Essays on the History and Heritage of the sisters of Saint Joseph
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Essays on the History and Heritage of The Sisters of Saint Joseph
Introduction Suggested Readings
Early History
Early History Essay
Early History Suggested Readings
The Twentieth-Century College Experience
The Twentieth-Century College Experience Essay
The Twentieth-Century College Experience Suggested Readings
CSJ/SSJ Sponsored Institutions of Higher Learning: A Future Heritage
CSJ/SSJ Sponsored Institutions of Higher Learning: A Future Heritage Essay
CSJ/SSJ Sponsored Institutions of Higher Learning: A Future Heritage Suggested Readings


Essays on the History and Heritage of
The Sisters of Saint Joseph

Jeffrey Marlett, The College of Saint Rose
Ernest Collamati, Regis College

      In life and death we belong to God. As a religious order of women within the Roman Catholic Church, the Sisters of Saint Joseph possess and follow certain beliefs. In turn these direct and guide the Sisters and the institutions they have founded. One of the most basic of these beliefs holds that we do not live our lives for ourselves, nor even for our close circle of family and friends. We live for God, and therefore we live to serve others. While this admittedly is rarely easy, the Sisters, as Christians, claim that we are not alone—in this life or in facing the demands it places on us. In Jesus, God came to live and die with us. Jesus gave himself completely to those who followed him. Likewise, those who follow Jesus today—and the Sisters do follow Jesus—are asked to give themselves to serve others. This service takes many forms. The colleges founded by the Sisters provide particularly good examples of this diversity, as it includes intellectual, social, and spiritual expressions.
The story of God's love comes to us in the Gospel stories within the Christian New Testament of the Bible. The word "gospel" comes from an old English word "God spell" or "Good News." The New Testament's original language was Greek, but the Greek equivalent--"euangelion" or "evangel"--means the same thing: good news. Usually the word "evangelist" brings to mind images of television preachers, asking for money and making dubious claims about healing or financial gain. The Sisters of Saint Joseph focus instead on the word's original meaning of "good news."
      What is that good news? God loves the world so much that God entered the world to live amongst us. The Gospel stories of Jesus' life and death describe what that entailed. Jesus gave himself utterly and completely for others. In the Gospels, Jesus appears as "the Christ" or the "anointed One" of God. Through Jesus, God showed us what it meant to be human and what humans could do for each other. Therefore, Christian life is one lived joyously for others.
      The Incarnation comforts, but it also challenges—the birds have trees, the foxes have holes, and everything in creation has a place to rest, except the Son of God and those who follow him (Luke 9:57-58). Living the Christian life very well might lead to deprivation, even death. Still, when called by God to serve others, Christians have little choice but to follow. Since their founding, the Sisters of Saint Joseph understood the sacrifices they might need to make. That story continues to influence the educational institutions founded by the Sisters of Saint Joseph.
      God acts for us and for the world. This appears most clearly and paradigmatically with the story of Jesus, who lived, loved, and died for others. But what to do with this? The answers Christians have given ever since help to explain Christianity's great diversity. Protestants look to Scripture's words. Pentecostals and charismatics prefer the Spirit's unique movement within each person's soul. Roman Catholics have the Church. For many reasons these differences are important. We need to remember our own identities as we learn from others. The Sisters of Saint Joseph are Roman Catholic women who have taken certain vows linking themselves to the Church, each other, and those they serve. Those relationships remain important for the institutions founded by the Sisters. To manage these and their relationships, many sisters today refer to the "discerning practicality" repeatedly emphasized in the spiritual formation exercises of the order's early years. This inspires a quiet confidence: in living for others, God provides for our needs (Matthew 6:24-33).
      Beyond all the differences, though, it seems pretty clear that Christians are called to follow Jesus. But what shape should this following take? Christians have asked this question repeatedly. Recently a popular bracelet bore the initials: WWJD? for "What Would Jesus Do?" Again, the Gospel offers a clear answer: serve others selflessly. Jesus did give his life for his friends. "Serve" and "sacrifice" share meanings as well as confusion. "Sacrificing oneself," though, obviously carries some rather negative images. Women especially have experienced oppression because of cultural and religious demands that they sacrifice their own interests in order to further the interests of others (usually men). The New Testament, though, indicates that "self-sacrifice" has more concrete, and certainly more liberative, images for service: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and helping the poor. Over the years Christians have been criticized—often rightly—for their inability or unwillingness to help, stand up for, or struggle along with, the persecuted, oppressed, and marginalized. Events such as the Holocaust and the enslavement of African-Americans stain the history of Christianity. Theological assertions that women are not created to image God as fully as men or that women may not image Jesus Christ as fully as men continue to limit women's ministries in the Church. Colleges and universities employ many people dubious of Christianity's claims because of such atrocities and attitudes. Remembering and observing the original and simple call of God to serve others as Jesus did remains vital, for that is one honest way such criticisms may be acknowledged and avoided. When the Sisters of Saint Joseph renew their vows annually, they remind themselves of this original call to service. That commitment appears throughout the order's history. Even though the cultural context and the particular needs of their work changed through the centuries, their readiness and commitment to their ministries remained the same.
