From Lacemakers to Nurses
Many of the Sisters were lace makers and they sold the lace to help with
the expenses of their new community.
The Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange history starts in Le Puy France in
1650. The people of France were suffering the after effects of a series
of terrible wars and there were many widows, orphans, homeless and sick
with no social structures to care for them. Pious women, many of them
widows, were trying to help where they could.
Father Jean Pierre Medaille, a traveling Jesuit priest and missionary,
was sent to preach in the parishes and was touched by the selfless efforts
of these pious women. He launched an effort to organize the women into
a religious congregation so they could continue their good works with
the support only a formal, religious community could provide. Fr. Medaille
named the community Sisters of Saint Joseph. He wrote a Constitution for
the new group, the essence of which still guides their efforts. In 1651
the Sisters of St. Joseph became an official congregation in the Church.
The purpose of the congregation was to live and work to bring all people
into union with God and with one another, serving their spiritual and
corporal needs in all works of mercy within the power of the Sisters.
And they went forth to “…divide the town(s) into various
sectors, find out what disorders exist in each sector, and try to remedy
them through your own efforts, if you can, or through persons who have
some influence over those involved in these disorders.”
There was a great demand for lace in Europe in the 17th Century and the
city of Le Puy was renowned for the exquisite lace produced there. Many
of the Sisters were lace makers and were able to sell their lace to help
with the expenses of their new community.
The social custom of the day required a woman to be accompanied by a man
whenever she left her home. To get around this custom, the Sisters dressed
as widows, who were allowed in public alone. The former nun’s habit
traces its roots back to a widow’s dress and it helped the Sisters
avoid undue attention as they went about their daily activities.
The community grew rapidly until the French Revolution when the State ordered
the Sisters to take off their religious garb and go home. The Sisters
disbanded and five even died on the guillotine. But the spirit or their
community lived on.
When the Revolution ended, Bishop Fesch of Lyon asked the Sisters of Saint
Joseph to once again serve his diocese. He asked his priests to seek out
Mother Saint John Fontbonne, who had been a superior of the order before
the fighting began. She was asked to begin the congregation again. When
she told the Bishop she didn’t know where any of the original Sisters
were, he told Mother Saint John about a group of Sisters from another
congregation who had stayed together during the war and had asked him
for help in getting established again. Mother Saint John trained the new
congregation to become Sisters of St. Joseph and they quickly re-established
the community in Lyon.
Again, the Sisters of St. Joseph grew rapidly and their support was asked
for in several areas. Countess de Rochejaqueline asked to send Sisters
of Saint Joseph to the new world where they could teach the Native Americans.
The Bishop of St. Louis also asked for Sisters to help him in his very
large diocese. In 1836, six Sisters of St. Joseph departed by ship for
St. Louis. Their trip was paid for by the Countess and they settled in
the small town of Carondelet. That group eventually built a Motherhouse
and then sent out two to three Sisters at a time to different parts of
the country to begin new communities financially independent of St. Louis
The Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange were established in 1912 by Mother
Bernard Gosselin. She and eight Sisters left LaGrange, Illinois, near
Chicago at the request of a priest who had been transferred from La Grange
to the Sacramento Diocese. That priest wrote to the Superior of the St.
Joseph order and asked if a group of Sisters would come to work with him
in California. Under the leadership of Mother Bernard that initial group
came to Eureka. They built a Motherhouse and many schools. When the great
Influenza Epidemic of 1918 devastated the local population, the Sisters
responded to the needs of the community and became nurses. The Eureka
community had no hospital, so in 1920, the Sisters opened St. Joseph Hospital
and the story of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange began.