On the 19 March 1866 (St Joseph’s Day) Mary MacKillop stepped into a simple black dress with perhaps slightly shaky legs for the first time, she would have been surely a touch scared, but certainly also filled with gusto and courage. Mary and Fr. Julian Tenison Woods began the Congregation of the Sisters of St Joseph on that day. Mary and Julian had a deep sense of call to respond to the needs of isolated children in outback Australia who were not receiving any education. They firmly believed in equality.
As a Sister, Mary dedicated her life to doing God’s work. As more and more young women joined the congregation, they were able to start more schools. ALL children were welcome at the Josephite schools, which provided free Catholic education.
On this 19th March 2016 many nations celebrated the beginning of the Sisters of St Joseph. Their legacy continues in communities across Australia, New Zealand, Peru, Brazil, Timor-Leste, Scotland, Ireland and beyond.
Many people around the world tenderly remember the kindness, joy, laughter and generosity of the Sisters.
I have been pondering Who the Sisters of St Joseph are at 150 years? + What is it like to be joining this congregation? I'm hoping you enjoy my wee reflection below. Please feel free to comment with any memories or anything that has touched you too…
Who are the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart (SOSJ) at 150 years?
The Sisters of St Joseph vary in many ways, with many ethnic backgrounds, covering a variety of ages and with ministries in many different fields.
Part of the spirit (a.k.a charism) of SOSJ is an ability to be forward thinking and quickly adapt; to simply go for it, to go where the need is greatest. When the congregation first started the need was in education. Mary and Julian saw the lack of equality and went for it. Over the past 150 years the needs for those lacking love and tenderness has changed with leaps and bounds. Ministries for Sisters in 2016 continue to grow and adapt in parishes, spirituality, all levels of education, administration, law, pastoral care, as well as to indigenous peoples and in care of the earth.
Among all the variety there is a river called charism that runs deeply through the veins of any Sister. No matter what age or stage of the congregation, charism will always be front and center in the story of Who the Sisters of St Joseph are.
Charism comes firstly from the foundress // founder of any congregation. Charism is the desire in the heart of that person that was alive at one period of history. It is essentially a gift of the Holy Spirit. The gift of charism is part of who you are, it develops through our life and experiences just as does our spiritual life – the work of the Spirit. This certainly was relevant for my own personal discernment journey too; searching out the charism was a huge indicator that I had found my congregational 'home'.
>> Examples of the Sisters of St Joseph (a.k.a Josephite or Joey) charism:
- Welcome ALL // reverence for dignity: Everyone is welcome. “Let us love and praise God in all” - MMK 1872
- Hard Workers: I’ve often heard this term used - “roll your sleeves up”
- Laughter and Joy: Joey’s love to laugh. One sister once said to me - “always be humble, laugh at yourself often!”
- Trust in the providence of God: Don’t worry, keep working away. God will provide.
“When I could not see my way God kept my heart full of trust” - MMK1874
“Believe in the whisperings of God in your own heart” - MMK 1868
- A heart full of Courage + Love for the Cross: Don’t be troubled by your trials (Crosses). They are blessings.
“Have courage no matter what your crosses are” - MMK 1890
“The will of God is a very dear book which I never tire of reading” - MMK 1873
Charism develops from age to age and dies from age to age, and then re-births again. It is the founding vision that is constantly adapted to the needs of the present time.
This made me think of the relevant spiritual development process of Order >> Disorder >> Reorder, this is often used within growth of charism and personal growth. An example would be Pope Francis, who as Jorge Bergoglio was originally very conservative (Order), then had a crisis and went into relative exile (Disorder), then came through that with grace to be the more open Pope he is today (Reorder).
When thinking about Who the SOSJ are we can see that this process has taken place and the congregation has grown through it. Change and adaption is a massive part of Who the sisters are. They have changed and pushed boundaries. We only need to think about Mary’s excommunication + the changes post Vatican II to see this process of Order >> Disorder >> Reorder at work within the congregation and charism growth.
The original desire of Mary & Julian lives on in the sisters now… yes, it’s in another day and age, it is ever evolving. But the desire will be always focused on equality and movement to where Love is needed most.
If we continue to keep the river of charism flowing though our veins and maintain openness, then we will surely continue to grow, to be inclusive and to “never tire of reading” in a new way...
What is it like for me to be part of the Sisters of St Joseph?
Just as I think of Who the Joey's (SOSJ) are I also find myself also thinking how charism relates to What it is like for me as a "young one" in the process of joining this congregation. The charism of equality and welcome for all (no matter what your background) is certainly an important reason for me.
I love the story that we hear on Holy Thursday of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples >> John 13: 1-17.
He was clearly teaching us to serve, rather than to be served. Mary MacKillop showed us this charism in many many ways, and in 1867 famously said “We must teach more by example than by word.”
Richard Leonard SJ explains this and the washing of the feet brilliantly in his book “What are we hoping for?”
“The gospel shows us how those who follow Jesus can break this cycle of destruction - we must serve one another, even our enemies. We get down on the floor and assume the nature of a slave so that others might discover their human dignity and worth. In doing so, we discover a wonderful paradox: by expressing our love for others in acts of goodness, service, and kindness, we are not diminished, but enhanced.”
This journey into Vowed Spiritual Life is one that takes courage and trust. I take heart in the charism that Mary and Julian showed us. Honestly, some days I'm afraid, my 'legs shake'. I have no idea what the future will hold. But, I trust in the power of prayer and the gentle stillness and calm waters that I feel within myself. I know I have found 'home' here. I have no idea why, and I don't know why my path is seemingly counter cultural. I know I have gone through the Order >> Disorder >> Reorder process (and perhaps will again in the future). But, it is what it is. I am who I am, and I thank God for that every day; for me, that's more than enough... as my friend says "Laugh, Let Go, Let God."
I know that life for me as a Sister will never be how it was in the past. I also know that I have no idea how it will be in the future. The one thing I do know is that patience, listening & discernment is key... Participate in the daily practice of Examen. Listen. Trust your heart and you will never go wrong.
“Believe in the whisperings of God in your own heart” - MMK 1868
I am incredibly grateful that I was able to attend the celebrations in Penola, South Australia over last weekend. It was eerie to go for a run at sunrise through the vineyards and think, "150years ago Mary and Julian were here, standing on this holy ground". They were not thinking what if in a negative way - I’m sure they were excited and afraid... they went for it, trusted and providence more than provided.
As I ponder what stayed with me from Penola there is one special and slightly hilarious encounter that continues to make me smile and give thanks...
After the celebrations on Saturday the 19th we all gathered for lunch in the school and surrounding buildings. As I stood alone on the basketball court packing up chairs I spotted a vivacious woman in the distance. I could see she was locked onto me and was headed my way with what seemed like military precision. As the chilly wind gust hit me I took a deep breath and hoped I would survive this encounter... oi vay... I suddenly felt her sternly grab both my upper arms, we locked eyes, I smiled and said "um hellooo”, then at the top of her voice she bellowed out “My God, I just can’t tell you how wonderful it is to see a young nun!”... I took a breath, picked up my jaw from the concrete and said “ah, well, tha thank you!”... I blinked, then turned around to see her striding off with full force at military pace to her next mission….
At the time I wasn’t quite sure what had just happened, but upon further reflection and a fair few giggles I can surely say that what I’m left with from Penola is reverence, memories of the incredible buzz in the air, and the ever present smile that graces my face when I think about the huge amount of love and support.
Happy Easter everyone. Deo Gratias. Here’s to the next 150!