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Sisters of St. Joseph return to their roots

SEVEN SISTERS of St. Joseph in Lyon, France — Sisters Kitty Hanley, Rita Duggan, Marianne Kennah, Maureen Rainone, Margaret Vincent, Kate Arseneau, and Shirley Maloney — with a statue of Mother St. John Fontbonne. The Sisters of St. Joseph were founded by Rev. Jean Peter Medaille, SJ, in 1650 in LePuy, France. The congregation grew, but had to disband during the French Revolution when several Sisters were guillotined. Mother St. John "refounded" the community in Lyon after the revolution.

Every Sister of St. Joseph in the world traces her origin to a tiny city in south central France, LePuy en Velay.

There, in 1650, a young Jesuit priest named Rev. Jean Pierre Medaille gathered six women he had met in his travels as an itinerant preacher. These women wished to be religious -- but they desired active service to God's people, not the cloister that was normal for women of that time.

Guided by Father Medaille, the six women became the first Congregation of St. Joseph --- the "little design," as he called them. Their first gathering place, a kitchen, is preserved today as a place of pilgrimage for "CSJs" from all over the world.

When I was asked to facilitate a retreat in LePuy, my response was instantaneous: What a privilege. So, we gathered: 16 sisters and ministry partners from all over the U.S. and Canada. Five sisters from the Albany province were a part of the group: Sisters Kate Arseneau, Rita Duggan, Marianne Kennah, Margaret Vincent and Maureen Rainone.

We stayed at the Centre International in LePuy, a house given by the Sisters of St. Joseph from the original community in LePuy. Pilgrims all, each one came with an open heart and a deep desire to touch the very wellsprings of our spirituality.

Our days were reflective and fascinating. Each day, we gathered for input and reflected on aspects of our history; we delighted in reading original documents from the order's early days, and talked with one another about the challenges those first sisters faced.

Then we walked into the heart of LePuy to visit our holy places: the Romanesque Cathedral; a tiny chapel dedicated to St.Michael; the Jesuit church, the first one in France; the original kitchen, still preserved as it was; and others.

In each place, we prayed and sang. Tradition has it that the hymn "Salve Regina" was first sung in LePuy; old hymnals still call it "the LePuy hymn."

LePuy is fascinating in itself; it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the starting places for the Camino de Santiago, the 500-mile pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James at Compostella in Spain.

It is noted for bobbin lace, a delicate art still practiced today. The first sisters taught lace-making to women so they could support themselves; our pilgrimage included visits to several lace shops so we could bring bits of our heritage home to friends.

During those days, we relived our sacred story. We returned home filled with gratitude.

(Sister Kitty is the former director of St. Bernard's Institute of Theology and Ministry in Albany; she now co-directs Holy Ground, a new formation program for spiritual directors in the Albany Diocese. For information, call 518-489-4431.)


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