A Heritage of Loving Service: The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in Tucson
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by Sister Thomas Marie McMahon, C.S.J., B.A.

Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet

That Bishop Lamy's choice of a community able to bear the hardships of the raw desert settlement of Tucson, was a wise one can be better appreciated by a backward glance at the circumstances which brought the Congregation into being in 1650 and which molded its spirit during the following two centuries. Complimenting the missionary zeal of the various orders in the seventeenth century was the changed attitude of the Church towards active works of religious women. This was a second great development of the Counter-Reformation. As early as 1309 Pope Boniface VIII in his constitution, Periculoso, had imposed rigorous enclosure upon all professed nuns. This discipline was confirmed two centuries later in the Council of Trent.1 Because of this reform even tertiary sisters, with simple vows and engaged in the active works of charity, had been forced to assume the obligations of solemn vows and enclosure.

Plagues, famine, and the shocking social and moral conditions of the 17th century France were the natural consequences of the religious and civil wars of the period. St. Vincent de Paul viewed these many evils, that called for alleviation, and was convinced that fervent priests and groups of active religious women working for the social and spiritual good of mankind, was the great need of the day. He maintained that devotion to God could be shown in no more excellent way than through service to suffering mankind. It was through the social virtues then, that the world was to be saved. Courageously he reiterated Christ's challenge to a doubting world, "If you are not willing to believe me; believe my works."2 The lame must walk again; the deaf hear again; the poor have the gospel preached to them.

Vincent's most notable effort to raise the moral tone of a people falling heir to various heresies3 was the establishment of his Congregation of the Priests of the Mission. The conducting of ecclesiastical seminaries for the education of fervent and zealous priests to replace the lax and licentious ones whose lives had been a scandal in France was to be their principal work. But something more than an educated priesthood was needed to meet the demand for the palliation of the wretched conditions of those impoverished and degraded as a result of war and its accompanying evils. Knowing the traditional attitude of the Church regarding, those bound by simple vows without enclosure and remembering St. Francis de Sales' futile effort to found such a congregation.4 Vincent hesitated to give even the form of a religious Congregation to the group he was about to institute, lest it be suppressed. Thus, though their organization was accomplished in 1633, it was not until 1642 that he permitted four of the Sisters of Charity to make annual vows for one year.5 In the end Vincent was able to accomplish with his Daughters of Charity what Francis de Sales had to relinquish with the enclosure of the Visitandes.

This same period which beheld the dawn of a new interest in active religious social service through their efforts, also witnessed the inception of a third community which was to synchronize these efforts while at the same time being influenced by the militant spirit of the great protagonist of the Counter-Reformation, St. Ignatius Loyola. Consequently, since its origin in 1650 the humility of St. Francis de Sales, the charity of St. Vincent de Paul, and the obedience of St. Ignatius of Loyola have ever been the insignia of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph.

The formation of this new institute was accomplished through the zeal of Henri de Maupas du Tour, Bishop of Le Puy and Jean Pierre Medaille, S.J., a fervent home missionary, who in his labors in the small towns and rural sections of southern France began to conceive the idea of securing aid for the apostolic work of the priesthood through an active religious institute which would be able to instruct children in Christian Doctrine, care for orphans, visit the poor and the sick, and give relief to anyone in spiritual or corporal necessity. The social conditions of the poor of Paris which had so appalled St.Vincent de Paul were just as degraded in southern France. Father Medaille was singularly successful in the direction of souls and in this Christlike work he had found a number of young women generous enough, holy enough, and intelligent enough to bring to fruition his cherished scheme or "little design"6 as he loved to call it.

Father Medaille found a ready ally in Bishop de Maupas, born of a rich and noble family, but perfectly cognizant of the social ills and the bitter lot of the poor of his day. He was well fitted to inject the spirit of Francis de Sales, Vincent de Paul, and lgnatius of Loyola into the new venture, having been a student of the Jesuits, and ardent admirer and biographer of Francis de Sales, and an intimate friend of Vincent de Paul.7 In his position as bishop of historic Le Puy of old Auvergne he was empowered to give the necessary episcopal approbation to the proposed diocesan work thus insuring it against suppression.

