Sisters of St. Joseph mark 150 years of service in Florida this week

by Margo C. Pope

The Sisters of St. Joseph of St. Augustine will celebrate on Friday and Saturday the 150th anniversary of their ministry that began with teaching freed slaves after the Civil War. The Sisters continue their mission today by spreading their love of God in all that they do: teaching in schools, working in health care and in social services.


                                      Diocese of St. Augustine Archives

Their origins began in September 1866. Sister Jane Stoecker, general superior of the Sisters of St. Joseph, recalled those eight original sisters who arrived from Le Puy, France, at Picolata Landing on the St. Johns River in western St. Johns County.

They were, she said, “eight ordinary women” with no outstanding accomplishments, riches, eloquence, great talents or doctoral degrees. “Just ordinary women with a very great love of God, of the ‘dear neighbor’ and of the Congregation.  They were in their twenties, several newly professed, docile and with a freedom to answer whatever they were called to do.  Much like St. Joseph, their patron saint…listening, obedient and strong.”

On Friday and Saturday, the Sisters will celebrate in two ceremonies in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine. Solemn Vespers on Friday evening at 7 p.m. will be led by Bishop Felipe Estévez. At 10 a.m. Saturday, a Mass of Thanksgiving will be said by Archbishop Thomas J. Wenski of the Archdiocese of Miami, as principal celebrant. Six other bishops will join him as concelebrants.

A reception will follow at the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse, 241 St. George St. The gardens will be tented and cooled for comfort.

The public is invited to all events. The Mass on Saturday will require tickets because of limited seating in the Cathedral. Tickets may be obtained in advance from Jeanette Ghioto, mission advancement director for the Sisters at (904) 824-9100 or email jeanetteghioto@ssjfl.org.

The original eight Sisters came at the request of Bishop Augustin Verot, then Bishop of the Diocese of Savannah and later, first bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine. He knew of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Le Puy, because they worked in his native town. He asked them to educate and evangelize the freed slaves.

Sister Jane continued, “Through Bishop Verot, God called them: ‘leave your home, come to this place very foreign to you; bring Jesus and educate the poorest.’ They left their homeland, came to the shores of Florida, brought Jesus, and educated the poorest, with the ripple effects that sent an uncontrollable wave across the state!”

The Sisters learned English and began by first teaching the children of those freed slaves and, in night school, the adults. The sisters supported themselves through the sales of handmade lace, private French lessons, music and art, and by boarding invalids. In 1874, they opened St. Joseph Academy and later similar academies in Jacksonville, Mandarin and other parts of the state.

Diocese of St. Augustine Archives

                                          Diocese of St. Augustine Archives

The Sisters opened a school for black youth, St. Benedict the Moor School in Lincolnville, in the 1890s. Sister Katherine Drexel of Philadelphia, now a saint of the Catholic Church, helped fund the school’s construction. In 1916, three sisters were arrested for violating a state law that white teachers could not teach in black schools. The charges were later dropped.

The congregation “began a mighty wave that would stretch from Pensacola to Fernandina, flowing all the way down the state to Homestead; the Sisters began to found grade schools, high schools and Morning Star schools; they opened hospitals, orphanages, nursing homes, homes for unwed mothers, and served in pastoral ministries and in the migrant missions,” Sister Jane said.  “It is not just about the ‘first eight’ and that is that. It is about the ordinary women who had the greatest riches that they lavishly passed on!

“The greatest, most prized possessions, more powerful than any material wealth, were their zeal, their courage, their determination, their tenacity, their single focus of bringing “neighbor to neighbor, and neighbor to God, that ‘All may be one. (John 17:21).’  From a small ripple flowed their great love of God!”

Today, their mission statement reflects that commitment: “Seized by God’s love, we work in collaboration with others to bring union and reconciliation to our world, ‘that all may be one.”

Sister Jane said, “We do not carry anything that is unique to each other as to WHAT we are: Sisters of St. Joseph, consecrated women religious, professing public vows, and ministering in the Church for God and neighbor. In that, we are all one.”

Father Thomas S. Willis, pastor of Cathedral Parish, was taught by the Sisters at Cathedral Parish School and served Mass at St. Joseph Convent at 6:30 a.m. on school days.

The sisters advanced Willis in understanding his faith. “They seemed to emphasize that we were ‘learning by heart,” he said. “That phrase didn’t make sense to me until much later when I realized that by that memorization the faith had been instilled in my heart.

“As far as awakening my vocation, it was primarily through being an altar server at the convent chapel. Sisters like St. Charles Bagwell, Marie LaSalette, Patrick Therese and others would comment ‘You’d make a lovely priest’ or ‘You should really think about a vocation to priesthood.’ That’s really where considering a vocation to the priesthood started for me.”

When asked to finish the sentence, “The Sisters of St. Joseph helped make me the priest I am today by….,” Willis said, “by giving me their best.”

“I figured that out only after I returned to serve as pastor of the Cathedral Parish. But, it’s so true. Their commitment to so many people – so many souls – was to give their best in the name of the Lord Jesus so that we could experience God. They have done that pretty well through the years in my opinion.”