      It is important to remember that the stories of Jesus' life are called "gospels". It is really "good news"! From internal as well as external perspectives, Christianity often seems cramped, mean, gloomy, dreary, and perhaps even pointless. There are groups who pull out Scripture verses to comfort themselves when facing such charges. However, as Catholic Christians the Sisters of Saint Joseph tend to focus on the joy and beauty that comes from the Christian life. A "Catholic college" in this perspective seeks to embrace and celebrate life's diversity instead of separating from that diversity. The particularly Catholic character of the Sisters' commitments provides a transformative and liberative model for the colleges they have founded.
      A unique source for this joyous perspective on the Christian life comes from the Sisters' particular place within Catholicism's spiritual traditions. Often "spirituality" gets separated from "religion" to such an extent where "spirituality" is an individualistic and personal quest, aloof from any communal or traditional guidance, while "religion" describes traditionalist and confining systems of social control. The Catholic tradition, like most other global religious movements, usually sees spirituality growing out of religion. That is to say that, so long as certain communal and traditional guidelines are observed, all sorts of spiritual growth can and does occur. The Sisters of Saint Joseph are no different, taking inspiration from two significant Catholic spiritual traditions: the Ignatian and the Salesian.
      The Sisters of Saint Joseph used both traditions to create a new spirituality for Catholic women, emphasizing activity, practicality, and spiritual exploration. All Catholic colleges provide for theological and spiritual education. Those founded by the Sisters of Saint Joseph take unique shape in their equal emphasis on the intellectual and social elements of the religious sphere of life. Catholicism's hierarchical structure suffers from both internal abuse and external stereotypes. Recent revelations concerning administrative failures have undermined the confidence and loyalty Catholics have in their leaders. Some non-Catholics persist in thinking that all Catholics blindly follow all directions from the Catholic clergy. The misperceptions and mistrust occasionally extend to Catholic higher education. Scholars and students might fear that Catholic colleges restrict personal and intellectual freedoms. Religious freedom, of course, seems threatened by any educational institution that advances a particular religious perspective in the classroom. American culture is awash with negative stereotypes of Catholic education: uniforms, mind-numbing rituals and routines, priests and nuns wielding tyrannical powers, the discouragement of speculative and challenging intellectual endeavors. All Catholic colleges confront these problems. The institutions founded by the Sisters of Saint Joseph possess the order's unique spiritual traditions to help address them.
      One starting point might be revising the notion that a Catholic college is a hierarchy at all. Of course, there are college presidents, academic deans, faculty members, administrative and support staff, and students. In this a Catholic college is no different than any other higher education institution. These groups may or may not work together for the institution's health. In some cases, such as labor issues, there are competing interests. The American assumptions of independence and self-sufficiency surely influence all of us. The Gospel, though, adds another challenge to Catholic colleges: each group must not only work for itself, but also for the benefit of others. "Service" is not applied only at the personal level. Group constituencies must serve others. The result appears more like a web than a hierarchy; instead of a "top" and "bottom" with layers in between, each group within the college community relates with all the others. Faculty, staff, and administration works to serve the students. They in turn learn how to serve others "in the real world". Each group follows unique opportunities for service. Some are less immediate or less obvious than others. Jesus' ministry and gospel provides the unifying center for the Catholic college, for the core truth of that message is service for others.
      Beyond that, Catholic colleges participate in the Second Vatican Council's call to engage the modern world and all its diversity. Despite the stereotypes, it is important to notice that Catholics, and thus Catholic institutions like colleges and universities, receive this call. Intellectual exploration cannot be discouraged in such settings, for that is precisely what the Church asks all Catholics to do. Recalling the joyous element of the Christian life celebrated by the Sisters, the Vatican Council declared (in 1965) that the Catholic church wanted to engage all sorts of non-Catholics in conversation. The world obviously suffers from many problems. Catholic institutions possess resources for tackling them. Universal agreement will not come easily. After all, groups cannot be expected to surrender deeply held beliefs and traditions just to enter a debate. Still, these conversations constitute the very core of education—the exchange of ideas. Combined with the Sisters' unique spiritual paths, that commitment makes the Catholic colleges they founded a potent educational tradition.


