By Donna Hauer
“These walls ask many questions…” Cryptic words spoken thoughtfully by our tour guide as we stared pensively at the imposing walls of the prison that held Mother St. John Fontbonne for nine months from 1793-1794. Those walls, originally built as an ancient convent, turned prison, now housing a school in St. Didier, France.
In October, Kate Barrett, Mission Chair for Catholic Identity and I participated in a program sponsored by the Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph entitled “Pilgrimage to our CSJ Origins” to explore possibilities for faculty, staff and students. What a privilege and adventure to walk the same streets of our founding ancestors — the Sisters of St. Joseph. As Sister Line reminded us — “a pilgrimage is travel both outward and inward.” Indeed! I’m calling it my “spiritual ancestry.com experience.”
As someone who has worked at St. Kate’s for over twenty years, and has hung out with the sisters just as long, I have some knowledge of our herstory. I had heard of LePuy hundreds of times. Have been reminded repeatedly that only six sisters arrived in Carondelet in 1836 to found our congregation of thousands. Told students about the significance of lace making in every The Reflective Woman (TRW) course I’ve taught over the years. Yet, it’s one thing to talk it, and quite another to walk it!
First of all, traveling to Europe puts “old” in perspective. We stared out the windows of our temporary home, the International Center of the Sisters of St. Joseph, at Chapelle Saint Michel, a stunning church that peers over LePuy from the volcanic plug it was built on in 941! We visited cathedrals built in the 11th century and stood in the very room occupied by the first six Sisters of St. Joseph in 1650. We joked, wondering if those six women discussed the reality of gender restrictions with frustration, stating, “Why do we have to put up with this? It is 1650, after all!”
French, Church and Sisters of St. Joseph histories are beautifully interwoven in the Sisters’ Sonography – a living museum that includes a timeline from 1500 to current day. We learned of the “leading men,” allies of the sisters, Father Medaille and Bishop de Maupas, who used their power and influence as clergy to form one of the first non-cloistered order. Those early Sisters dressed as widows to allow their passage in the streets to access those in need – mostly the sick and poor – and address their needs.
We traveled to the very villages where Mother St. John Fontbonne lived from birth to gravesite. Bas-En-Bassette, where she was born and baptized. Monistrol, where she eventually became Mother Superior. Where she was imprisoned for not taking an oath to the state — for not denouncing her Catholic faith. We heard the story of her planned execution by guillotine at age 35, only to be spared in the nick of time. The French revolution ended the very night before she was to be put to death! We learned of her disappointment at not being a martyr.
We stood in the chapel where in 1808, the first twelve women following the chaos of the French Revolution, took vows to live the charism of the Sisters of St. Joseph. We visited the Heritage room dedicated to Mother St. John and sat in her actual bedroom. We experienced the hospitality from the Leadership Team at the Mother House where she lived and served in Lyon. We knelt at her grave in awe, prayer, and gratitude for her 84 years of leadership and influence.
We gained a deeper appreciation for this woman who was responsible for sending 36 congregations — hundreds of women religious — to the United States and Canada. Women who helped build the infrastructure of health care and education throughout North America during the 1800s.
Talk about the ripple effect. Let’s take our founders for example. In 1836 Mother St. John was asked by a priest to send sisters from Lyon, France to Carondelet (St. Louis, Missouri) to meet the needs of the time. Answering the call, she sent two of her nieces and four more sisters. Those six sisters were just one root of one congregation that eventually extended to St. Paul, Los Angeles, Albany, Peru, Hawaii and Japan — a congregation that grew into thousands of women religious coming together to meet the needs of the Dear Neighbor in each of those places.
Now, imagine expanding that one congregation by 36 in the U.S. and Canada, and those thousands of sisters grow into tens of thousands. Add to that a more global reality because sisters from France were not only being sent to the U.S. There are now Sisters of St. Joseph in 57 countries!
Our journey felt like a family reunion as we experienced the universal charism among Sisters of St. Joseph from India, Australia, Mexico, France, the United States, Argentina and Brazil. Although meeting each other for the first time, you could tell they were related, they were family — for their hospitality, humor and humility, their passion for justice and love of Dear Neighbor without distinction was deeply ingrained — as if all were raised by the same parents.
Our internal travels lead us to observe and question our own culture. What if we slowed down every day from 12-3, literally closed shop, to take time to enjoy meals, family, friends and rest like the French do? What if the U.S. outlawed billboards and restricted signage, advertising and mega-buildings, leaving only natural beauty?
We dreamed. What if we could bring faculty and staff on a similar pilgrimage? How would it influence their charism, connection to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, love of dear neighbor and service to our students? What about a class? Would students be interested in learning about this history? Experiencing these places? And meeting these women who defied cultural expectations to meet the needs of their time? What are the needs of our time? What is our calling as a University founded by these courageous, visionary women? What questions are our walls asking?
Donna Hauer is a consociate of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and Director of Multicultural & International Programs & Services (MIPS) at St. Catherine University