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St. Joseph, Sisters of

ST. JOSEPH, SISTERS OF

The titles Sisters of Saint Joseph (SSJ) and Congregation of Saint Joseph (CSJ) embrace numerous religious congregations of women, either of pontifical or diocesan jurisdiction, who follow the rule and adhere to the spirit of the foundation made in 1650 at Le Puy-en-Velay, France, by Jean-Pierre Médaille, SJ (16101669), who associated with John Francis Regis (15971640), a great champion of social causes, and Noël Chabanel (16131649), one of the North American martyrs. The first congregation was canonically erected by Bishop Henri de Maupas (16061680), bishop of Le Puy. Their institute executed the original plan of St. Francis de Sales (15671622) for the Visitation nuns. It combined apostolic works of charity in the active life with the interior spirit of contemplation.

European Origins and Development. In drawing up the Constitutions for his newly formed society, Médaille followed the Ignatian rule and ideals. He chose St. Joseph as the patron for his Little Design, a society of widows and young girls unable to enter the cloister, who would imitate the saint by their devotion to others as Joseph served Jesus and Mary. The original Constitutions provided a general guide for a life of perfection based on the love of God and neighbor as expressed in works appropriate for the time and place. Their model was to be Christ as hidden in the Eucharist, and they professed a special Trinitarian orientation. Médaille described their union with God, with one another, and with "the dear neighbor" as "a total double union." Their spirituality was Ignatian, tempered by Salesian gentleness.

The first six Sisters of St. Joseph under the leadership of Françoise Eyraud cared for homeless children in the disintegrating district of Montferrand. The other five were: Claudia Chastel, Marguerite Burdier, Anna Chalayer, Anna Vey, and Anna Brun. Tradition gives the date of Oct. 15, 1650, for their reception of the habit, although at that time, they dressed in the style of widows. Their religious names are not known. On March 10, 1651, Bishop de Maupas received their vows and canonically erected them as a religious congregation through lettres patentes. Their early work was limited to caring for orphans and the sick, and visiting hospitals, because only one of the original members could read and write. Father Médaille called the sisters to "all the works of charity of which women are capable," and it was not long before they became teachers and opened schools.

Médaille worked as a missionary in the region of the Massif Central. He also wrote religious texts for the early sisters. The Eucharistic Letter, believed to predate the official foundation in 1650, cites Christ hidden in the Eucharist as a model for the early community. The Règlements (Rules ), also predating 1650, seem to be addressed to small rural communities, one of which is known to have existed in Dunières in 1649. The Maxims of Perfection, a longer and more developed version of the Maxims of the Little Institute, use a literary form common in the seventeenth century to help the illiterate memorize directives for a virtuous life. In addition, thirteen manuscript forms of the Constitutions, five of them complete, have been preserved. The first text was printed in Vienne in 1694. These early documents formed the basis of the Holy Rule of the Sisters of St. Joseph until Vatican II, and have influenced the spirit of revised Constitutions since that time.

The congregation soon spread to other parts of Velay, Vivarais, Auvergne, Dauphiné, and Languedoc, all located in southeast and south central France. Each house was independent, elected its own superior, and formed its postulants and novices. If a rural house was very small, it worked in unison with a larger city house. Usually dependent on the local clergy, the sisters responded to the needs of the parish. Hospitals and schools were established with the aid of local authorities, and the sisters continued to visit the sick poor in their homes, and to work especially with women and young girls. By the time of the French Revolution in 1789, there were about 150 houses located in southern France.

Like other religious women and men, the Sisters of St. Joseph suffered greatly during the Revolution. Almost all their houses were closed, communities were forced to disband, and some members faced the guillotine. On June 17, 1794, two sisters were executed in Le Puy at the Place du Martouret: Anne-Marie Garnier and Jeanne-Marie Aubert. On Aug. 5, 1794, three sisters mounted the guillotine at Privas, in Ardèche: Sisters Sainte-Croix Vincent, Toussaint Dumoulin, and Madeleine Senovert. Mother Saint John Fontbonne, originally from Bas-en-Basset, and superior of the community of Monistrol, was imprisoned along with some other members of her group at Montfranc (St-Didier-en-Velay). Their execution was halted by the fall of Robespierre on July 27, 1794.

