groovy history lesson

A commenter to a recent post asked me to share a bit about the history of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace (aka my “groovy sisters). Much of this is gleaned from our community website and a presentation my fellow Novices and I did at our Intercommunity Program.

Our story begins with our founder, Margaret Anna Cusack. I shared her story in detail a few weeks back. To sum up, she was a convert to Catholicism and a Poor Clare nun in Ireland for 25 years. In her convent, she was a prolific writer and ran her own publishing house. By 1870, more than 200,000 copies of her works had circulated throughout the world. Profits from the sale of books were used for the Poor Clare Sisters' work with the poor.

Over time, her focus shifted from writing histories to the plight of the Irish people during the famine of 1879. In particular her writing targeted people and institutions that she felt were contributing to the problem. Known as "The Nun of Kenmare," she became a symbol of liberation and simultaneously incurred the strong disapproval of Church and political leaders.

When her famine relief fund was forced to close, she decided it was time to leave Kenmare. She moved to Knock, Co. Mayo, with the idea of expanding the ministry of the Poor Clares to include a school for young women in the west of Ireland. Instead, she decided to found her own community, St Joseph’s Sisters of Peace of the Immaculate Conception.

Continued conflict in Knock with Church leaders led Margaret Anna to seek support in England. Under Cardinal Manning and Bishop Bagshawe, she received approbation for the new religious order from Pope Leo XIII and the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace was founded in January, 1884, in the Diocese of Nottingham, England.

His Holiness Pope Leo XIII having granted me the extraordinary favour of a private audience on Friday, May 23, 1884 … His Holiness was pleased on this occasion to congratulate me on the favour which God had granted me on being the Foundress of a new religious order. He then said: ‘I bless you, I bless your order Sisters of Peace. God will bless and prosper it. I bless your Sisters present ant to come” and His Holiness more than once expressed his prediction of the prosperity of the order, and his blessing.” - Margaret Anna Cusack 1884

Later, Margaret Anna traveled to the United States to continue the education of immigrant Irish women but was immediately rebuked by Archbishop Corrigan of New York. Just at that time, New Jersey stretched out a hand of welcome and encouragement as Bishop Wigger of the Diocese of Newark invited her to establish homes for young Irish working women there. She claimed that because of Archbishop Corrigan's criticism of her among bishops throughout the United States, the work of her new community could not continue as long as she remained with them. Physically exhausted, sick and disillusioned with a patriarchal Church, Margaret Anna Cusack withdrew from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace and left behind the Sisters she so dearly loved. She eventually returned to England and her ecumenical affiliations. In later years, she kept in contact with the Sisters and expressed a loving concern for them. She died, June 5, 1899 and was buried in the cemetery reserved for the Church of England at Leamington, England.

Sister Evangelista Gaffney was elected to lead the new congregation in 1888. In 1891 St. Joseph Hospital, Bellingham, Washington was added to works already introduced in England and the United States.

Mother Evangelista and those who followed kept the community alive. Good works were started … hospitals, schools, missions in the Phillipines and Africa, the nation’s only school for the multi-impaired blind, and homes for orphans, the elderly and infirm. Their days were filled with much good work, as they lived out their maxim “Be kind to God’s poor and God’s priests.”

This was indeed a shift from Margaret Anna’s founding spirit of the “Sisters of Peace.” In fact, the name of the community had even changed to the Sisters of St Joseph of Newark. This shift was due in large part to the institutional church’s continued discomfort with our Foundress and her founding spirit. In fact, Sisters who entered the community prior to Vatican II were told that we were founded in 1888 by Mother Evangelista and Bishop Bagshawe. Margaret Anna was an unspoken secret in the closet of our history.

Like all Religious Communities, we were invited by the 2nd Vatican Council to rediscover the original spirit of our congregation. Beginning in 1967 our Sisters explored the new concept of “charism.” It wasn’t long before they found that the closets contained more than dusty boxes of mementos. From the corners of the past emerged the story of Margaret Anna. By 1970, we were able at a Special Chapter to reclaim our name of Sisters of St Joseph of Peace and to commission further study and research into our true past, history and founder.

In exploring and reconnecting with the true history and spirit of our founder Margaret Anna Cusack, our Sisters resonated with and began to embody in their religious life her desire to promote peace in our families, church and world.

Like most women religious, after Vatican II ministry options greatly expanded. No longer were you either a teacher or a nurse. Sisters became spiritual directors, peace & justice advocates, retreat leaders, and environmentalists. The question became not what you did, but how you did it in the pursuit of peace through justice.

Today, the Congregation of the Sisters of St Josephof Peace is an international Roman Catholic Congregation of about 300 Sisters living in the UK, the East Coast (mostly in New Jersey) and the West Coast (mostly the Seattle area but also in Oregon, Alaska, California & El Salvador). We also have a dynamic and very active group of lay associate members - both men & women.

Sisters & Associates pursue our mission of peacemaking in a variety of ways. We minister in health care, education, faith communities, social work, counseling, political advocacy, housing for women and children, retreat work, with persons living with AIDS, with Native Americans and immigrants. We are inspired by Margaret Anna’s words from our original 1884 Constitution:

The object of this Institute is, as its name implies, to promote the peace of the Church, both by word and work. The very name Sisters of Peace will, it is hoped, even of itself, inspire the desire for peace and a love for it.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. It is always interestring to learn more about the congregations of women who shaped Catholism in the 'New' World. I am wondering, thought, what happened to the schools and hospitals after the nuns were'no longer required to be either teachers or nurses?' did they sell them, change them into something else? I look forward to the next chapter of your orders history!
God Bless you,

Susan Rose Francois, CSJP said...

Good question!

As to the hospitals, we still sponsor a 5 hospital system in the northwest and one hospital in new jersey. Sisters make up a substantial portion of the boards and they are still Catholic hospitals. There are also sisters on the staff of both the hospital system and the hospitals.

As to the schools, my umderstanding out west at least is that we never "owned" the schools. We staffed diocesan schools. Now they are mostly staffed by lay teachers, although we still do have some sisters who are teachers.

Here in New Jersey we still run a home for the aged, the school for the blind and a number of other ministries. We collaborate with lay people to staff these missions.

Anonymous said...

Sister, What an inspiring story about your Congregation's founding. I'm sure it was deeply sad and painful for many when your beloved foundress realized that hers was not a vocation to Catholicism. I must say that in all of my studies (Ph.D. church history), I'd not before come across that particular final chapter in anyone else's story.

Since he figures even more prominently than Peace in your title, I would love to hear more about what good Saint Joseph means to you and your Sisters and how he assists you in forming your Congregational identity as well. Would you do us the favor of commenting on that, please? I will indeed enjoy reading about that.

Susan Rose Francois, CSJP said...

thanks for the invite to spend some time with Joseph! See this post: http://actjustly.blogspot.com/2010/01/st-joseph.html