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Mt St. Joseph

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Lyon Congregation

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The foundation of our Congregation was born in 17th century Europe, in a time of great economic depression, in a climate of social, religious and political unrest. While France glittered under Louis XIV and Richelieu, the peasants (90% of the French population) lived in misery. Certain cardinals linked themselves with the kings rather than spiritual leadership. In the Church during this time, the greatest influence was the Council of Trent, which had been held in the mid 1500's to bring the Catholic Church back on its feet following the Protestant Reformation. 100 years later, Trent was just getting into the lives of people and was turning them back to a structured Church, which was greatly needed since the people had seen so much abuse by the Church.

Jean Pierre MedailleMissionaries began to travel the countryside, educating the people and ministering to them. One such missionary was a young French Jesuit preacher and teacher named Jean-Pierre Medaille, who journeyed through the southern and central region of France, giving missions in local parishes. He was profoundly affected by the misery and poverty he witnessed. As he moved among the people, Medaille met women, widows and young girls who sought to alleviate the suffering of their neighbor. They were giving their time and energies tending to the needs of the people around them. They longed to devote themselves to the service of God and people but wanted this without entering a monastery. They could not pay a dowry and they wanted to live among the people. Lay Christian associations already existed and the Council of Trent reinforced enclosure as the only legitimate canonical form of religious life for women. Supporting the women's dedication to God and neighbor, Medaille clarified their mission with his "Little Design" by which he directed them to work toward the total union of all people among themselves and with GodFirst Kitchen.  Click to enlarge, following the Ignatian model of being completely emptied to self in order to be entirely for God and the dear neighbor. Medaille sought to establish an ecclesiastically approved "congregation of women" who would profess simple vows, live in a small group, with no specific apostolates and would dress in a common garb of the women of their day. At this time, women were not allowed to be on the streets at just any time. By wearing the widow's dress of the day, the women would be able to go out in public to serve the sick without being a source of scandal to the people. Medaille sought the support of the Bishop of LePuy, France, Henri de Maupas, for this project. De Maupas took great interest in it and gave the foundation canonical status. Although the Congregation celebrates October 15, 1650 as its beginning, there is evidence that points to an earlier founding, more likely between 1646-1650.

Of the first seven women, only one could sign her name. The person in charge of formation was never a Sister although lived among them for many years! Regarding community life, contrary to the contemplative life style, the schedule was determined by their apostolate. Medaille insisted that in helping with religious moderations, the clothing dress and standard of living would be appropriate to their social class. His directives for the Congregation regarding the apostolate of the community were to be whatever works of charity would benefit the "dear neighbor". He advised the Sisters to go into the different districts to discover the needs or to find persons who would.

The Congregation flourished in France for over 100 years. Houses that sprang up were held together by no legal ties and were independent bodies that received mutual assistance, both spiritual and material. This autonomy made integration into the life of a locality and its church easier, allowing the Sisters to adapt their way of life and the service they provided to individual circumstances and needs. By the dawn of the French Revolution, roughly 150 houses mostly in the dioceses of LePuy, Lyon, Clermont, Vienne and a dozen others in Southeast France were present.

The Revolution of the 18th century and the reign of Louis VXI were filled with terrorism and persecution. Militants sought to destroy the Church and to strengthen the government. Churches were closed. Clergy were imprisoned and persecuted and religious communities were disbanded. Members of the clergy were forced to take an oath to a civil constitution, to a national Church or risk their lives. Monasteries were suppressed. Members leaving institutes immediately received a government pension. Those not wanting to leave gathered together in a few designated monasteries to gradually die out. Those who left had to take the oath or their goods were confiscated. Religious instruction or care of the sick was prohibited. Tragically, five of the Sisters of St. Joseph were martyred during the Revolution. Eventually, the Congregation dispersed in 1793. Many Sisters returned to their families where they secretly continued to serve the needy.

Mother St. JohnOne such woman was a woman named Jeanne Fontbonne, who earlier had been imprisoned and was sentenced to be guillotined the day news came that the government had fallen and the prisoners were freed. She along with other Sisters returned to their families and waited... .for a number of years.

In 1801 Napoleon Bonaparte and Pope Pius VII signed a Concordat stating that the French Church could reorganize but under State control. During this time, in a place called St. Etienne, a group of Christian laywomen and former religious began giving themselves to the care of the poor and the sick. The "Black Daughters" as the people of St. Etienne called them, worked hard to earn a living for themselves and often for others. The Archbishop of Lyon, Cardinal Fesch, Napoleon's uncle, had heard about the good works accomplished before the Revolution by the Sisters of St. Joseph and desired to re-establish the Congregation now that the effects of the Revolution had subsided. He had heard of the work of Mother St. John Fontbonne who had been living in the seclusion of her family in Bas-en-Basset for 15 years and called her to refound the congregation. And so with the 12 Black Daughters, Mother St. John, then 48, re-established the Congregation.

