As a missionary in southwestern France, Father Médaille met with devout women who expressed a desire to live holy lives, serving their neighbors, but outside of a religious cloister. To protect their spirit of littleness, hiddenness and self-emptying love, he “secretly” met with these women in groups of three to six. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, he founded the Sisters of Saint Joseph in 1650 in LePuy, France. Referred to as “The Little Design” and “The Congregation of the great love of God” the women were asked to divide the city, find the needs of the day and address them. Father Médaille asked them to follow his spiritual maxims. SSJ Maxims
We trace our origins and spirit to six women, who came together in 1650, in war-ravaged LePuy, France, with great desire for union with God, among themselves and with “every sort of neighbor.” Encouraged and aided by Jesuit Jean-Pierre Médaille, they were among the first to create religious life for women outside the cloister.
Under the patronage of Saint Joseph, they dedicated themselves to “the practice of all spiritual and corporal works of mercy of which woman is capable and which will most benefit the dear neighbor.”
From that small band of women, religious communities spread rapidly throughout south central France. Their communities were dispersed during the turmoil of the French Revolution. Some sisters were imprisoned; five were guillotined.
A heroic woman who narrowly escaped execution during the French Revolution, Mother Saint John refounded the Lyon Branch of the Congregation. Under her leadership the Congregation flourished.
In response to the needs of the Church in the Missouri mission, Mother Saint John Fontbonne sent six sisters to St. Louis. From the St. Louis location, Sisters of Saint Joseph spread throughout the United States and Canada.
Mother Saint John Fournier, one of six sisters who immigrated to St. Louis from France, arrived in Philadelphia in 1847. She and three sisters provided care at Saint John’s Orphanage for Boys. Our sisters responded to each new call for assistance with a generosity that prompted Bishop Kenrick to describe us as sisters “ready for any good work.”
Bishop of Philadelphia from 1852 to 1860, Bishop Neumann was a friend and benefactor of the Sisters of Saint Joseph. He recommended that both Monticello, the Chestnut Hill site, and the McSherrystown, PA location to Mother Saint John Fournier. He frequently visited Mount Saint Joseph Convent, always bringing a gift for the students and the sisters.
With the advice and support of Bishop John Neumann, a property in McSherrystown was acquired. This became the first novitiate and academy for the Sisters of Saint Joseph.
In 1858, the sisters purchased “Monticello” the Middleton family home (current location of Congregational Motherhouse and administrative offices) in the Chestnut Hill area of Philadelphia. It was also the first site of Mount Saint Joseph Academy.
Mount Saint Joseph Academy was established by our sisters six weeks after their arrival on August 16, 1858. This outstanding educational institution has evolved from its modest beginnings in the Monticello House to its present-day location in Flourtown, PA, where the “Mount” continues to focus on the importance of women’s education.
Our sisters’ wholehearted response to the educational needs of new immigrants, in both urban and rural settings, focused energy in schools of every kind and at every level. We often followed a pattern of establishing free schools and partnering them with academies for paying students. At the same time, we met the emerging needs of families in creative ways.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, our mission led us to the care of orphans, children with special needs and widows. We administered Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Philadelphia for a decade (June 18, 1849-August 26, 1859). We cared for families in their homes during the Influenza Epidemic of 1918.
We nursed the wounded on both sides of the conflict during the Civil War. Fourteen of our sisters were officially recognized for their service as nurses. With little training, but the discipline of religious life, they nursed the wounded, the sick and worked as cooks and ward managers at Church Hospital in Harrisburg, PA, at Camp Curtin outside Harrisburg, and on two floating hospitals, the Whilden and the Commodore.
The hospital ships traveled up and down the James River, providing care for the wounded of both sides. Sister Mary Anselm Jennings was aboard the night Yorktown was taken. She said: “Hundreds of wounded men were carried out to us in rowboats. Their wounds were caked with mud and blood, and all night we worked, sponging, dressing and doctoring them.”
She also told how the captain of a floating hospital would ask sisters to make themselves visible on deck when other ships approached, so that it would be recognized as a hospital and spared from attack.
Our sisters patiently served the sick and wounded without regard to color, religion or politics. Not turning away from the dirtiest and most menial work, they earned the respect of both Union and Confederate soldiers. The Congressional Record of 1918 confirms “The Sisters of Saint Joseph, sacrificing all personal comfort, ministered faithfully and truly to the comfort and welfare of the sick.”
Learn more about SSJ Civil War Nurses — Click here.
When Vatican Council II called upon religious congregations to return to the original inspiration of their foundation, we responded faithfully and reflectively. To better understand our founding spirit, we studied our early documents and renewed our relationship with other groups of Sisters of Saint Joseph. In renewed fidelity to our initial inspiration, our sisters, associates, and lay partners strive to deepen our commitment to our common mission:
We live and work so that all people may be united with God and with one another.
Associate relationship has a rich history with the Sisters of Saint Joseph. Our founders envisioned the sisters bonding with others who were spiritual companions and coworkers while they continued in their own lifestyle as married, widowed or single persons. Today there are approximately 450 SSJ Associates in Mission.
Today there are approximately 615 members in the Congregation. As the Congregation moves into the future, we see our neighbors’ need for all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy and love, and as we are able, we undertake with great generosity and love whatever may best bring about the union of all with God.