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Sisters of Saint Joseph - Our History
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Our History

History of Sisters of Saint Joseph

The Sisters of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia trace their origins to 17th century France. Founded amid the devastating consequences of wars of religion and tempered by their experience of revolution, sisters brought their determination to unite “neighbor with neighbor and neighbor with God” from Lyon, France to 19th century America. They began in Saint Louis, MO in 1836. From there, four Sisters came to Philadelphia in 1847. Their first ministry was with orphan boys, but they were, as Bishop Kendrick wrote of them, “ready for any good work.” This is the story of women inspired by the great love of God striving into the 21st century to unite God, neighbor, and all creation.

1646 - Jean-Pierre Médaille

As a missionary in southwestern France, Father Médaille met with devout women who expressed a desire to live holy lives, serving their neighbors, but outside of a religious cloister. To protect their spirit of littleness, hiddenness and self-emptying love, he “secretly” met with these women in groups of three to six. Referred to as “The Little Design” and “The Congregation of the great love of God” the women were asked to circle the city, find the needs of the day and address them.

Sisters of Saint Joseph - HISTORY 1646 Jean Pierre Medaille
Sisters of Saint Joseph - HISTORY 1650 LePuy France

1650 - LePuy, France

We trace our origins and spirit to six women, who came together in 1650, in war-ravaged LePuy, France, with great desire for union with God, among themselves and with “every sort of neighbor.”
Under the patronage of Saint Joseph, they dedicated themselves to “the practice of all spiritual and corporal works of mercy of which woman is capable.”
From that small band of women, convents spread rapidly throughout south-central France. Their communities were dispersed during the turmoil of the French Revolution with some sisters imprisoned and five guillotined.

1807 - Mother Saint John Fontbonne

A heroic women who narrowly escaped execution during the French Revolution, Mother Saint John refounded the Congregation in Lyon. Under her leadership the Congregation flourished.

Sisters of Saint Joseph - HISTORY 1807 Mother Fontbonne
Sisters of Joseph - HISTORY 1836-St Louis Missouri

1836 - St. Louis, Missouri

In response to the needs of the Church in the Missouri mission, Mother Saint John Fontbonne sent six sisters to St. Louis. From the St. Louis location, Sisters of Saint Joseph spread throughout the United States and Canada.

1847 - Mother Saint John Fournier

Mother Saint John Fournier, one of six sisters who immigrated to St. Louis from France, arrived in Philadelphia in 1847. She and three sisters provided care at Saint John’s Orphanage for Boys. Our sisters responded to each new call for assistance with a generosity that prompted Bishop Kendrick to describe us as sisters “ready for any good work.”

Sisters of Saint Joseph HISTORY 1847 Mother Fournier
Sisters of Saint Joseph HISTORY 1852 Saint John Neumann

1852 - Saint John Neumann

Bishop of Philadelphia from 1852 to 1860, Bishop Neumann was a friend and benefactor of the Sisters of Saint Joseph. He recommended Monticello, the Chestnut Hill site, and the McSherrystown, PA location to Mother Saint John Fournier.  

1854 - McSherrystown, PA

The sisters purchased a property in McSherrystown in 1854. This became the first novitiate and academy for the Sisters of Saint Joseph, now the site of HUD Housing administered by the sisters.

SSJ - 1854 McSherrystown PA

1858 - Philadelphia, PA

In 1858, the sisters purchased “Monticello” the Middleton family home (current location of Congregational Motherhouse and administrative offices) in the Chestnut Hill area of Philadelphia. It was also the first site of Mount Saint Joseph Academy, established by our sisters six weeks after their arrival. 

Our sisters’ wholehearted response to the educational needs of new immigrants, in both urban and rural settings, focused energy in schools of every kind and at every level. We often followed a pattern of establishing free schools and partnering them with academies for paying students. At the same time, we met the emerging needs of families in creative ways.

1861 - Civil War Nurses

We nursed the wounded on both sides of the conflict during the Civil War. Fourteen of our sisters were officially recognized for their service as nurses. With little training, but the discipline of religious life, they nursed the wounded, the sick and worked as cooks and ward managers without regard to color, religion or politics. Not turning away from the dirtiest and most menial work, they earned the respect of both Union and Confederate soldiers.
Sisters of Saint Joseph 1861 Civil War Nurses
Sisters of Saint Joseph HISTORY-10-1962-65 Vatican 2 Council

1962 - 1965 Vatican Council II

When Vatican Council II called upon religious congregations to return to the original inspiration of their foundation, we responded faithfully and reflectively. To better understand our founding spirit, we studied our early documents and renewed our relationship with other groups of Sisters of Saint Joseph. In renewed fidelity to our initial inspiration, our sisters, associates, and lay partners strive to deepen our commitment to our common mission:

“We live and work so that all people may be united with God and with one another.”

1984 - SSJ Associates in Mission

Associate relationship has a rich history with the Sisters of Saint Joseph. Our founders envisioned the sisters bonding with others who were spiritual companions and coworkers while they continued in their own lifestyle as married, widowed or single persons. Today there are approximately 600 women and men who have made a commitment to live our common mission with intention in their daily lives.

1984 SSJ-Associates in Mission
SSJ Today

2022 - SSJ Today

Currently, there are approximately 550 members in the Congregation. As the Congregation moves into the future, we see our neighbors’ need for all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy and love, and as we are able, we undertake with great generosity and love whatever may best bring about the union of all with God.