Suggested additional reading for introduction

Coburn, Carol K., and Martha Smith. Spirited Lives: How Nuns Shaped Catholic Culture and American Life, 1836-1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Langan, John P., SJ, editor. Catholic Universities in Church and Society: A Dialogue on Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Washington, DC. Georgetown University Press, 1993.

Massa, Mark S., SJ. Catholics and American Culture: Fulton Sheen, Dorothy Day, and the Notre Dame Football Team. New York, NY: Crossroad, 1999.

Placher, William C. Unapologetic Theology: Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1989.

Tilley, Terrence W. Inventing Catholic Tradition. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000.

Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents. rev. ed. Austin Flannery, OP, editor. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992.

Webb, Stephen H. Taking Religion to School: Christian Theology and Secular Education. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2001.


Early History Essay

Essays on the History and Heritage of The Sisters of Saint Joseph


Mary McKay, CSJ, Mount St. Mary's College Eleanor Dooley, SSJ, Elms College

      This paper will address the early history of the Sisters of St. Joseph founded in Le Puy, France in 1650. It is important at the outset to reflect upon the significance of the congregation's original charism which continues to inspire Sisters of St. Joseph and is the source of what they are able to accomplish today. In Christian thought, a charism is a gift of the Holy Spirit given to an individual or a group, for the good of the whole Christian community. Every religious congregation believes it has received a special charism, by which its members live out their particular mission. The mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph has been described as that of "moving always towards a profound love of God and love of one's 'dear neighbor' without distinction" and of "uniting neighbor with neighbor and neighbor with God."
      A well-known contemporary Sister of St. Joseph, Helen Prejean (author of the book Dead Man Walking), representing thousands of sisters, is a living witness to the vitality of her congregation's charism. Her reverence for the sanctity of every human life compelled her to act courageously, to speak openly in opposition to the death penalty. She sees the person on death row as her "dear neighbor," her brother or sister in Christ. Her profound love for every person mirrors the love manifested by the first sisters serving God's people in Le Puy, France. The charism today is no less vibrant than it was in 1650, thanks to the enabling inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
      Although the Sisters of St. Joseph name 1650 as the year of their foundation, the seed was sown earlier when small groups of women with attentive hearts, directed by an enlightened spiritual guide, Jean Pierre Medaille of the Society of Jesus, secretly committed themselves to live an interior vowed life nourished by works of charity. "The members of this group, the company of the Blessed Sacrament, were unknown even to one another, except two or three within each group, and their superiors." The grace of 1650 was that the sacred commitment of a few women would no longer be secret. Until this time religious congregations of women were cloistered. The Sisters of St. Joseph were one of the first "apostolic" women's congregations, dedicated to serving others through charitable works. This foundation resulted from the cooperation of a few persons who each responded to the promptings of the Holy Spirit: the discerning Father Medaille; the enlightened Bishop Henri de Maupas, bishop of the Le Puy area; and the secretly vowed group of six generous women joined by a few others. Sr. Therese Vacher alludes to Fr. Medaille's attention to the mystery within him and the others: "Knowing these women, and knowing Bishop de Maupas, Father Medaille dared to bring together [the] first six women under the Bishop's authority to form the Sisters of St. Joseph."
      Father Medaille, in speaking with these sisters, encouraged them to be "entirely for God and for the dear neighbor," which implies the emptying of themselves. He referred to this goal as the "Little Design." Maxim 24, one of the hundred "maxims of perfection" chosen by Father Medaille for the Sisters of St. Joseph, seems to summarize the spirit of the new congregation. It reads, "Be utterly given to God by a holy self-surrender, utterly for God by a love pure and completely unselfish, utterly in God by a continuing effort to be more conscious of His presence, utterly according to God by a will, a life and everything conformed to him."
      Father Medaille further counseled the Sisters to live in a "hidden" way. Theirs was to be an unassuming presence, hidden as Jesus is hidden yet totally present in the Eucharist. The Eucharistic Letter of Father Medaille, one of the original documents which helped shape the spirit of Sisters of St. Joseph, reflects on this attitude of "hiddenness. "Apparently used by some but not all the first groups, it [the Eucharistic Letter] resonates with Father Medaille's statement that the congregation 'grew from the Blessed Sacrament'." Meditating on the Eucharist, Medaille told the sisters that God was inviting them to cultivate a rich interior life and not be concerned about public recognition. In fact, Sister Patricia Byrne, in speaking of the early sisters, states that "those who perpetuated the traditions are preserved for history in a garb of unrelieved ordinariness, in which the face of the community is more visible than that of any of the individuals who formed it."
      The kind of "hiddenness" counseled by Fr. Medaille had nothing to do with withdrawal from the public arena where people needed the sisters' services. Rather it was one manifestation of two virtues which had an important place in the founding documents and in the lives of the sisters – humility and simplicity. Fr. Medaille apparently admired the joyful, simple humility which characterized the popular French bishop and spiritual teacher Francis de Sales (1567-1622). He was also deeply influenced by the founder of his own religious order, the Spanish reformer and spiritual teacher Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556). From his Ignatian tradition, Medaille absorbed an attitude of zeal, dedication to discovering and wholeheartedly doing God's will. Medaille passed on to the women in the new community both of these spiritual orientations. From the beginning, Sisters of St. Joseph integrated and gave life to this "Ignatian-Salesian spirituality," described in the 20th century Consensus Statement as "an orientation toward excellence, tempered by gentleness, peace, joy."
      After Father Medaille had confided to him this "Little Design" being created in his diocese, Bishop de Maupas was moved to approve "the presence of a congregation of women at the Montferrand Hospital under the name and title of the Filles de St. Joseph." The bishop exhorted the sisters to love all those whom they served with the same love that Joseph had for Jesus and Mary. Thus the Apostolic Congregation of the Great Love of God known as the Sisters of St. Joseph was officially established in southern France. Six women
– Ana Vey, Ana Brun, Ana Chaleyer, Clauda Chastal, Jeanne Vurdier and Francoise Eyraud
– committed themselves to God and to service, this time through public vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Congregational archives hold the names of the first sisters in a notarized act dated December 13, 1651, at which time the "community of life and goods" was established among the contracting parties.