Fearing that the traditional opposition might break out against this innovation in the mode of religious life the co-founders used somewhat the tactics of St Vincent de Paul. For some time no rule, no distinctive dress, nor vows were granted the six young women selected by Father Medaille. History has retained their names, but little else. One of the devastating results of the French Revolution was the complete loss of all documents, annals, and other important manuscripts dealing with this important period. The chosen six: Francois Eyraud, Anna Vey, Anna Brun, Marguerite Burdier, Anna Chaleyer, and Clauda Chastel8 were brought together in the home of a pious widow of Le Puy, one Lucrece de la Planche de Joux. This dwelling served for some time as their headquarters.9" During that period they gave themselves wholeheartedly to the external works of charity, particularly among the orphans and unprotected girls of the city. In time, the above mentioned residence served as their novitiate where Father Medaille personally imbued them with the peculiar religious spirit which was to be theirs--a fusion of the simplicity of St. Francis de Sales with the discipline of St. Ignatius. To him 1ikewise had been entrusted the task of drawing up the rule which was to be their guide. At the command of Bishop de Maupas it was based on the original rule composed by St. Francis de Sales for the first Visitandines.10

The care of the orphanage of Le Puy was the initial work entrusted to the young community. Here on October 15, 165011 they were invested with the habit which Bishop de Maupas had designed for them. Through the succeeding centuries it was to be passed on with little modification to generations of Sisters of St. Joseph in all parts of the world. Then, as now, it consisted of a robe of black serge, pleated in front with a cincture worn around the waist. Attached to it on the left side was a rosary. The distinctive mark of the Sister of St. Joseph has ever been the brass-bound crucifix worn on her breast as a badge of her consecration by vow to Jesus Christ to labor for her own sanctification and at the same time to assist the poor, ignorant, and suffering by the active works of charity.

So pleased was Bishop de Maupas with the success of the new institute and so positive was he that it was what was needed to heal the social evils of the seventeenth century France that on March 10, 1651, he gave it his episcopal approbation.12 At the same time, not wishing to confine its good effects merely to the diocese of Le Puy, he recommended it to the bishops of neighboring dioceses. His prophecy that this institute would grow and spread over the world diffusing the sweetness of Christ's charity among His poor and afflicted ones was reiterated almost three hundred years later by one of his American brothers in the episcopacy on the occasion of the celebration in St.Louis of the centenary of the American foundation. In commenting on the virtue and fruitful labor of the pioneer American group and their successors, the speaker remarked:

But these women of culture, some of them from homes of plenty and comfort could not hide their worth. What God knew of their hearts he showed to men, and first came to them the riches of other young hearts pure like their own. It is not to be wondered at then that the generosity of Madame de Rochejaquelin13 was followed by gifts of a Mullanphy and a Ryan, and a host of others between them, which provided schools and academies, libraries and colleges where God and His glory might be revealed; where science and its wonders might be unfolded; that justice might please and uplift; that art might refine; that literature give culture; that history might be a lamp of experience to light the way of prudence; that mothers might be trained, marriages made sacred, and homes saved; that the image of God be made bright in the souls of thousands.14

In 1651 there had been little thought of colleges and laboratories, libraries and halls of science. At that time, as it has continued until the present day, the efforts of the congregation had been concentrated principally on elementary education for the poor and the care of the orphans and the sick. So successful were they in these works of mercy that by the time the grim shadow of the French Revolution had begun to portend the violent social and political upheaval which would follow in its wake, the houses of the Sisters of St. Joseph could be found everywhere throughout southern and central France.15

