These women were very different from one another: One was a 15-year-old orphan; one a widow; others were from wealthy families. Yet despite their differences, they shared a deep love of God and a common desire to serve the needs of the poor all around them. Thirty years of war had taken a devastating toll on their village. Widows and orphans were especially hard hit.
For guidance, these six women sought spiritual direction from a young Jesuit priest, Father Jean Pierre Medaille. He told them to embrace a new way of being religious: not cloistered, as was the norm, but living openly among the people. And so they formed the first community of Sisters of St. Joseph and divided the city, block to block, to discover the needs of those they came to call their “dear neighbors.”
Father Medaille gave these women a special grace or “charism,” a spirit to live and work to bring all people into union with God and each other.
To support themselves, the Sisters made ribbon and lace. Their numbers grew, and the community prospered for more than 100 years. But the French Revolution would change everything.
Violence and death gripped the country, and when the Sisters refused to renounce their religious freedom, they were forced into hiding or sent to jail. Mother St. John Fontbonne was among the Sisters arrested and thrown into prison. On July 26, 1794, she was told that she would face the guillotine on the very next day. The morning she was to be executed, the government fell and, instead of being executed, she was set free.
Their numbers were greatly diminished, but the few remaining Sisters continued to do as many good works as possible. Mother St. John was asked by the Cardinal to accept the mission of refounding the Sisters of St. Joseph. She arrived in Lyon to begin her assignment on August 14, 1807.
Within 30 years, there were more than 100 communities of Sisters in France serving God and the dear neighbor. They ministered to the sick, the elderly and the young. They founded hospitals, schools and orphanages. By 1826, 80 convents had been established in France.
The world was expanding, however, and in 1834, the Bishop of Missouri wrote to the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Lyon requesting religious personnel. And so began the move to America.
Mother St. John sent six Sisters to St. Louis, Missouri. After 49 seasick days on the ocean, the first Sisters arrived in New Orleans.From there, they traveled up the Mississippi River to St. Louis, where they founded St. Joseph Academy, which included a school for the deaf. More Sisters would be sent from France to settle in Bay St. Louis and New Orleans.
On October 22, 1868, four Sisters arrived in Baton Rouge aboard the Robert E. Lee steamboat. They had been sent to take over an orphanage that cared for 11 little girls left parentless by the Civil War. Within two weeks, they opened St. Joseph’s Day School in a small, four-room house on what today is known as Seventh Street.
Today, 150 years later, St. Joseph’s Academy is a national Blue Ribbon School of Excellence, where students are educated to be responsible and unifying members of the world community. Here, relationships are formed, bonds are strengthened and knowledge is shared. Faith and wisdom find a home in each young woman all the days of her life.
We are ever-mindful of those six women and that small kitchen in LePuy. We remember the steadfast endurance of the Sisters during the Reign of Terror in France. And we continue to live the charism that Father Medaille first gave them in 1650 and that continues to be handed down generation after generation.