“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” Luke 12:34
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” I wonder how long it took those first sisters who arrived from Lyon to recognize Carondelet as their “treasure.” How quickly did they invest their hearts here in this small backwards settlement? This Fall, we celebrate our arrival here 180 years ago. But as I thought about our celebration, it occurred to me: we would not be celebrating their arrival if they had not stayed! So rather than reflecting on why those first Sisters of St. Joseph came, I wondered more: Why did they stay??? What kept those women here in this strange land, at that difficult time? What was their motivation? Their inspiration? What was the Source of their staying power – and ours?
When I wondered this aloud several weeks ago, Sister Marion Renkens had a ready answer: it was the
trip over that kept them here. With sea-sickness, a lack of privacy and a poor diet – not to mention the need to wear something other than their habits when they arrived in New Orleans – who would want to repeat all of that on the way back??
While I had to agree, it seems to me there was something more. Five weeks at sea and two more weeks up the river gave them plenty of time for contemplation. When those young, French women gazed out across the wide Atlantic, then up the long Mississippi, what were the dreams that beckoned, the values that held their vision, long after they arrived?
It seems to me it was more than the adventure of an unknown frontier, or the spiritual mission of saving souls. Perhaps it was an inheritance they had received at Mother St. John’s side, one she had received from a long line of dedicated women, extending back to that first foundation almost two hundred years earlier.
Could it be the six foundational virtues of the two trinities with which Father Medaille formed the first women, and Mother St. John undoubtedly taught her post-Revolution followers? Perfection. Self-Emptying. Unifying Love. Zeal. Fidelity. Cordial Charity. Virtue.
Yes. Virtue. Virtus. Power. Strength. Could it be the source of their strength and their staying power was found in their contemplating the virtues of the Holy Family and the Holy Trinity? — The legacy of Father Medaille and those first women – given to all of us who follow them.
As the six missionaries to the Missouri Mission filled their travel days contemplating the Holy Family and praying to the Holy Trinity, perhaps they found strength in the present and assurance for the future.
When they contemplated God the Father, the Creator of All, did they intuit the wholeness inherent in the virtue of perfection? The Missouri Mission would demand the whole of their lives – body, mind and spirit – as they confronted the unexpected hardships and unending work they found here in Carondelet. And a wholeness, a oneness with the land, with heaven and earth and with society, as the psalmist sings this morning. There was little appreciation for the delicacies of French life here in Carondelet! There was wood to haul for the fire and children to teach and scrub and feed, and the hearth to be tended while they cooked the food they had begged. There were sleepless nights on straw tics and mosquitoes and mice and humidity — and body odor.
Yes, it took strength of body, mind and spirit not to give up or give in. Lived imperfectly, they sought perfection, a wholeness of life that demanded they remain open and optimistic. And they stayed.
When they contemplated the Son – who emptied himself in human form, who humbled himself in love – did they find a model for their own humility, and their work in Carondelet? Humus, of the earth; lowly. Could it get any lower than to leave the art and culture of their homeland for the rough and tumble frontier life of the Missouri Mission? More than once we read of the sisters placing “ornaments” they had brought with them in the space they had created as a chapel. A humble piece of finery amid the stark reality of this new place; something that reminded them of home, of heaven amid the humble, human life on the frontier. And they stayed.
Did they contemplate the unifying love of the Holy Spirit as they passed the black children on the riverbank during their ride up the Mississippi? Could they have imagined that their first mission outside of Carondelet would be teaching liberated slave children and preparing slaves for the sacraments? They had come to serve the Indians. They would have to wait awhile to begin that mission of unifying love. Meantime, they would be met by school children waiting to be educated, and orphans wanting to be held. Was this long-held virtue of unifying love already moving them to reach out to whomever they met, wherever there was a need? Yes, they stayed.
Certainly, they felt the zeal of the boy Jesus – the passion, the fervor, the energy in their young, fresh limbs and lungs. Sister St. Protais, the youngest, was 22 – still a novice – when she arrived. Even the oldest, the 32-year-old Sister Felicite, was “handy with a saw,” as her students knew! But it was not just physical energy. They had volunteered for the hardships of this unknown work and mission. In those early days, they found themselves doing whatever woman was capable of. But they had been chosen, not only for their physical strength. Certainly, there was a fervor of spirit that kept them turning to prayer as often as they turned to their neighbor – the neighbor who often served them. Likely, it was only through prayer that they could reconcile in those earliest of days that they did not go out to the poor – they were the poor! They lived the poverty they were tending to. In Carondelet they found there were no Haves and Have-Nots – they all were Have-Nots. Not even that sent them back to the comforts of France. What’s more, they soon found that not even the Missouri Mission would be big enough for them. They would enthusiastically respond to the invitation of the bishops, and the many needs across this vast land. Women of passion, of fervor, of zeal – the zeal of the boy Jesus. And they stayed.
How often first sisters must have looked to Mary, with whom they had a special kinship. Mary, the lone woman in those two trinities, who bore the strength, the power, the virtue of fidelity. Fidelis. Faithful. It was a part of Mary, who she was, a way of life. A faithful, faith-filled woman for whom God was primary, a God she knew daily through her family, her work, her neighbors. Perhaps it was Mary and her model of fidelity that kept those first sisters faithful in the midst of tension: Dealing with the rough missionary, Father Saulnier (salu-nE-A’). And with the rigid and controlling Father Fontbonne. Women confronting the tensions of being women in a patriarchal church and society. Not to mention the tensions of finding enough food to keep themselves strong. Amid the tension and the poverty, they were faithful. And they stayed.
Then there was their namesake, Joseph, and the virtue, the power he shared with them in cordial charity. Cordial – warmth. Charity – love. Warm love. A womb love. The likely origin of their compassion and hospitality. For these Sisters of St. Joseph, it was not a matter of entertaining guests with their extra. It was a matter of sharing what little they had with whoever needed it. Especially the children for whom they cared, and whom they taught. A love as big as the outdoors they confronted each day, a world hungry for love, inside and outside their log cabin. Yes, with love for God and the dear neighbor, they stayed.
“Where your treasure is, your heart will be.”
Where is your treasure?
What holds your heart?
Why have your stayed?
What virtue is the source of your staying power?
What will be your legacy to those who follow this Way of Life, our Way of Love?
by Mary Flick, CSJ