When the fury of the Revolution had spent itself and Robespierre had fallen, the religious of France came up from their underground hiding places or from their prison cells where many had been awaiting execution. Among the latter was she who was destined to be the second foundress of the Sisters of St. Joseph, Mother St. John Fontbonne. At the outbreak of the Revolution she had been the superior of a large convent at Monistrol near Le Puy. Upon refusing to deny her allegiance to the Church by taking the Civil oath she and her Sisters, like all other faithful French religious, were driven from their convents, deprived of the religious habit, and forbidden to give religious instructions. She and several companions were discovered doing this very thing while being harbored in her father's house and they were thrown into the prison of Saint Didier near Bas.16

The midsummer day in 1794 which saw the end of the Reign of Terror also marked the frustration of Mother St. John's great desire for martyrdom.17 For on that day she and her companions were released from their damp prison cells. Now her consuming ambition became to regather her scattered Sisters to their convent home at Monistrol, but it was many years before this object was realized.

Cardinal Fesch, spiritual leader of the great archdiocese of Lyons in the post-Revolution days, had inaugurated a program which he hoped would result in a flourishing Catholic life in his archdiocese. One of his principal moves in this reconstruction plan was an effort to bring back the religious institutes dispersed and banished by the evil forces of the Revolution. The rapid spread and the successful work of the Congregation of St. Joseph in the years preceding, it had not escaped his notice. Likewise was he aware of the character of Mother St. John, a type of the "valiant woman", who had not yielded to compromise nor feared martyrdom. She, he felt, was especially endowed by God with those qualities so essential for the role he was about to assign her.

Consequently, in 1807, he summoned her to Lyons from her father's home in Bas where for twelve years she had been carrying on the work of the Apostolate among the children of the neighboring sections.18 With great fear and distrust of herself but with entire confidence in God she assumed the office of restorer of the Congregation of St. Joseph. Hers would be the task of imparting to the religious under her the primitive spirit of humility and charity so essential to the true Sister of St. Joseph and so very evident in her own life.

How wise had been his choice can best be demonstrated by a survey of the accomplishments of the community during the first quarter-century of its reestablishment. Despite extreme poverty and adverse conditions in numerous localities, schools, orphanages, institutions for the education of the deaf, and infirmaries for the care of the sick had been placed under the direction of the reorganized community.

Because of its rapid growth and its numerous works, Mother St. John made a drastic change in the organization of the Congregation in 1812.19 Rather than the original Visitandine plan of Bishop de Maupas which provided that each convent be entirely independent from every other and have its own novitiate, Mother St. John now began a system by which she hoped to consolidate the Congregation. It was to be based on the diocese in which the convents were located; thus, all the communities of St. Joseph in Lyons would be under a single superior general. She would reside in the mother house where the novitiate would be located. Mother St. John was the universal choice as the first superior general, and her election was, heartily approved by diocesan authority.

Mother St. John in her declining years, could look back on the marvelous growth of her Congregation from its humble home in the Rue de la Bourse to two hundred convents which she had been instrumental in founding in thirteen departments of France. The Departments of the Loire and the Rhone claimed the greater number of these; and Corsica, Herault, La Vendee, Poiteau, .Aude, the Lower Alps, Creuse, Saone-et-Loire, Isere, Cote d'or, and Allier each had its community of St. Joseph. In 1836, the first foreign mission band left the Mother House at Lyons for America.20

The development and settlement of the trans-Mississippi West during the early decades of the nineteenth century focused the attention of the ever vigilant Mother Church on the area. She began to take steps to provide for the numerous Catholics to be found among the settlers by erecting new dioceses for their direction, for example: Bardstown, Kentucky in 1808,21 Cincinnati,Ohio in 1822,22 Vincennes, Indiana in 1834,23 and St. Louis, Missouri in 1826.24 Prior to that date St. Louis had been successive1y attached to the dioceses of Havana and of Louisiana and the Floridas.25 With the erection of the new diocese of St. Louis came the appointment of Joseph Rosati, pioneer Italian, as its first bishop.26