      Sister Patricia Byrne states that the Sisters of St. Joseph were designated as "hospitallers" which means that "they were engaged in the type of charitable assistance furnished by hospitals of the day, which were catch-alls for every kind of social problem connected with poverty. As hospitallers, Sisters of St. Joseph embraced a wide variety of educational and charitable activities in diverse types of communities, whether formal city houses or tiny establishments in parishes throughout the countryside." The ministry of the sisters embraced education in the broadest sense of the term – a leading from the unknown to the known. The newly professed women led others to a new freedom as minds and hearts were opened in hospitals, schools, orphanages, prisons. Wherever there was a need these women would see it as their privilege to serve.
      The grace-filled impact of the founding sisters is all the more inspiring when we consider that most could not read or write and were obliged to make a cross under their names. Only one, Clauda Chastel, was able to sign her name. Who could measure, however, the innate intelligence of these women and the power of God to effect extraordinary achievements through them? Who could have envisioned that these women in mid-seventeenth century France would give birth to a congregation whose members would, four hundred years later, be recognized along with women of other religious congregations as perhaps the single most highly educated group in the United States. This latter statement is alluded to in Spirited Lives when the authors state, "Although historically almost invisible, America Sisters were some of the best educated and most publicly active women of their time." And this education was undertaken for a sole purpose, the greater Glory of God and the more effective service of the dear neighbor.
      The first sisters learned what it meant to be "apostolic religious" in the midst of their neighbors, among whom they lived. They resided in small simple houses. In their homes they prayed together and while they served those in need, they continued their prayer by communing interiorly with Christ. Their poverty was one of detachment, emphasizing freedom and trust. Many sisters were able to make a modest living through their lace and ribbon making. Their dress was that of the widows in the locale. Due to the many wars at the time, widows were numerous and their dress the most common. "Without challenging the established role of women, they widened it. Contributing their part to religious life for women by legitimizing it outside the cloister, they added to the life of women in general by securing the foothold by which a daughter of the common people could gain access to the professions."
      The positive influence of the sisters touched women who were drawn by the grace of the Holy Spirit to embrace their way of life. Small rural communities began to appear in significant numbers, each one engendering another in response to an obvious unmet need or a bishop's request. These small communities maintained their independence while they assisted each other spiritually and materially. During the first several decades of the community's formal organization, there seem to have also been other groups of pious women associated with the sisters who participated in their good works and to some degree in their way of life. Freedom from legal strictures facilitated the sisters' integration into a given area and into a particular Church community.
      The Sisters of St. Joseph were established in the middle of the seventeenth century. Seventeenth-century France evokes the grandeur and the glory that one associates with the Sun-King, Louis XIV. One thinks of the flowering of classical literature, of baroque architecture, of the fine arts, of renowned salons. However, the country would experience in the years to come contrasting realities: dire misery, hunger, plagues, the exorbitant cost of food, peasant unrest, and other injustices, all of which contributed to the tragic ending of the eighteenth century. The suffering of the people gave way to rumblings against the aristocracy and the demands that the aristocracy was imposing upon the common people.
      King Louis XVI, who reigned in the late eighteenth century, appeared to be deaf to the reality of his intensely suffering people. The situation continued to worsen. The seeds of the French Revolution had been sown and had begun to burst forth in rebellion. Priests were obliged to give allegiance to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. The year 1792 marked a critical moment for the Sisters of St. Joseph. All their apostolic works were suppressed and the sisters themselves were obliged to disperse. During this time of social turbulence, one poor, obscure convent, in St. Vallier, continued nevertheless to survive. Its small group of sisters was able to remain hidden. These women demonstrated great courage, in light of the fact that already five Sisters of St. Joseph had suffered death at the guillotine. Indeed the superior, Mother St. John Fontbonne, was released from prison the day before she was scheduled to be guillotined. Her release was due to the death of Robespierre.
      In 1807, in the midst of extreme social and economic misery, Cardinal Fesch asked Mother St. John Fontbonne to refound the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Aware of the good works accomplished by the Sisters, the Cardinal believed that this group of women could restore life to the Church of France. Mother St. John, who had been living with her parents for fifteen years, must have deeply discerned God's will for her as she courageously responded to the Cardinal's request.
      One of Mother St. John's first undertakings was to create a novitiate. She accepted into the novitiate twelve women previously known as the Black Daughters, lay women who had worked hard not only for their own support but for that of others. This initial step in the refounding of the congregation opened the way toward an extraordinary second chapter in the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph. By the time of Mother Fontbonne's death in 1843, the new motherhouse in Lyons had overseen the establishment of more than 200 houses of some 3000 sisters, some of whom had constituted the original foundation. The sisters attributed this remarkable growth to the Holy Spirit working in them.
      Like the sisters in the "first foundation," the sisters in the "second foundation" of the Sisters of St. Joseph undertook a variety of works intended to promote freedom from all forms of oppression, union between persons, and union with God. "Apart from prayer," Sister Patricia Byrne says, "if these women gave time to reflection on their lives, it must have been on their feet in the midst of work. It was not until the twentieth century that Sisters of St. Joseph were able to command enough leisure to secure a strong base of advanced education within their own communities. The first written work devoted specifically to the congregation was done by a priest: Canon Rivaux's Histoire de la reverende mere les Sacre Coeur de Jesus, which did not appear until 1878, more than two hundred twenty-five years after the foundation."
      Divine activity is manifest in this history of women caring for those otherwise ignored or dismissed by their society, and at the same time breaking the centuries-old mold of cloistered religious life for women. The women who founded and then refounded the congregation were pioneers sustained and driven by grace. The Spirit of God shines forth in the bold history of these Sisters of St. Joseph as they tried to faithfully live the "little design" of Gospel love.


