Great question! The answer is set in a constellation of circumstances related to the historical and ecclesial era, our founders and our mission and spirituality.
Before the 16th century, Saint Joseph was in the shadows. Teresa of Avila, the discalced Carmelites, the Jesuits and Franciscans and many confraternities began to promote devotion to Saint Joseph. By the beginning of the 17th century, Joseph was presented as the model of the mystical life—one who lives close to Jesus.
By the mid-17th century, the first Sisters of Saint Joseph walked onto the stage—at first in the towns of Dunieres and LePuy.
In a 1648 document, the sisters’ ministry in LePuy bears the name of “House of Charity of Orphan Girls of Saint Joseph.” Was the orphanage named for the sisters or was it a reflection of Bishop de Maupas’ devotion to Saint Joseph? In a letter addressed to his sister May 4, 1648, he said: “this great Saint (who is my particular patron this year), should be held by me in singular veneration for many reasons.” Perhaps one of his reasons was the presence of our sisters in LePuy.
For Sisters of Saint Joseph, the patronage of Joseph is beyond simple devotion. The oldest copy of our primitive rule in Lyon states that the name of Saint Joseph was chosen because of “the hidden virtue of this great saint.” Joseph is a man who carries within himself a holiness that is both vigorous and inconspicuous. He is an ordinary man whose meaningful life without fanfare is wordlessly faithful.
In this same primitive rule, our Jesuit founder, Jean-Pierre Médaille SJ, included relationship with Joseph in the summary of our vocation:
“In honor of Saint Joseph their Patriarch, they will be one in the service of each other, and one in the service of the neighbor without distinction for whom they will try to have cordial charity, as Saint Joseph had for his dear spouse and for the Savior Jesus.” (Reglements)
In contemporary parlance, the word cordial means politely warm, respectful and friendly; however, in 17th-century France, the word cordial meant a tonic, an alcoholic spirit that could stimulate a weak heart, animate a drooping spirit. A cordial energized. This context helps us to understand that the cordial charity of Joseph is loving service that revives and animates communion.
Médaille called on Joseph to model a way of loving that is inclusive and active—love delivered through presence that is stirring and vivifying. What better model of the contemplative life in action could Father Médaille have given to our first sisters and to us than Saint Joseph?
This understanding of cordial charity calls us to service centered on relationship with God and every neighbor without distinction. Service in the spirit of Joseph’s cordial charity stirs up a love that is offered through effective presence. Just as Joseph discerned and followed God’s invitations through ambiguous and difficult times, we are called to face the challenges of our day.
Yes, there are several reasons why we are called Sisters of Saint Joseph; this last one has a ring to it.
From documents in the village of St. Hilaire where Sisters of Saint Joseph made a foundation before 1787, we learn that the sisters were called filles agrégées under the title of Saint Joseph and filles devotes called Saint Joseph “because they earned a living.”