The frontier chapter of the annals of the Catholic Church in America is made glorious by the lives of missionaries such as he. In retrospect we thrill at the zeal of those pioneer priests who with Mass-kit in their saddlebags made their way through, forests, over mountains, and across plains, braving all types of weather in order to bring the consolation of our holy religion to their scattered flocks. Since the nucleus of each Catholic group in the trans- Mississippi West was French, and because the French Revolution had forced so many of the French priests into exile we find that many of the American pioneer priests were of French or Belgian birth.27 These were men of extraordinary virtue and endurance. Among them were such immortal figures as Simon Brute, Charles Nerinckz, Benedict Flaget, Stephen Badin,

Peter Loras, and Joseph Cretin. Their zeal, passion for souls, and forgetfulness of self having proved them to be true pastors of souls, it was fitting that from among them be chosen the bishops for the new dioceses being formed in the trans-Mississippi area. It is not presumptuous to assume that the French nun was of the same caliber as the French cleric. Thus, we find the needy bishops knocking at the doors of French motherhouses, begging for nuns to assume the duties of the instruction of the frontier children and the direction of future charitable institutions.

One of the most active members of the French Society for the Propagation of the Faith was Father Charles Cholleton, the spiritual director of the Sisters of St. Joseph in the Archdiocese of Lyons. Having become acquainted with the needs of the Church in St. Louis during Bishop Du Bourg's time,28 he agreed to act as Bishop Rosati's vicar by making known the distress of the St. Louis diocese to the Society and by earnestly striving to encourage good subjects to dedicate themselves to the mission work in that vast province which included Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, western Illinois, and the Indian territories between Missouri and the Rocky Mountains.29

In 1834 Father Cholleton suggested to Mother St. John Fontbonne that she send some of her sisters to aid Bishop Rosati.30 The necessity of procuring reinforcements for St. Louis had been brought more forcibly to his attention by the presence in Lyons of Father Odin, C.M., Bishop Rosati's theologian at the Second Council of Baltimore.31 Father Odin was to spend two years in Europe, visiting many seminaries where he earnestly strove to sow the need of missionary vocations for the frontier fields of America in the young hearts before him. Far distant Arizona was one day to reap the fruit of this saintly priest’s appeal, for two of the seminarians of Montferrand who were fired by his words with the desire of dedicating themselves to the American missions were the future Vicar Apostolic of New Mexico and Arizona, John Baptist Lamy and his Vicar General, Joseph Machebeuf. Father Odin’s visit was also greatly responsible for the establishment of the Congregation of St. Joseph in America and subsequently of its being the first congregation of religious women in Arizona.

Mother St. John, with the courage of a missionary herself, selected six of her sisters for that far-away frontier diocese in the heart of America, and stifling natural affection, generously included among them her two nieces, Sisters Febronie and Delphine Fontbonne. Father James Fontbonne, their brother, volunteered for the same mission. The letter which he presented to Bishop Rosati from his own archbishop acknowledges the latter’s regard for the young cleric and his devotion to the Sisters of the Sisters St. Joseph.

The Abbe Fontbonne, who will have the honor of presenting this to you, is full of zeal for the missions across the ocean after which he has sighed for a long time. He is happy to consecrate himself to them under your auspices and direction. I hope that you will soon recognize his virtues and his merit, and that he will render himself worthy of your benevolence and of your regard. His vocation has been tried and given the greatest hopes. He has with him his two sisters, Religious of St. Joseph, together with four companions of the same order. They will be excellent catechists, good infirmarians for the sick, perfect sacristans, and zealous instructors, and their services cannot but promote the work of God in your diocese.

Permit me, Monseigneur, to recommend this evangelical colony to your charitable solicitude. They will respond to your care by an entire submission and a more than ordinary devotion. May it be a consolation to you and aid you in your pastoral solicitude.32

Other commendatory letters were also presented to Bishop Rosati by the travel-weary missionaries on the day following their arrival in New Orleans, March 6, 1836.33 The Bishop, having completed a four month visit in that city personally made arrangements for the river trip to St. Louis, and in company with Father John Timon, C.M., escorted Father Fontbonne, M. Escoffier, and the six bewildered young French religious to the city which was to harbor the cradle of the Congregation in America and from which future generations of Sisters of St. Joseph would radiate in every direction across this broad land of ours.