Suggested readings for Early History

French Roots of a Women's Movement: The Sisters of St. Joseph 1650 - 1836. Patricia Byrne, CSJ. Ph.D. dissertation, Boston College, 1985. Available from U.M.I. Dissertation Service, 300 N. Zeeb Road, Ann Arbor, MI 48106.

McCloskey, Kathleen, CSJ. "Excellence Tempered by Gentleness." Paper presented at the national meeting of the Association of Colleges of Sisters of St. Joseph, June 1998.

McKay, Mary, CSJ. "Ignatian-Salesian Spirituality and the Sisters of St. Joseph." Paper presented at the national meeting of the Association of Colleges of Sisters of St. Joseph, June, 2000.

Primitive Documents of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Currently available version of these documents: "Writings of Jean-Pierre Medaille," Second Printing 1995, from Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto, 3377 Bayview Avenue, Willowdale, Ontario, Canada.

Quinlan, Eileen, CSJ. "Spirituality of the Institute with a Focus on Humility." Paper presented at the C/SSJ Federation Summer Institute, Rochester, NY, 1980.



Carol Coburn, Avila Univeristy

      During the last century Catholic women's religious communities in the United States founded approximately 200 colleges. American sisterhoods have established more than half of the existing Catholic colleges and universities, which currently educate over 250,000 students. Although most are now coeducational, almost all were originally founded to educate young women. These American institutions constitute about half of the total number of colleges founded worldwide by Catholic sisters.1 Their nineteenth-century secondary academies became the major springboard to the creation of Catholic women's colleges, particularly those founded before 1930 – this includes the majority of the colleges founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph.
      In the 1870s, one of five college students was female and by 1920, forty-seven percent of all college students were women. This was a hard won battle fought among American educators, physicians, theologians, social scientists, politicians, feminists and the general public who debated the appropriateness of higher education for women. Issues involving women's nature, women's place, biological determinism, psychological gender differences, divine or natural law, race suicide, and public morality all contributed to the discussions. Middle-class and wealthy Americans of various religious persuasions entered into the fray and although Catholic colleges for women developed later than other women's colleges, coeducational institutions, and Catholic men's colleges, the gender aspects of the discussion were strikingly similar – crossing all theological lines.
      From 1870 to 1900, opponents of higher education for women focused on biological and sometimes theological arguments, viewing female education as a direct challenge to the traditional place of women in American society and in the patriarchal, Judeo-Christian family. Even in polite circles, the "womb" took center stage. A group of physicians and psychologists, writing between 1871 and 1904, warned of the dire physical consequences awaiting women who attended colleges, particularly coeducational institutions. Charles Darwin concluded that motherhood disadvantaged females and through natural selection they gradually fell behind the male. Former Harvard professor, Dr. Edward Clarke labeled women's higher education "a crime before God and humanity," and so damaging to the "female apparatus" that American males would have to "import European women to be mothers of the race." Brain measurements were taken, mental and physical breakdown assured, and the medical and psychiatric establishment published "scientific data" proving that women had smaller brains, and were subject to "over-brain work." The "womb doctors" claimed that the uterus was a great power that dominated a woman's mental and physical life, resulting in a weak, submissive, and generally inferior person.
      Nevertheless, by the early 1900s coeducation had become the norm in collegiate settings, particularly in the Midwest and West where public institutions welcomed women students whose tuition helped keep the colleges solvent. Male college administrators and faculty fearful of the "feminization of academia" began worrying about having "too many women" on campus and the resulting "unfair advantage" to males. Therefore, the biological doom argument was replaced with cultural and theological warnings that women in higher education resulted in "mannish" females, "effeminate" men, flirtations, promiscuity, early marriages, lack of marriages, dissatisfied wives and mothers, assertive females, emasculated males and/or sexually uncontrollable males, and other potential violations of "divine law." Although most of these sometimes contradictory fears coalesced around gender ideology, "race suicide" was also predicted since college-educated white women, not only married less, but also had fewer children. This argument was not only taken seriously by many but had the support of President Theodore Roosevelt, who publicly attacked the birth control movement and "selfish women."
      Consequently, by the early decades of the twentieth century, American higher education consisted of a mixture of public and private institutions that included single-sex colleges, coordinate colleges (i.e. Radcliffe and Harvard), coeducational colleges with gender segregated curricula, and coeducational institutions with identical curricula. Although the Catholic church strongly espoused single-sex institutions taught by male and female religious, just as it did for younger students, the burgeoning Catholic middle class still wrestled with the feasibility of higher education for women and how that impacted women's traditional role of wife and mother in the Catholic home. Although placed within Catholic theological and social discourse, the debates about women's higher education were similar to the discussion in the larger public culture and included liberal and conservative factions with Catholic hierarchy found on both sides of the issue. Even though the majority of the clergy and laity tended to be conservative on this issue, proponents of women's higher education did have outspoken advocates in the hierarchy, notably Bishops John Ireland and John Lancaster Spalding.
      Regardless of the volley of rhetoric within Catholic circles, by the mid-1890s, three factors forced open the door to the creation of Catholic women's colleges. First, Catholic laywomen were already attending college in state or non-Catholic private institutions and this was deemed a threat to the faith and found unacceptable by many conservative clerics and laity. Second, nuns, who were increasingly required to obtain college coursework and degrees to meet professional state accreditation in education, also were attending secular institutions. Third, no existing Catholic college or university admitted women, except in small numbers for summer or off-campus sessions. In 1895, when Catholic University opened the college to laymen but continued to bar women, the sisterhoods with the help of supportive bishops took matters into their own hands.
