Some time ago when I was teaching in high school, I realized that I needed some extra training on HTML. It’s an abbreviation for Hypertext Markup Language and is one of the code languages behind websites.
I was thrilled to find an affordable and local training session for this language. As I journeyed into a local conference center, I excitedly went up to the registration table to get all the handouts and the day’s timetable. The gentleman behind the table had a conversation with me that was similar to the following:
“Ma’am, are you in the correct place? This is the point of registration for a workshop for HTML, a language that is used in computers. The evangelization workshop is in the next conference hall.” I responded, “Yes, I know. I have registered online and this is the e-mail I received.” “Really? Wow!” he responded. As I walked away, I realized that in a room of about 150 people, there were only five women!
Reflecting on this experience, I realized that in the business world, Informational Technology is indeed a world of men. Why would individuals be surprised that women or even a Sister would like the world of IT? Even in the 21st century, human beings’ perspectives can be so myopic and full of prejudice!
I could not help think about this story as I turn my attention toward another woman who has had a lasting effect on the Diocese of Harrisburg: Mother St. John Fournier, foundress of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia.
Mother St. John (Julie Alexis) was born in Arbois, France, in 1814. After entering the Carmelite community and professing her vows, she heard from a close friend that the Sisters of St. Joseph were planning to begin a community in St. Louis, Missouri. With the blessing of Bishop Rosati, the first bishop of St. Louis, the Sisters were to undertake instruction of those who were deaf-mute as well as staffing a small school within the city. In 1836, Mother St. John and five other Sisters of French and Irish nationality began the difficult journey to St. Louis. Because of the animosity toward Catholics, they planned to travel in secular clothes. No one was to know that they were Catholic religious journeying to a new school.
Upon their arrival in St. Louis, the tiny community lived in a drafty and leaky cabin with little food. Because of the generosity of wealthy Catholic benefactors, they were able to build a sturdy brick house and school out of the shelter given to them. In the 1840s, women religious in the United States were rare.
Bishop John Neumann of Philadelphia received a large section of land in McSherrystown in the Conewago Valley. According to the trust given to Bishop Neumann, the land was to be used in the support of a school. Even though the Sisters of Charity from Emmitsburg, Md., were first in charge of the school, Bishop Neumann suggested to Mother St. John that the Sisters of St. Joseph acquire the property for a novitiate and a school when the Sisters of Charity withdrew. On May 2, 1854, the Sisters traveled by wagon to Conewago in secular clothes, once again, in order to reach McSherrystown in safety. Upon their arrival, the Sisters went immediately to work! Within two weeks, St. Joseph School opened with 18 girls attending.
Then in 1861, the Civil War broke out. Mother St. John Fournier was asked for a group of Sisters to take charge of hospital arrangements for the soldiers in Harrisburg at Camp Curtin. “Preparing for the Sisters’ journey, the secretary of Doctor Smith, chief surgeon of the Hospital in Harrisburg, wrote to Mother St. John: ‘The Doctor hopes the Sisters will not disappoint him … Whilst beset by applicants, he has refused every female nurse, being unwilling to trust any but the Sisters of St. Joseph. There is waiting for them a large field of usefulness, but it can be cultivated only by those whose sense of duty will induce them to disregard all personal comfort.’”1
Mother St. John was a woman whose love of God called her forth to serve others – no matter the cost or hardship. The Sisters who followed in her community were like her as well. Their tenacity – to go places and do things that no woman had done before – speaks of their courage and love of God.
It causes me to reflect that when I experience hardships or prejudice, do I choose love? The Sisters of St. Joseph did and continue to do so. What about you?
1Jolly, Ellen Ryan. Nuns of the Battlefield. St. Mary’s Seminary and University, Baltimore. 1929. p. 161.
By Sister Geralyn Schmidt, SCC, Special to The Witness