The rigors and privations of frontier life were to tax the courage and perseverance of the emigrants almost to the breaking point. Without any hope of support from their kindly but impoverished bishop, they took up their residence in a bare two-room log shack overlooking the Mississippi. The single favorable aspect was the beloved French tongue spoken by the Carondelet villagers whose poor log houses were scattered along the river front.

Although the log shack developed within a period of fifty years into the large brick convent built around an open square so familiar to generations of St. Louisans, the years which saw the development also witnessed the courage with which its builders met the challenging conditions of their frontier surroundings. It is with admiration that we view these cultured French women cultivating their garden, chopping and carrying fire wood, carrying water for laundry and household uses, bearing the rigorous winter and the unfamiliar prostrating heat of summer. Their extreme poverty left them without necessary medicines and clothing. The dreaded cholera epidemics snuffed out the lives of many of their most promising young religious. Fire, the grim enemy of frontier settlements, levelled the results of their unremitting toil and sacrifice to the ground as they helplessly looked on. Into the very fiber of the Congregation, as a result of these sufferings and privations peculiar to frontier life, was woven a definitely American spirit characterized by an earnestness of purpose, a fidelity to duty, a love of hard work, and a forgetfulness of self. It was this spirit which made it play an integral part in the education of young Americans, children of those pioneers who in great waves began to take over the trans-Mississippi area, and particularly in the assimilation and education of the new immigrant population surging westward.

For this very purpose the first parochial school in St. Louis, and one of the earliest in the history of the Church in America, was founded by the Fathers of the Congregation of the Mission in St. Vincent's parish and placed under the care of the Sisters of St. Joseph.34 This was to be followed by many others as St. Louis developed from a frontier town to the foremost city of the Middle-West.

Besides education, the immigrant population presented another problem. Numerous orphans were left stranded in cities such as St.Louis, their parents having been victims of the cholera plagues, or having died from weakness and lack of nourishment due to their great poverty. The Church, cognizant of the necessity of caring for these innocent children, called upon the Congregation to found asylums for their protection and upbringing. Such orphanages were being operated by the Sisters of St. Joseph as early as 1851 not only in St. Louis but also in Philadelphia and St. Paul. Frontier conditions, too, were responsible for the institution of still another of the works of the Congregation--the operation of hospitals for the care of the sick. Her principal occupation, however, was ever to be the work of education.

Generous young American girls, familiar with the variable climate of the country and with a perfect knowledge of its language and customs had been swelling the ranks of the Congregation when in 1846 the community at Carondelet became autonomous from Lyons.35 It was expedient that the break be made because of the diocesan character of the Congregation in France and because of the difficulty of communicating quickly with the mother house in Lyons. Nevertheless, it must have cost Mother Celestine and the other French pioneers much to snap this great tie binding them to their beloved France. A further step in the consolidation of the American group was attained when in 1860 it was organized under a general government.36 Three provinces were created: St. Paul, Minnesota being the center for the northern province, Troy, New York for the eastern province, while the mother house remained in St.Louis and was the center for the St. Louis province.37 Provision for the future erection of provinces was also made.

Within the short space of twenty-five years the works of the Congregation had developed from the school in Cahokia and the log hut academy of Carondelet into numerous day schools, academies, institutions for the deaf, orphanages, and hospitals extending northward into Michigan, Minnesota, and even Canada and eastward to various dioceses in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New York. The original six had been replaced by hundreds, but the spirit and aim of the Congregation remained the same--the sanctification of its members through service to the neighbor in the active works of charity.