      When the College of Notre Dame of Maryland began offering the first four-year program for women, graduating its first class in 1899, other sisterhoods followed. Aided by a small but powerful group of bishops and male clergy, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur opened Trinity College in 1900. Unlike most other Catholic women's colleges, Trinity did not evolve from a sisters' secondary academy. Modeling its curriculum and structure after some "Seven Sister" colleges, the nuns created it to function as a "coordinate college" to Catholic University in Washington. Terrified of having women students within a half-mile of Catholic University, the conservative Catholic press charged that "women students would present a danger to the university men" and might have the audacity "to apply to the university's graduate school."
      Desperate to provide formal college training for their sisters and motivated to continue their legacy of education for Catholic girls and women, sister-sponsored colleges expanded rapidly in the early twentieth century. With the exception of the larger requirements of philosophy and theology courses, the curriculum at Catholic women's colleges looked remarkably like the curricular offerings at other women's colleges throughout the nation. Although the quality of the institutions varied widely, by 1918, fourteen women's colleges were listed as accredited by the Catholic Education Association, almost all located in the East and Midwest. In 1905, the Sisters of St. Joseph founded their first college in the United States, the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, and eventually the C/SSJ communities created approximately twenty colleges, the last ones founded in the 1960s.2
      Although the history of Catholic women's colleges occurs mostly after 1920, the first two decades of the twentieth century laid the foundation for many colleges that would follow. Attempting to create viable institutions for a sometimes skeptical and reluctant clergy and laity, these early colleges struggled to secure funding, students, academic credibility, support of clergy, and trained faculty. C/SSJ colleges and other colleges begun by women religious have some common aspects. Most colleges begun by nuns placed a severe strain on community finances. As had been true of their private secondary academies, women religious had to finance almost the entire cost of creating and maintaining these institutions. Eventually the colleges became sites to train young sisters inexpensively, particularly for the parochial school system, but the training was never fast enough to meet the demands and pressures from parish clergy. Some clergy resented these colleges and felt that they took money, energy and the best teachers away from the parish schools. Accusing the sisters of selfishness and wasted energy, other clergy felt higher education was unnecessary, wasted on females, and over prepared the nuns for parish school teaching. Like some secular male administrators, some clergy preferred young, inexperienced, and compliant sisters to staff their schools. Time taken for professional development was time away from serving parish children. Additionally, to staff their secondary academies and colleges most sisters had to complete graduate work at secular colleges whose expense strained community coffers. Although only the brightest of the sisters were groomed for college faculty, the C/SSJ communities spent years and thousands of dollars to prepare sisters adequately. It was a huge investment made on each prospective faculty member but it placed Catholic nuns far above the national average of American women who held masters and doctoral degrees. In spite of the financial struggles, sisters built these colleges on their own, surviving interfering clerics, lay Catholic ambivalence about women's education, the Great Depression and World War II.
      The post-war era created a new set of challenges and new directions for the sisterhoods and their colleges. In the 1950s, nuns on college faculties were demanding more professional training and support for their sisters who supported the vast number of post-secondary institutions, including hospital-based nursing schools, and teacher-training institutes. In the 1950s and early '60s, the C/SSJs and most large sisterhoods actively participated in the Sister Formation Conference (SFC) – a grassroots, semi-autonomous organization created under the auspices of the National Catholic Education Association. Advocating and supporting advanced training for sisters in all professional fields, the SFC provided opportunities for women religious to work closely with each other to acquire more advanced training for all sisters and the students they served. By the mid-1960s, the burgeoning demographics of the baby-boom generation created the need for more post-secondary institutions even as the American social climate negated single-sex education in favor of coeducation. Many Catholic women's colleges were reluctant to change, but as more Catholic men's colleges opened their doors to women in the 1970s, some C/SSJ colleges transitioned to coeducation to insure financial solvency. They also adapted to the growing new educational trends, including increases in student ethnic and racial diversity, adult education, and weekend colleges. As they had done many times before, the Sisters of St. Joseph attempted to change and refocus their educational efforts to better meet the needs of the people they served.
      In tracing the historical context of the Sisters of St. Joseph from seventeenth-century France to twentieth-century America and the founding of colleges and universities, common themes have emerged. The St. Joseph community has continued to help and work with a diverse clientele, they have used creative and innovative methods to secure funding for their institutions, they have adapted their teaching curriculum to meet the needs of the times, they have addressed and engaged in the relevant social concerns/issues, and they have often involved laywomen and laymen in their educational endeavors. These themes became even more prevalent in the last half of the century and continue to shape Catholic higher education today.
      First, the student population has continued to diversify as American demographic patterns altered dramatically in the late twentieth century. Second, the Post World War II influx of massive federal aid to higher education has made the balance between church and state control problematic but unquestionably necessary as college costs soar. Third, adult education, coeducation, and expanding technology have dramatically altered the curriculum with the Catholic liberal arts tradition fighting for survival amid the expansion of professional education, alternative and concentrated coursework, and on-line, distance education. Fourth, as American society struggled with a myriad of social issues and concerns, the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath promoted and expanded Catholic social justice teachings and lay activity, opening the door to ecumenism and other issues of the "modern world." And finally, the increasing involvement of laywomen and men in Catholic colleges has dramatically altered the profile of students, faculty, staff, administration and boards of trustees, creating discussions on the importance and definition of what it means to be a Catholic college or university and how best to address the challenges of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. As contemporary advocates of C/SSJ colleges, we are participants in a significant and critical transition in the history of these institutions. Hopefully, these important historical and contextual links will provide impetus for reflection and thought as we negotiate our way into the future.

1 Thomas Landy, "The Colleges in Context," in Catholic Women's Colleges in American edited by Tracy Schier and Cynthia Russett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 55.

