St. Augustine Catholic
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All May be One

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All May Be One
Sisters of St. Joseph celebrate 140 years in Florida

by Tom Tracy

With a yearlong commemoration underway to celebrate 140 years in Florida of a special group of religious women from France, one member of the Sisters of St. Joseph puts it simply: “The history of our church in the state of Florida is really also our history.”

Having now served at parishes, missions, schools and hospitals in almost every area of the state except Key West, the eight original members of the Sisters of St. Joseph came to Florida with a unique mandate from Florida’s first Bishop, Augustin Verot, also from Le Puy. The sisters were to unite neighbor with neighbor and neighbor with God - to live among the people without distinction of race or economic status while trying to promote unity and reconciliation.

France, the “eldest daughter of the church,” gave rise to many religious foundations and the Sisters of St. Joseph are one of the few that still exist in the United States today. From the outset, the sisters clearly understood that they would teach and work among blacks, newly made free following the Civil War. It was a time when St. Augustine was an impoverished frontier with an exotic climate compared to the place they left in France.

In 1916, Florida’s governor was a racist, so it was no surprise when three Sisters of St. Joseph were arrested for teaching and working among the blacks at St. Benedict the Moor School in St. Augustine. Two of the sisters posted bond, but the principal did not and she was arrested. The case went to trial and ultimately the law forbidding whites to teach blacks was stricken from the books in Florida.

“In 1866 when the sisters came to Florida, they had had no experience of racism and had never seen blacks,” said Sister Thomas Joseph McGoldrick, the congregation’s archivist and author of a new book on the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph. “Every place we went we opened free schools for blacks and then schools for whites to help support the free schools,” she said. There are still descendants of the students of St. Benedict School (now closed) living in North Florida and the sisters still operate two schools for blacks and two schools for Haitians in Florida.

When Yellow Fever struck in Fernandina in 1877 and in Jacksonville in 1888, the sisters tended to the victims of the fever and several of them died in each epidemic.

At the turn of the century, many of the new sisters were recruited from Ireland. Though statewide in scope, the Sisters of St. Joseph were never considered a very large congregation, reaching their highpoint in the 1950s with about 350 members. Today there are less than 100 members throughout Florida. As with their predecessors, they stayed centered in eucharist, prayer and dedication to Jesus Christ, according to General Superior, Sister Ann Kuhn.

With the same care, loving attention, charity and cordiality that St. Joseph had in serving Jesus and Mary, the sisters are “moving toward a greater union with Jesus. We are women who believe that we are called to live the Gospel message in the context of our humanity and our times. This Gospel-vision calls us forth into the mission of the church in the world,” Sister Ann explained.

“The people of Florida have always been a great source of encouragement for us. They have joined with us in celebrating liturgies, they pray with us, they join with us in diocesan celebrations and they minister with us side by side,” said Sister Ann.

Bishop Victor Galeone said one of the unanticipated joys awaiting him on his arrival to St. Augustine, as bishop was his experience with the Sisters of St. Joseph. “They are a beautiful group of women. Their love and dedication bring to mind fond memories of the sisters who taught me when I was in grade school. I could pay no finer compliment to any group of women than to compare them with those marvelous Sisters of St. Francis, who were so instrumental during my formative years.”

Ensuring that the Sisters of St. Joseph’s traditions live on has meant modern means of communications in reaching out to prospective new members. The sisters advertise in church publications, including: the St. Augustine Catholic magazine, parish bulletins, and even parish and diocesan websites.

Sister Kathleen Power, vocations director for the congregation, conducts several retreats statewide each year for single women ages 18-45, as well as “Come-and-See” events for elementary-aged girls and their mothers who want to learn from the sisters about how they live; about their struggles and their joys.

In July 16 women attended the “Life of Love” vocations retreat in St. Augustine. About half the participants were Hispanic, a reflection of both the Catholic composition of Florida and the future needs of the population, which the sisters will be serving.

“I used to do vocations ministry years ago and I can see a much wider and deeper interest in vocations. Something is changing,” said Sister Kathleen. A lot of people tell me that they believe eucharistic adoration in the local parishes is resulting in vocations and I think that is true. Many of the women I am working with do participate in adoration in their parishes, which means they step out of the busyness of their daily life to be quiet and focused on God for a period of time during the week.”

In July, two new postulants members were accepted on the Feast of St. Ignatius; they are now serving at St. James Parish in North Miami. One is from Sri Lanka originally and the other from Cuba.

Every Catholic woman and man should know about religious life because it is such a part of our faith and traditions, according to Sister Kathleen. “Because we come from a Jesuit tradition we are very much in the world, serving our dear neighbor without distinction and trying to promote unity and reconciliation - that is something very important to the Sisters of St. Joseph. Our Scripture is that ‘All May be One,’ from the 15th chapter of the Gospel of John.”