Pioneer women of the past, for the future
By Connie Berry
Nearly 175 years ago on March 25, 1836, six sisters of St. Joseph arrived at the Old Cathedral in St. Louis, Mo. They had traveled for two months from LeHavre, France, at the invitation of the bishop of St. Louis who requested the sisters to take on the instruction of the deaf. After studying English in St. Louis for a short while, they founded their first mission in Cahokia, Ill., just across the Mississippi River. A few months later they were established in a log cabin at Carondelet, about five miles south of St. Louis, which remains the location of the Motherhouse. Nearly every Sister of St. Joseph congregation in the U.S. can be traced to this first group of sisters.
The original order was established in France long before the sisters arrived in the U.S. The sisters were founded around 1650 in LePuy-Velay, France by Jean Pierre Medaille, a Jesuit priest, and Francoise Eyraud. The archbishop of Lyons sent a letter of introduction for the sisters stating, “They will be excellent catechists, good infirmarians and zealous instructors.”
In 2008, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet celebrated the 150th anniversary of their arrival in Oswego and the anniversary of the Albany Province. This 175th anniversary will include all the congregations of the Sisters of St. Joseph who sprang from the original half-dozen sisters who first came to the U.S.
Sister Laura Bufano, a Syracuse native and a graduate of St. Vincent de Paul High School, is currently congregation director and a member of the Congregation Leadership Team. She explained from her office in St. Louis that the sisters follow a collaborative leadership model. The 175th anniversary plans have been on the team’s agenda for approximately two years. The sisters plan a large celebration this summer in St. Louis and the individual provinces will plan their own celebrations to suit their communities all year long.
The theme for the year-long event is “To the Seventh Generation.” Sister Laura said they used a 25-year generation for their planning purposes and the celebration will include the vision for the next seven generations.
“We stand on the shoulders of the women who went before us,” Sister Laura said. “This is truly a celebration of where we’ve come from and where we are and how we are moving forward into the future.”
One of the most significant features of the summer celebration is that sisters from St. Louis, Albany, Los Angeles, St. Paul, Hawaii, Japan, Peru and Chile will all come together. There will be the opportunity for the lay associates and all supporters of the sisters to celebrate as well.
Sister Lois Barton serves in the Syracuse and Binghamton areas as a spiritual director and speaker. She is on the Ritual Committee for the summer event.
“In our province, we’re spending an entire year of reflection on our identity,” Sister Lois wrote in an e-mail. “It began with our annual Community Weekend in October and will culminate next October with special attention to a day of thanksgiving on March 25th, the day the first sisters arrived in St. Louis.”
For Sister Lois, the trip those first sisters made hit home as she recently arrived back in Binghamton from a trip to California.
“Last night at midnight, I stepped off a plane in Binghamton eight hours after boarding in San Diego, California — a trip of the same approximate mileage as that of the sisters. And I came home to a warm bed in my own room. Their saga was one of incredible danger, austerity and sacrifice which continued throughout their lives of amazing service to the ‘dear neighbor.’ These are the women we come from and we are humbled and proud to carry on the tradition of what has become for us and those we serve the Congregation of the Great Love of God,” Sister Lois wrote.
The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet have served the people of the Syracuse Diocese in schools, hospitals, orphanages, parishes and in many more capacities.
The congregation is made up of 1,411 vowed religious and 675 lay associates. The charism and spirituality of the sisters hasn’t changed over the years. Sister Mary Rose Noonan, another Syracuse Diocese native from Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Utica, is the communications director for the Albany Province. She said the fundamental core for the sisters has essentially remained the same.
“Our founder, Jean Pierre Médaille, SJ, and our first sisters were inspired and excited by Jesus’ invitation ‘that all may be one,’” Sister Mary Rose wrote from Albany. “Our charism, the gift of the Holy Spirit that directs our mission, is to work to be one with God, among ourselves, with all other persons and with all God’s creation. So, even as the world changes, we are still called to bring and facilitate unity and reconciling love.”
The current celebration, Sister Laura said, calls the congregation into deeper communion. Through the current use of technology, she explained, sisters from all the provinces are able to work together to plan the celebration. “Conference calls, e-mails and even Skype,” Sister Laura explained, “We’re using technology the best we can to communicate and we can do a lot of planning that way.
“That’s been our emphasis since the beging,” she said, “to have sisters across the congregation reflecting the culture of where they come from.”
Part of recognizing the anniversary will include some form of public action having to do with immigration reform. Sister Laura said those plans were not completed yet but would be announced later this year.
The original Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet traveled seven weeks across the ocean and then another several weeks up the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Traveling to the homecoming in St. Louis will be less of a struggle for the contemporary sisters but their charism to serve the church alongside the laity remains just as solid today.