2 The exact number depends on how the colleges are counted. Some began as institutions for sisters only and then expanded to lay women, others remained open only to sisters. In other cases, colleges merged with other institutions. I am using the numbers provided by Landy, "Appendix A," in Catholic Women's Colleges, 343-54. He bases his data on a compilation of federal, state and Catholic sources, including the "SSJ/CSJ Higher Education Survey Report," and various correspondence with C/SSJ provincial and college archivists.


Suggested readings for 20th Century College experience

Coburn, Carol K. "Timeline: An Historical Chronology on American Women's Education," (unpublished paper presented at the Association of Colleges of Sisters of St. Joseph National Meeting, Fontbonne University, 2000).

Gallin, Alice, editor. American Catholic Higher Education: Essential Documents, 1967-1990. University of Notre Dame Press, 1992.

Gallin, Alice. Negotiating Identity: Catholic Higher Education since 1960. University of Notre Dame Press, 2000.

Hellwig, Monika K., "Colleges of Religious Women's Congregations: The Spiritual Heritage," in Catholic Women's Colleges in America, Edited by Tracy Schier and Cynthia Russett Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002,17-24.

Kennelly, Karen J. "Faculties and What They Taught," in Catholic Women's Colleges in America, Edited by Tracy Schier and Cynthia Russett Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, 98-122.

Landy, Thomas "The Colleges in Context," in Catholic Women's Colleges in America, Edited by Tracy Schier and Cynthia Russett Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, 55-97.

Oates, Mary J. Higher Education for Catholic Women: An Historical Anthology New York: Garland Press, 1987.

Oates, Mary J. "Sisterhoods and Catholic Higher Education, 1890-1960," in Catholic Women's Colleges in America, Edited by Tracy Schier and Cynthia Russett Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, 161-194.

Schier Tracy and Cynthia Russett, Catholic Women’s Colleges in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

U. S. Catholic Historian (Special Issue) "Schools, Colleges and Universities." 13 (Fall 1995).



Shawn Madigan, CSJ, St. Catherine University

The first founding of Sisters of St. Joseph included sisters and lay women who were partners in the mission of unity and reconciliation. The second founding also included lay partnership for mission as immigrant Sisters of St. Joseph came to a new world and made mission choices for education, health care and other services that respected the context of a new world. Today, a third founding continues a tradition of varieties of forms of lay partnership and an inclusive reconciliation and unity. The context today for the future of a heritage has its effect on the mission of higher education and the possible futures for lay partnership in mission.
Two "T" words ground a basic dialogue that has begun and will continue as all of those engaged in CSJ/SSJ sponsored institutions look to the future. The first "T" embraces multiple notions of "Tradition" as it is interpreted within the Church and through the living heritage of the Sisters of St. Joseph in cooperation with lay partners. The second "T" stands for "Timing" and the discernment of what the Spirit continues to say to the community of church at this time and place.
Each "T" gives rise to a specific question. The corporate responses to each question by the many constituents of each institution will affect the kind of future that the present CSJ/SSJ sponsored institutions of higher learning can hope to form. The two questions will shape the contents of this essay and perhaps further discussion at each sponsored institution.

First Question: Tradition and tradition
What meanings of Catholic Tradition has the living CSJ/SSJ heritage embraced and how is this CatholicTradition fostered and expressed in each Catholic institution?

