in these words: "You are but few, my daughters, but like a swarm of bees, you shall spread yourselves everywhere . But, while increasing, preserve always thehumility and simplicity which should characterize the Daughters of St. Joseph."

Shortly afterward, another group at Rue Micarême joined the sisters. This establishment became the first motherhouse. Other foundations appeared; old ones were restored. Soon the necessity of a common novitiate became apparent. Formerly each house prepared its own postulants and novices; however, under the Napoleonic system, centralization was in order. In 1816, Mother Saint John obtained property, formerly a Carthusian Monastery, adjoining buildings, and the Château Yon, all located in the Croix-Rousse section of Lyon. This site, rue des Chartreux, became the motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Lyon.

Other motherhouses were formed from Lyon, including Chambéry, Gap, Bourg, Annecy, and Bordeaux. Former foundations, now restored, became independent motherhouses, such as Le Puy, Clermont-Ferrand, and Saint-Vallier. In 1836, Mother Saint John accepted an appeal from Bishop Joseph Rosati of St. Louis, Missouri, in the United States, and sent six sisters, among them her two nieces, followed by two other sisters who were trained as instructors to the deaf. This group became the seed that gave birth to over thirty congregations of Sisters of St. Joseph in the United States and Canada. In 1831, sisters went to Italy where they formed independent foundations. Under Mother Saint John's leadership, the congregation expanded to include over 240 houses with 3,000 sisters.

In 1839, Mother Saint John resigned her office, and Mother Sacred Heart replaced her. She spent her remaining days in prayer and simple tasks, often giving conferences to the sisters, some of which have been preserved. She died on Nov. 22, 1843, at the motherhouse in Lyon. She is revered by the Sisters of St. Joseph as the second foundress, and as an example of the charity and humility encouraged by Father Médaille. Many buildings in American foundations bear her name, and her memory remains alive on both sides of the Atlantic.

Bibliography: sister m. k. logue, Sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia (Westminster MD 1950). sister of st. joseph of brentwood, Mother Saint John Fontbonne (New York 1936). Soeurs de Saint-Joseph, Fédération Française, Par-del toutes frontières (Strasbourg 1998).

[m. h. kashuba]

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