Father Jean Pierre Medaille was a traveling man. It was 1650, and in the aftermath of several wars, the people of Le Puy, France were, for want of better word, fragmented. Many of the men of Le Puy gave their lives, leaving behind widows and children by the scores. It was Medaille’s mission to bring some life back into the broken city.
As it happened, there remained a community of women in Le Puy who lived as nuns, praying hourly for the people of France, and making high-quality lace to raise money so they could assist the remaining people of Le Puy. Medaille was moved by their heart for the community, and quickly organized them as an official order, The Sisters of St. Joseph.
But the Sisters had one limitation. In 1650, it was customary that a man needed to accompany any woman who ventured outside, and men were not to be found. After all, the Sisters lived in a convent.
So Medaille had an idea. He noted in this post-war city that the custom was ignored when it came to widows. Women dressed in black mourning clothes were allowed to walk through the town. He instructed the Sisters of St. Joseph to begin wearing black gowns and head coverings whenever they went out into the community as well, and the costume worked. So much so that it became a common practice throughout the church.
After nearly dying out during the French Revolution (literally… some were sent to the guillotine), the Sisters of St. Joseph rebounded and became known for their educational efforts. In 1861 The Countess of Rochajaqueline was moved to sponsor a group of six Sisters to come to America to teach Native Americans. The settled in St. Louis, and the small group of six grew in number. Satellite communities sprang up in the Midwest; and once again, the Sisters of St. Joseph were once again.
One such group set their sights out west, and taking their vow of poverty to the maximum, the arrived in 1915 with only 60 cents in their collective habit pockets. Under the leadership of Mother Bernard Gosselin, they managed to open a school in Eureka, CA honoring a commitment to building schools and teaching.
But Mother Gosselin was challenged soon after she arrived. An influenza epidemic struck in 1918. With her mission to "Go out into the neighborhoods, see what the needs are, and meet them to the best of your ability,” Gosselin and her Sisters began treating people to the best of their ability. St. Joseph’s hospital was Eureka’s first hospital, and in 1922, Medaille’s Sisters of St. Joseph were travelling again, this time south, founding the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange.
It became evident that their mission now was much broader than education: Mother Gosselin knew a hospital was needed, and St. Joseph’s Hospital was soon to open its doors.
Today the Sisters of St. Joseph still reside and thrive in Orange, CA, though they no longer need the black habits to travel. The hospital they founded has been recognized by U.S. News and World Report as one of America’s best regional hospitals.
In addition, the Sisters continue to teach the community, now through their “Taller San Jose” (St. Joseph Talks). Focusing on youth who have been marginalized and disadvantaged, they teach life skills, trades and job skills, giving them a better advantage in today’s world.
It is a long history from Le Puy France to Orange, California, and we have the Sisters of St. Joseph to thank for their innovation and response to meet needs as they find them. As Mother Gosselin was fond of saying, “Never lose the love for community life, never lose the love of prayer life, and never be afraid to work too hard.”
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