This was the spirit which had inspired the six pioneers in leaving the comfort and order of their French convent homes at the plea of Bishop Rosati and was transmitted by them to their American daughters. The northern frontiers were braved and conquered at the request of the saintly Bishops Frederick Baraga and Joseph Cretin the prejudice and hostility of Nativist Philadelphia at the call of Bishop Kenrick, and when in 1868 out of the West came the petition of Bishop Lamy for laborers for an abandoned Arizona the challenge was accepted by the Superiors at Carondelet. The inhospitable deserts and immense spaces of the West were to be traversed by seven Sisters of St. Joseph seeking not the "Seven Golden Cities" of Spanish imagination, but the reclamation of the precious souls so long abandoned, as well as the salvation of that vigorous new American group pressing ever toward the West.


1 A. Vermeersch, Nuns, CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA, VOL. XI, 164

2 JOHN 10:38

3 The vague theological implications of French Lutheranism, Calvinism with its INSTITUTION CHRETIENNE, and rigorous Jansenism.

4 In 1610 St. Francis de Sales had founded the Daughters of the Visitation of Holy Mary, a community which was to combine the contemplative life with the active life. Emulating the spirit of Martha and Mary these Daughters were to visit the sick and the poor and at the same time, lead lives of prayer and sacrifice. After five years of successful active service St. Francis de Sales, in deference to the wishes of Archbishop de Marquemont of Lyons, converted the Visitandines into a cloistered order with solemn vows, thus removing them from the active social charity which he had hoped would nourish their contemplation.

5 Theodore Maynard, APOSTLE OF CHARITY (New York: 1931) 156

6 CONSTITUTIONS OF THE SISTERS OF ST. JOSEPH OF CARONDELET. Letter written by Father Medaille to the first Sisters of St. Joseph dated Le Puy, October, 1650, contains the following: ... So my dear Sisters, must our little design and those who compose it, live not for self, but be wholly lost and annihilated in God and for God, be everything for the dear neighbor, nothing for self.

7 Sister Mary Kostka Logue, SISTERS OF ST. JOSEPH OF PHILADELPHIA (Westminster: The Newman Press, 1950), 6

8 Ibid., 8

9 Sister Mary Lucida Savage, THE CONGREGATION OF ST. JOSEPH OF CARONDELET (St.Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1927), 8

10 Abbe Rivaux, LIFE OF REVEREND MOTHER ST. JOHN (New York. Benziger Brothers, 1887), 53

11 Savage, op. cit., 8

12 Ibid., 9

13 Wealthy French noblewoman who defrayed the expenses connected with the first American foundation.

14 Excerpt from a sermon preached by the late Bishop Christopher E. Byrne at a solemn pontifical Mass of thanksgiving offered in the St. Louis Cathedral on April 15, 1936.

15 Logue, op. cit., 9

16 Savage, op. cit., 13

17 Ibid., 13

18 Rivaux, op. cit., 110

19 Savage, op. cit., 21

20 Ibid., 26

21 Theodore Maynard, THE STORY OF AMERICAN CATHOLICISM (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1941), 263

22 Ibid., 268

23 Ibid., 267

24 Ibid, 254

25 John Gilmary Shea, LIFE OF MOST REVEREND JOHN CARROLL (New York: 1888), 570


27 Ibid., 254

28 Although Bishop Du Bourg's see city was New Orleans he had maintained his residence in St. Louis.

29 John Rothensteiner, The Diocese of St.Louis under Bishop Rosati, ILLINOIS CATHOLIC HISTORICAL REVIEW, II (October, 1919), 177

30 Savage, op. cit., 129

31 Father Odin was in Europe for the purpose of bringing the decisions of this council to Rome for approval.

32 Archbishop J. P. Gaston de Pina to Bishop Rosati, Jan.I,1836. Original in the St. Louis Archdiocesan Archives.

33 Savage, op. cit., 35

34 Ibid., 65

35 Ibid., 65

36 Ibid,. 116

37 Ibid., 118

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