The discussions of Ex Corde Ecclesiae provided one forum for bringing to light the way our institutions describe and live out the meaning of "Catholic." Positively, the document and the multiple interpretations of its applications led to some role clarifications and responsibilities for local bishop, college administrators, theology departments, Campus Ministry, faculty in general, and Boards of Trustees. Negatively, the implementation of the mandatum as well as some bishops’ interpretations of preferred Catholicity of faculty, administrators, and Board Members indicated a lack of understanding about the North American educational scene that evolved out of a legal separation of church and state. Bishops disagreed among themselves regarding the implementation of "Catholic" and the nature of the mandatum, a canonical decree.
If this mandatum were a canonical decree, it should simply be given and the giving takes effect unless it is openly rejected. If it was a rescript, a request for it should occur (C 59, #2). Thus, some bishops wanted both requests and signatures of theologians, while others simply gave it in the nature of a canonical decree. As each institution handled Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a preferred model of Church was operating and an approach to Catholic tradition was manifest. College presidents are well aware of all the discussions that occurred in the last five years about the Catholic nature of higher educational institutions.
For Sisters of St. Joseph, Tradition has its origin in a Spirit who continues to speak to the churches. Tradition is not simply a past reality that gets reinterpreted, but a future reality which may reveal new things not yet imagined. Tradition includes surprises of the Spirit, God's hope for the unity and reconciliation of all people. This grounds the traditional spirituality of Sisters of St. Joseph. Until the prayer of Christ for unity of all is fully answered, Tradition unfolds hope to enlighten us all about the best way to carry on the mission of higher education.
How does the Tradition of Catholic Christianity manifest itself through our sponsored institutions of higher learning? A study done by Kathryn Miller, SSJ, in the last decade of the twentieth century indicated that CSJ/SSJ sponsored institutions of higher learning had living values of inclusive welcoming community, of appreciation for diversity, of excellence in educational endeavors and of socially responsible learners. Many students indicated that social justice and a responsibility for making the world a better place was a hallmark of their education.
Catholicity in our institutions continues to be manifest in the focus on diversity. This diversity includes not only the more common connotation of ethnic diversity and international students, but also concerns for immigrants and their first generation college students, expanding religious diversity and how to serve students whose path is not Christian, age diversity, financial diversity, and a curricular diversity that is world conscious.
This latter global consciousness has opened a door to the truly catholic nature of education. In any classroom, inculturation and global consciousness have transformed the boundaries of prior instructional modes requiring an informed learning faculty who are at ease in an ever changing world of knowledge and critique. A sense of thinking globally while acting locally continues to be a challenge of catholicity. So is the internal critique that is part of Catholic social justice practice as administration, campus ministry, International Student Offices, Human Resources, and Payroll implement justice in their own areas of expertise.
A community sense of hospitality and cooperation in learning is another face of the Catholic tradition manifest through the communal tradition of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Students who learn that people can do more together than one can do alone have a value that is transforming in their future work places. An institutional modeling of the communal value can provide a meaningful context of learning.
On a larger scale, organized cooperative ventures such as the Association of Colleges of Sisters of St. Joseph (ACSSJ) is a related model of Catholic communion, a group who unites in the mission of higher education for the good of all our institutions. A possible future of organized cooperation is still unfolding. Perhaps this group could model cooperative globalization learning opportunities for student body, faculty, administrators and Boards of Trustees. This Association might jointly staff a campus on other continents or affiliate with already organized colleges and universities in other continents. Global distance learning and student-student communication are currently available ways for instilling a living sense of reconciliation and unity of all peoples, a vital piece of the future of a heritage . Many other forms exist for Catholic Tradition filtered through the Sisters of St. Joseph tradition.
Could sponsorship become more consciously corporate as we plan for the future? Might there be a common group of selected Board Members who remain overseers of all Boards in each institution? Could this Association become a University in the model of Oxford in England, with each college retaining its own charter? What else can rise on the horizon of possibility to manifest a corporate face?
New forms of partnership and joint planning are already here as plans are being made for a future for currently sponsored institutions. As future Boards of Trustees are gathered without any dominant influence of Sisters of St. Joseph, how will awareness of Catholic Tradition be assured in those who will foster the Catholic heritage in our institutions? What role will the tradition of reconciliation and unity of all play in the recruitment of faculty, staff, administrators and Board of Trustees? In the evolution of Catholic tradition, who will decide and with what criteria which issues can be addressed by which bodies? The planning that will shape the future of our sponsored institutions is a joint responsibility, and one whose time has come.

Second Question: Timing a Transition
How can laity and sisters prepare together for full joint responsibility for lay/CSJ/SSJ co-sponsored institutions?

There are institutions whose presidents have already begun this discussion with its variety of ramifications -- canonical, legal and academic. Many Roman Catholic institutions, however, have not started the kind of discussion that joint responsibility assumes.
If the study done by the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities is accurate, approximately 59% of Catholic colleges have never discussed what happens when religious sponsors can no longer provide personnel or money to assist the mission of higher education. The June 14, 2002 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education lists 31 private colleges that have closed in the past 5 years. The details of the inept planning, management, and overseeing by a Board of Trustees which led to the demise of Mt. Scenario College are also recorded in the June 14th issue of The Chronicle. Hopefully, this learning experience can spur members of ACSSJ to continue dialogue among laity and sister partners as we plan a future together.
The question of Timing may sound like one that grows only out of a reality of diminishing numbers of sisters in the ministry of higher education. However, the Timing question is also a lay mission issue. Vatican II formally called the laity to a fullness of holiness and fullness of responsibility for the mission of the church. Higher education is part of the mission of the Church. For ACSSJ institutions, the question is which expression of partnering of sisters and laity will best effect the long term vitality of our institutions of higher education?
Will Boards of Trustees be the ultimate owners and leaders responsible for the mission of higher education in the Catholic Church? If so, what kind of preparation needs to be made so that the Tradition and heritage of Sisters of St. Joseph will be legitimately incorporated, reinterpreted and given new vitality through the laity’s call to mission?
Perhaps the members of ACSSJ will come up with a common plan for a future that retains some traveling lay and sister of St. Joseph board members who are on multiple Boards and act as integrators and communicators. Perhaps only some colleges/universities will remain "sponsored institutions" while others join with existing colleges or universities. Perhaps a shared future vision will create a variety of possibilities that are now still hidden but will emerge through corporate imagining of what can yet be as creative future educational models emerge.
Tradition assures us of one thing. The Spirit continues to speak to the church and we can hope to listen and cooperate in the vision of higher education that is our shared mission. Timing assures us that transition is already in process, and careful planning together will bring the enlightenment that is necessary to continue the mission. The time of a third refounding of Sisters of St. Joseph and new lay partnership models is now. Let the conversations continue!



American Catholic Higher Education: Essential Documents, ed. Alice Gallin. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 1992.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae Pope John Paul II. 1990 .

Guidelines Concerning the Academic Mandatum in Catholic Universities (Canon 812). Washington, DC: USCC. July, 2001.

Dennis H. Holtschneider, CM and Melanie M. Morey. "Relationship Revisited: Catholic Institutions and their Founding Congregations." AGB Occasional Paper No. 47. Washington,DC: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. Spring, 2000 John Huels. Canonical Commentary on Canon 812 and the mandatum. Paper to be published by the Canon Law Society in Proceedings in 2002.

Kathyrn MillerSSJ, "The Sisters of St. Joseph College Consortium: Mission and Image" ACCU OCCASIONAL PAPERS on Catholic Higher Education, 1993-94. Vol. 1, No. 2. December, 1995.