The Sisters of St. Joseph
With the rest of their Sisters in Christ throughout the world, the sisters of Saint Joseph of the Diocese of Brooklyn stemmed originally from a Congregation founded in 1650 in Le Puy-en-Velay, in southwestern France. Their founder was the Reverend Jean-Pierre Medaille, S.J., and their episcopal patron was Bishop Henri de Maupas, biographer of St. Francis de Sales and personal friend of St. Vincent de Paul.
The first century of their existence found the new Sisters of Saint Joseph spreading throughout the provinces of France, each successive foundation offering itself to the local bishop to be used according to the needs of the moment. Teaching was only one of their works; they cared for orphans, conducted homes for working girls, catechized prisoners, taught trades to the handicapped, nursed the sick.
The French Revolution brought severe suffering to the Congregation. At least five Sisters of Saint Joseph were martyred at the guillotine. Tracked down and thrown into prison, Mother Saint John Fontbonne was sentenced to die at the guillotine, but the fall of Robespierre saved her. She lived to be honored as the second founder of the Congregation when more peaceful times enabled her to establish a permanent motherhouse at Lyons.
In 1836 the Sisters of Saint Joseph were asked to work in the American missions. Among the pioneer Sisters who made a foundation in Carondelet, Missouri, were two of Mother Saint John Fontbonne's own nieces.
The Know-Nothing agitation against Catholics was at its height in the late summer of 1856 when three young Sisters of Saint Joseph stepped off the Peck Slip Ferry at the foot of South Seventh Street in Williamsburg to take charge of a small academy, St. Mary's, on Grand Street near Graham Avenue.
Under the supervision of Sister Hortensia Tello and the guidance of Bishop Loughlin, vocations appeared immediately.
As novices in Williamsburgh, the Sisters had heard the stage coaches rumble by on their way to Flushing, and all remembered an exciting day in 1860 when Bishop Loughlin told Mother Austin about an attractive school property for sale in St. Michael's parish. Encouraged by Rev. James O'Beirne, pastor of St. Michael's, Mother Austin transferred the motherhouse, novitiate, and academy to the former St. Thomas Hall, at the corner of Jamaica and Sanford Avenues.
During the 1870's and 80's, small groups of Sisters left Flushing regularly to open new schools in the Diocese or to staff older schools formerly conducted by lay personnel. First the Eastern District of Brooklyn, and then the thriving parishes downtown, and then the outlying sections of Bedford, Flatbush, and South Brooklyn, clamored for Sisters.
The Sisters Come to OLPH
In the 1890's, at the request of Father John B. Daily, C.SS.R., two Sisters of St. Joseph journeyed from the nearby parish of St. john the Evangelist to supervise the Sunday School of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The zeal of these two early pioneers, Sister Rose Geraldine and Sister Mary Ursula, was apparent to both priests and people. In September, 1903, therefore, Reverend Mother Mary Louis answered the appeal of the Redemptorist Fathers and sent seven Sisters to open the parochial school. Four hundred forty-nine children awaited their teachers that memorable opening day.
As no house was available for the Sisters, they willingly established their living quarters on the top floor of the school. The "convent" above the classrooms was soon vacated for more spacious quarters in the old rectory. In 1921 the dream of a new convent was realized and by the mid 1950's it sheltered thirty-seven Sisters of St. Joseph who trained the minds and hearts of over twenty-five hundred children.
This increased registration had made it necessary to add a wing to the existing school building on 6th Avenue.
In 1956 the construction of OLPH High School was completed. The Sisters of St. Joseph agreed to supply some of the teachers that would be needed. Then, in 1958, the parish added the Annex to our grammar school. The Annex was for the seventh and eighth grades.
100 Years and Counting . . .
Throughout the years the sisters tirelessly guided the academic and spiritual growth of their students. More than a hundred years have elapsed since two Sisters took up the task of religious instruction in the parish. The witness and the dedication of the Sisters of St. Joseph continues today, steadily but unobtrusively, under the patronage of Saint Joseph and Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
Thanks to SR. JOAN XAVIER, C.S.J. and to JAMES H. FISHER, a parishioner, for the above history which first appeared in the centenary book of OLPH.