In 1634 two ships, the Ark and the Dove, brought English Catholics to the shores of Maryland. They arrived on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and Father Andrew White, a Jesuit, celebrated what was to be the first Mass in the (English) colonies.For a brief period Catholicism flourished. Soon, however, because of religious turmoil in Britain, the practice of the faith was officially and forcefully suppressed. It would not be until the American Revolution that freedom of religion would be reinstated or until 1789 that the Diocese of Baltimore—our premier episcopal see—would be erected.
Sixteen years later another Jesuit, Jean Pierre Medaille, helped six women in the very Catholic environment of LePuy, France, to form a small religious community in which they could live and pray together in a non-cloistered setting and practice the spiritual and corporal works of mercy among the poor and needy in their neighborhood. They would be known as the Sisters of St. Joseph.
The new community thrived until the persecutions of the French Revolution when the convents were closed, the Sisters imprisoned, and some even martyred on the guillotine. This last was to have the fate of Mother St. John Fontbonne.
However, on the eve of her execution in July, 1794, the Reign of Terror came to an end with the fall of Robespierre. In time the Bishop of Lyons asked Mother St. John to re-establish the Sisters of St. Joseph in his diocese. Through her the continuity with the community founded by Father Medaille has been maintained.
In 1826 the Diocese of St. Louis, Missouri, was established. Ten years later six Sisters of St. Joseph responded to a plea from its bishop and traveled to America to teach deaf children. Arriving at their destination—also on the Feast of the Annunciation—they settled in a log cabin in Carondelet outside that city. From there the congregation spread rapidly throughout North America, and today more than 1,500 Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet minister in the USA, Peru, Japan and Chile. (These Sisters are members of various Federations of St. Joseph Sisters now comprising 14,000 nuns in 55 countries).
As stated in their website (www.csjalbany.org), the charism of the Carondelet Sisters is to “live out our consecration in community and, with the strength that comes from our life together, to turn beyond ourselves to serve a world in need”. Because of the diversity of their ministry the Sisters are well positioned to accommodate the impulse of the Holy Spirit manifested in Vatican II.
Along with the traditional apostolates of health care and education (St. Catherine University in St. Paul is theirs and is the largest women’s university in the country), the Sisters are engaged in social services, fine arts, spiritual direction, prison and pastoral ministries, serving the aged, and instructing the unchurched. They also take on pastoral duties in clergy-starved parishes, run retreat centers and assist in pastoral planning.
Readers would benefit richly from the spiritual maxims of Father Medaille, one of which appears daily on the website. The timeless wisdom of these 17th century gems infuses the ministry of this vibrant community.
According to their Consensus Statement, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet work in order “to achieve unity of neighbor with neighbor and neighbor with God” and to do so with “an orientation toward excellence tempered by gentleness, peace, joy”. What an inspiring way to advance the Kingdom. One can imagine that if St. Joseph had sisters they must have been like these women.