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In the Footsteps of Our Founders

Traveling to France this past June to walk in the footsteps of our founders revealed a profound message describing how we as a Carondelet community are being called by our Sisters of St. Joseph history to go out, reach out, and act courageously in our works today.
by Bonnie A. Cotter, President
  • Annecy

It was back in the 1600’s during the religious reformation that forward-thinking church innovators, such as St. Francis de Sales, led the creation of a new order of religious women unheard of in the Catholic church of that time—an order that served God through serving the real-world needs of the people of the times. It was out of this new model that the Sisters of St. Joseph were founded in 1650 by Jean-Pierre Medaille, and the first six women who would take to the streets to serve.

The ravages of war, famine, plague, and religious persecution were the realities that these early sisters were forced to navigate as they eschewed the relative safety of a prayerful convent life and embraced the streets as their new “cloister” bringing food, medical care, and comfort to the poor, the sick, and the hopeless.

Each day they would go out into the streets. Each evening they would come back to a special place—the Kitchen—to regroup, to share, to renew… and to prepare to go out again.

One hundred years later, the French Revolution brought new peril for the Sisters. In Le Puy, a magnificent tree stands at the center of the city along with memorial markers honoring the two Sisters of St. Joseph who were beheaded here for carrying out their ministry, a reminder and a tribute to all the women of courage who followed their hearts and their faith as they lived and worked out in the streets in service to God.

Our own order’s foundress, Mother St. Jean Fontbonne, was saved from the same fate by mere hours as the French revolution ended on the day she was to be guillotined. Mother St. Jean would go on to lead and grow the Sisters of St. Joseph, ultimately sending the sisters to America to be recreated in a new form, in a new location, in order to meet the needs of a new time and place. This simple act would lead the sisters from St. Louis to all corners of the United States. Like a “swarm of bees” they would serve, and then move on to serve the next area of need calling to them—healthcare, education, social services, and social advocacy. They went forth with heart, faith, and courage… the foundation for both their gift and their message to us today.

The times are different now. Our youth are different. The future is unpredictable and rapidly changing. We are called to discover new answers to new needs, just as the original sisters demonstrated for us.

It is out of our CSJ roots and spirit that we commit to serving the needs of the times today, educating the young women of Carondelet High School.

We are creating a new sisterhood of young women who upon graduation—like a “swarm of bees”—are going forth into the world fully prepared to take to the streets of today.

Through the heart, faith, and courage of the CSJs developed within our students, our graduates are called to make the world a better place… just as our founding sisters took to the streets to serve. What a beautiful legacy to be a part of.

President’s Note: Back in June, I was invited to join a group from Mount St. Mary’s University on their annual pilgrimage to France tracing the origins of our founding sponsors, the Sisters of St. Joseph. What a deeply moving and life-giving experience it was.

We began in the beautiful French/Swiss medieval old town city of Annecy in the foothills of the Alps where the religious reformation was the catalyst for the new religious order of women. We traveled to the small French city of Le Puy, the birthplace of the Sisters of St. Joseph, and then on to the French town of Bas-en-Basset to visit and celebrate the University’s purchase of the family home of Mother St. Jean Fontbonne. We crossed the countryside stopping in cathedrals and convents in small towns along the way, and followed the journey of Mother St. Jean right to Lyon where she worked and was buried in 1843 at the age of 84.

In Le Puy, a simple shell embedded in the cobblestone—the hallmark of the Camino de Santiago, the Way of Saint James—captured it all. Here is a place of welcome and strength for pilgrims of all types, from all walks of life, as they seek out their own personal, physical, and spiritual journeys. What a beautiful reminder that we are all pilgrims on our own unique journey. God bless and Godspeed to all.

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