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Religious Life

Sisters widen circle of service


On a gray, overcast New England winter morning Charles Schuetz joined Srs. Eleanor Daniels and Joanne Gallagher around a table, here in the Sisters of St. Joseph’s Office of Sponsored Ministries, located in the Brighton neighborhood. They were eager to share their excitement about one of the religious order’s latest projects -- nine sponsored ministries -- overseen by a newly incorporated, mostly lay governing body, the Corporation for Sponsored Ministries.

Schuetz serves as executive director for the Corporation for Sponsored Ministries, Daniels is director of its mission effectiveness. Gallagher is the communications director for the local St. Joseph congregation. The sisters number more than 550 and minister throughout Greater Boston and beyond.

According to Daniels, “Co-ministry with the laity has been a hallmark of the Sisters of St. Joseph” -- long before Vatican II stressed collaboration and partnership with lay people. “Partnering with the laity goes back to our founding,” she added.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston opened a school for 200 girls in the church basement of St. Thomas Aquinas Church just four days after their arrival here in October 1873. All four nuns volunteered to come when their community in Brooklyn, N.Y., responded to a call from Boston Archbishop John Joseph Williams, who was eager to develop a Catholic school system for the rapidly growing immigrant population.

“There was a great need for education then, at the time of the great immigration,” said Daniels. “We are a congregation of the great love of God. We were founded, back in 17th-century France, on the principle of love and service to God and the ‘dear neighbor.’ We are inspired by that great love God has for us. We are all about sharing that love with an ever-widening circle of people.”

The mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston, one of unity and reconciliation of people with God and with one another, has sought to include those on society’s margins, those at the breaking point. Whether people experience brokenness and alienation at the personal or interpersonal level, or in relation to the society in which they live, the sisters and their associates offer ministry of healing, integration and unity.

The St. Joseph Sisters of Boston trace their roots to Le Puy (1651) and Lyon (1807), France; St. Louis (1836); and ultimately Boston. The sisters’ ministry of unity and reconciliation has a special focus on nonviolence, peace and social justice.

Joyfully optimistic, the sisters are determined to facilitate ongoing communication and bring divided communities together in dialogue. Prayerful, active spirituality is at the core of their charism, made concrete in everyday life. Today the sisters’ ministries are a source of hope in a world of abuse and violence, threat of war and nuclear destruction.

They have earned a reputation throughout the Boston area as outstanding educators, having staffed more than 125 educational institutions over the years. Through-out their history, God’s call has tugged at them for other ministries as well -- to immigrants, the homeless, the sick and hungry, the deaf and blind.

Like their foremothers, who hailed from the small 17th-century town of LePuy, they “are risk takers,” said Gallagher. “We’ve gone to places where nobody wanted to go.”

Added Daniels, “That meant, initially in France, going out into Le Puy’s various neighborhoods and ministering where people were suffering and dying from the plague.” Years later in Boston, the sisters cared for people in the 1918 influenza epidemic.

Working with the laity

The Corporation of Sponsored Ministries is the parent corporation that monitors two things for the sisters, mission effectiveness and quality, Schuetz explained. First considered in 1996, this new model for sponsorship was implemented in June 2000, he said.

“The Sisters of St. Joseph wanted to expand their influence outside the educational piece,” Schuetz said. “So they reorganized corporately all their ministerial structures under one corporation. In doing so they included a huge volume of the laity into their work.”

Daniels and Schuetz spend a fair amount of their time outside the office, going out to the ministry sites, presenting the heritage, history, mission and charism -- and the co-responsibility of partnering with the order.

Daniels said, “We really entrust our mission and our charism, through the corporation, to these boards of trustees.”

Entrusting frees the sisters up to look ahead, to make the future now. “We’re always asking ourselves,” Daniels said, “Who is the neighbor, the dear neighbor? What are the needs of the dear neighbor? Who will be the new dear neighbor in the future?”

There are nine sponsored ministries operating within the Corporation for Sponsored Ministries umbrella -- all serving particular “dear neighbors.” Five guidelines provide a framework under which the order can make informed decisions regarding sponsorship: commitment to the sisters’ mission and charism; commitment to the teaching, healing and prophetic mission of the church; commitment to justice and peace; commitment to effectiveness; and commitment to the quality of the ministry. Inspired by the Jesuit Jean Pierre Médaille, the sisters talk of their commitment to high standards in terms of “excellence tempered with gentleness.”

The nine sponsored ministries include:

  • Bethany Health Care Center (founded in 1916) and Bethany Hill School (founded in 1994), both located in Framingham, Mass. The health care facility provides care for the sisters, although there is an emerging lay component. The Bethany School provides educational housing for its residents while they pursue educational goals.
  • Two Montessori schools, the Merrimack Montessori School (founded in 1966), located in Haverhill, Mass; and Walnut Park Montessori School (also founded in 1966), located in Newton, Mass. Both schools provide a structure that allows freedom within limits, an educational environment that focuses on acquiring learning skills, not simply facts.
    Walnut Park is accredited by the American Montessori Society, one of 50 schools so recognized across the country.
  • The Literacy Connection (founded in 1987) provides language skills to immigrant populations all over the Boston archdiocese. With only two paid staff, more than 100 volunteers serve the program.
  • The Jackson School (founded in 1967), also located in Newton, Mass., is an elementary school, serving 260 children in grades K-6, providing academic excellence in a Catholic environment. Small class sizes encourage the spiritual, intellectual and social education of the children.
  • Mount St. Joseph Academy (founded in 1885), based next door to the motherhouse, is a private all-women’s Catholic high school serving a diverse student body of 300. Dedicated formally on the Feast of St. Joseph, March 19, 1892, the academy continues the mission of its founders “to cultivate the intellect and make a special training of the heart.”
  • Regis College (founded in 1927), based in Weston, Mass., is the only all-women’s Catholic college remaining in the archdiocese. With an enrollment of more than 1,300 students, full-time, part-time, undergraduate and graduate, Regis College today is a Catholic, liberal arts and sciences college where women form a community of scholars.
  • Fontbonne Academy (founded in1954), located in Milton, Mass., is a private secondary school for young women, dedicated “to provide an intellectual training integrated with Catholic thought and principle.” The school serves a student body of 600, including many people of color and many cultures.

Furthering the mission

Besides her communications ministry, Gallagher serves as a trustee to Fontbonne Academy, where three years ago the school’s board rewrote the mission.

“It was amazing to me to come into that group and see the partnership even with the students,” she said. “Teachers, students, parents, graduates -- the entire learning community -- including secretaries, librarians, the institutional advancement office -- everybody has an equal voice in furthering the mission,” she added. “Talk about partnering with the laity. It was all there from the beginning.”

Like her colleague Daniels, Gallagher has no doubts that empowerment of the laity animates the mission effectiveness and quality of the nine sponsored ministries, as well as the more than a hundred others. “When I entered the order in 1966, I was handed the documents of Vatican II,” Gallagher said. “We had to read them. I cut my spiritual teeth on those documents and so did the many other [Sisters of St. Joseph]. It was that spirituality that resides in the marrow of our bones.”

More than 100 years ago, four nuns of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph traveled from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Boston and founded a parish-based school in what is now Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. They were inspired then, as they are now, by a profound love of God and a joyfully optimistic belief in the power of God’s love to heal, reconcile and unify all of humankind.

Just as they made the future then, so they create the future now, ever mindful of the needs of the dear neighbor.

Free-lance journalist Chuck Colbert writes from Cambridge, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 2003