After the Revolution, Mother Saint John Fontbonne, along with other Sisters of St. Joseph, returned discretely to their work. In 1807, Father Claude Cholleton, Vicar General of Joseph Cardinal Fesch of Lyon, called her to direct a group of religious in Saint-Etienne, known as the "Black Daughters." She instructed them according to the Rule and spirit of Médaille, and on July 14, 1808, received them as Sisters of St. Joseph, thus restoring the Congregation. In 1816 the motherhouse was transferred from Saint-Etienne to Lyon. Mother Saint John supervised the reopening of many houses, founded others, and by the time of her death in 1843 left 240 houses and over 3,000 Sisters of St. Joseph. Unlike the pre-revolutionary structure, central motherhouses were established, usually according to diocesan boundaries. Throughout the 19th century, missionaries went to many countries. They established foundations in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Iceland, Brazil, Argentina, India, Algeria, North America, Italy, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Switzerland, and Belgium. Twentieth-century missions include many African, South and Central American, and Asian countries.

U.S. Foundations. Around 1834, Bishop Joseph Rosati, the first bishop of St. Louis, Missouri, advertised for sisters in his enormous diocese. A wealthy woman of Lyon, Countess de la Rochejacquelin, a friend of Mother St. John Fontbonne, offered to pay all the expenses for the sisters who would go to America. Six, among them Sisters Fébronie and Delphine, both of whom were nieces of Mother St. John Fontbonne, arrived in St. Louis on March 25, 1836. Two others, trained in education of the deaf and dumb, Sisters Celestine Pommerel and St. John Fournier, arrived shortly after. Their first missions were in Carondelet and Cahokia, near St. Louis. Education was the principal work of the first sisters in the U.S., although health care and social work were also important. New houses, primarily with American recruits, developed quickly in the St. Louis diocese, under the leadership of Mother Celestine Pommerel.

Most of the American foundations stem from Lyon through St. Louis (Carondelet). Because of distance and other factors, each of them remained independent, with the exception of the four provinces of the Carondelet congregation. Mother St. John Fournier founded the Philadelphia group in 1847, which in turn sent sisters to Brentwood NY (1856) and Toronto, Ontario (1851). The five other Anglophone Canadian foundations developed from Toronto. Francophone Sisters of St. Joseph came to Québec from Saint-Vallier in 1903. From Brentwood sisters went to Rutland, VT, and Boston, MA (1873), to Baden, PA (1869) and Springfield, MA (1883). Other foundations directly from Carondelet include Wheeling, WV (1853), Rochester and Buffalo, NY (1854), Watertown, NY (1880), Erie, PA (1860), and Cleveland, OH (1872). These motherhouses in turn founded other congregations: Tipton, IN (1888), Columbus, OH (1966), Nazareth, MI (1889), Concordia, KS (1883), Wichita, KS (1888), La Grange, IL (1899), Superior, WI (1907), and Orange, CA (1912).

Two foundations stem directly from Le Puy: St. Augustine, FL (1866) independent since 1899, and Fall River, MA (1902), which merged with Springfield, MA, in 1974. The Sisters of West Hartford CT, came from Chambéry in 1812, and are still united with the French motherhouse. The three foundations from Bourg: New Orleans, LA (1855), Cincinnati, OH (1962), and Crookston, MN (1905) merged in 1977 to form the Médaille Congregation. The Sisters of Winslow, ME (1906) remain attached directly to the Lyon motherhouse.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, education and health care were the primary works of all Sisters of St. Joseph. They established hospitals, academies, elementary and high schools, and many opened colleges for women. The sisters participated actively in parochial schools. Since Vatican II, the work of the Sisters of St. Joseph has become much more diversified, in keeping with the spirit of the founder, the mandates of the Church, and a greater awareness of social justice. Twelve colleges sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph have formed a consortium permitting a student registered in any one to attend any other for the same fees. Many congregations have missions in the third world, often staffed by Sisters of St. Joseph from various provincial houses.

Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Like religious of other congregations, following Vatican II, and the call of Perfectae Caritatis, the Sisters of St. Joseph began a search for their roots and a revitalization of their identity. This has led them to develop the Federation, a collaborative movement among congregations claiming the same founder and spirit. The French Sisters of St. Joseph moved in this direction as early as 1951, and in 1971 officially formed a Federation of thirteen congregations. Mergers and other unions have reduced the number to seven. The American Federation was officially formed in 1966 with the membership of twenty-three congregations. Among the activities in which they have participated are: the writing of the Core Constitutions, National Events, summer Institutes, Intercongregational Novitiate, programs, workshops, and publications. While maintaining their traditional autonomy, congregations in the Federation work together to achieve common goals. In 1974, the members clarified the Federation as "a dynamic union of Sisters of St. Joseph, which moves us to a greater consciousness of our kinship of grace and calls us to fidelity to that grace." Other Federations of Sisters of St. Joseph are the Italian (1966), Canadian (1966), and Argentinian (1971). By the end of the 20th century, the Sisters of St. Joseph numbered about 16,000 worldwide. About one-half of this number were in North America. They were one of the largest religious congregations in the world.

The motherhouses of the Sisters of St. Joseph (SSJ, or CSJ) in the United States and members of the American Federation are: CSJ of Boston, MA, [Cath Dir 383001]; CSJ of La Grange, IL [383002]; CSJ of Orange, CA [383003]; CSJ of Brentwood, NY [383005]; SSJ of Buffalo, NY [383006]; CSJ of Cleveland, OH [383008]; SSJ of Erie [383009]; CSJ of Tipton, IN [383010]; SSJ of Nazareth, MI [383011]; SSJ of Watertown, NY [383012]; CSJ of Baden, PA [383013]; SSJ of Rochester, NY [383014]; CSJ of Concordia, KS [383015]; SSJ of Springfield, MA (with whom Rutland VT merged in 2001) [383016]; SSJ of Wheeling, WV [383017]; CSJ of Wichita, KS [383018]; CSJ of Carondelet, MO [3840], with provinces of St. Louis, MO, St. Paul, MN (with whom Superior WI merged in 1985), Albany, NY, Los Angeles, CA, and Vice-Province of Hawaii; Provincial House of Chambéry, France: CSJ of West Hartford, CT [3850]; Provincial House of Lyon, France: CSJ of Winslow, ME [3870]; CSJ of Medaille (Cincinnati, OH) [3880]; SSJ of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, PA [3893]; and SSJ of St. Augustine, FL [3900].

Bibliography: Archives of the American Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph. c. a. bois, Les Sœurs de Saint-Joseph, Filles du Petit Dessin (Lyon 1950). c. coburn, and m. smith, Spirited Lives (Chapel Hill, NC 1999). f. gouit, Les Sœurs de Saint-Joseph du Puy-en-Velay, 16481915 (Le Puy 1930). m. e. kraft, and Sisters of St. Joseph, Eyes Open on a World (St. Cloud 2001). sisterm. k. logue, Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia (Westminster, MD 1950). m. nepper, Aux origines des Filles de Saint-Joseph (Sarl Solaro, 1969). sister m. l. lucida, The Congregation of Saint Joseph of Carondelet (St. Louis 1923). Sœurs de Saint-Joseph, Fédération Française. Par-delà toutes frontières (Strasbourg 1998). Sœurs de Saint Joseph. Textes primitifs (Clermont-Ferrand 1981). m. vacher, ssj, Des régulières dans le siècle (Clermont-Ferrand 1991).

[m. h. kashuba]

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