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Sisters Celebrate 150 Years in America

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille will celebrate their 150th anniversary in America with a prayer service on January 15 at Our Lady of the Gulf Church in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. The year of celebration will conclude on October 15, 2005, with a Mass of Thanksgiving at St. Frances Cabrini Church in New Orleans.

In November of 1854, three French sisters left LeHavre, France, aboard the John Hancock. After 41 days at sea, they arrived in New Orleans on December 30. They stayed with the Ursuline sisters, then embarked upon a seven-hour train and boat ride to Bay St. Louis on January 6, 1855.

From their first convent, a small frame house next to Our Lady of the Gulf Church, the sisters began teaching in a one-room school in Waveland, Mississippi, walking the four miles to and from school each day. Within 11 years, the sisters had a two-story building in Bay St. Louis which housed St. Joseph’s Academy, a boarding and day school for girls. In 1858, a similar academy was founded in New Orleans, and in 1868, an orphanage and academy were established in Baton Rouge.

The sisters’ good works spread quickly, and by the end of the 19th century, they could be found not only in schools and the orphanage, but also working among the Indians in Charenton, Louisiana, caring for the sick and elderly in New Orleans and running a laundry in Baton Rouge to support their work and provide vocational training for the orphans. By 1893, sisters were sent to Cincinnati, Ohio, where they staffed a home for working women, opened several parochial schools and established a boarding school and academy.

In 1872, sisters became involved in visiting inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. They provided catechesis at the State School for the Blind in Baton Rouge from 1910 to 1919, and between 1905 and 1960, the congregation was involved in 12 newly established church parishes in southeast Louisiana and Bay St. Louis as parochial schools rapidly evolved and grew.

Healthcare as a ministry began in 1953 when the sisters signed a five-year contract to staff a small clinic in New Roads. In 1954, nine sisters began operation of the new Terrebonne General Hospital in Houma.

The 1960s saw a number of sisters venturing into new ministries, including foreign missions, campus ministry, work with the deaf, computer programming and communications. They also worked among the poor and powerless in inner cities, with sugarcane workers in New Iberia and in the field of adult education.

In 1977, ties with the French sisters, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Bourg, were severed, and an American congregation, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, was born. The name was adopted in honor of Father John Peter Medaille, a French Jesuit and founder of the original Sisters of St. Joseph in 1650.

Today, there are sisters in three areas of the United States: St. Paul and Crookston, Minnesota; Cincinnati; and Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Sisters also serve in El Paso, Nicaragua, Houma-Thibodaux, Clinton and Chauvin.

Beginning in the 1980s, the congregation took steps to collaborate with more than 20 other congregations of St. Joseph through the Sisters of St. Joseph Federation. Such collaboration has led to the sharing of resources and personnel and to efforts to take a serious corporate stance on issues of social concern.

Celebrating 150 years of service in America is an opportunity for the sisters to thank those who have helped them live the gospel mandate by reaching out to all in love and service.

Posted: 01/06/2005