On July 14, 1808, the 12 postulants put on a widow's habit, like the Sisters of St. Joseph. Around Lyon and St. Etienne, the community found new life. Mother St. John was responsible for the greatest expansion from 1759 to 1843, founding over 200 houses in the dioceses of Lyon, Chambery, Annecy, Gap, Bourg, Bordeaux and U.S. (Carondolet).

At the request of an American Bishop Rosati of St. Louis, Missouri, the Sisters of St. Joseph came to America in 1836. Mother St. John sent her two nieces to begin the foundation. The great missionary movement of the 19th century had begun. Other Sisters arrived from LePuy, Bourg and Chambery and houses spread quickly. Throughout the 19th century, new houses and new Congregations grew up one from another.

CSJ Family Tree.  Click to open in new window(Click to see CSJ family tree) 

During the great missionary movement of the 19th century, a request was made in 1906 by Father Joseph Forest of Jackman for the Sisters of St. Joseph to come to the Diocese of Portland. With the bishop's approval, eight Sisters made their way to Maine where they would staff a parochial school and a girls' boarding school in Jackman. The need was for bilingual teachers and none of the Sisters were familiar with English. They made haste to learn words and expressions so they could communicate with the children. At the time of their arrival, there were approximately 80 families in Jackman, mostly of Canadian origin so they spoke French. Everyone was overjoyed with the presence of these Sisters who would assume the education of their young. Children came from miles around, even from Canada, to be educated by the Sisters. Many of the children went home only at the end of the school year because of transportation and harsh weather. A second group of Sisters came into Maine in 1909 - this time in South Berwick. The site of the convent was the former Paul's Hotel, where Lafayette had stayed on one of his trips to the United States.

The ministry was fruitful in both missions of Jackman and South Berwick. In both places, the Sisters staffed a parochial school and each had an academy for high school girls (Sacred Heart in Jackman, St. Joseph in South Berwick). Many young women were prepared academically, spiritually and socially to face the challenges of life. The Sisters became known primarily for their education apostolate in the diocese. It was within these academies that religious vocations flourished. In 1913, a novitiate was established in South Berwick to prepare young women for religious life. In 1949, the novitiate was moved from South Berwick to Auburn and as vocations increased, more space was needed for classes and formation, and in 1965, a novitiate was built in Winslow.

In 1926, Sisters were sent to Holy Family so that a French community in the parish school could maintain their native language. The education apostolate expanded by staffing schools in Jay, Auburn, and Winslow.

Mother Philippee de NeriThe Sisters in Maine maintained their link with the Motherhouse in Lyon, France through frequent correspondence with major superiors as well as the regular canonical visits from the Mother General or one of her assistants. Only in 1958, as the number of Sisters increased sufficiently to establish a Province in Maine did the Congregation appoint a provincial superior. Mother Philippe de Neri, a native of Jackman, served as Provincial for six years.

The education apostolate expanded with the opening of St. Joseph Child Care in 1949, receiving more than 100 children daily from the Lewiston-Auburn area. Religious education opened as a new ministry in 1954 when a CCD Center was established in Dexter.  In 1962, the winds of change following Vatican II created unexpected and visionary directions within the Church. This major event inspired religious congregations to delve into their roots resulting in radical and unprecedented changes in governance, community life and ministry.

As a Province it opened us to ministries beyond teaching.  Sisters prepared themselves professionally to become involved in parish, social works, and healthcare ministries, making themselves available in varied circumstances to meet the needs of the time.

In 1962, the Province was given the opportunity for expanding services to the people of Jackman region by staffing a small community hospital. In 1964, a convalescent unit and home for the elderly known as Mount St. Joseph came into being.

Presently, Mount St. Joseph remains an integral part of the health care community in Waterville, having an excellent reputation as a wholistic care community.

The academies, hospital and novitiate are no longer; St. Joseph Child Care Center was passed on to Catholic Charities - ME in 2001, and the Living Water Spiritual Center retreat ministry ended in 2012.  However, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Lyon (Winslow, ME) continue to help meet the varied needs of God's people in Maine and California

The Provincial Offices are presently located at 100 Pleasant St. in Waterville, ME.