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  • Natalie Nemes

373 Years of Making a Difference in the Lives of Women

Special thanks to Michelle Hueg, the CSJ archivist, for acting as a consultant during the writing of this article.


This story is part of an ongoing series about the history of Sarah’s. In 1996, Sarah’s was founded when the Sisters of St. Joseph converted their former convent into a home for women needing a safe place to heal from trauma. Sarah’s is rooted in the Sisters’ tradition and now serves a diverse community of women from a variety of faith backgrounds. Like the Sisters, Sarah’s always adapts to meet the needs of the time, constantly searching for new ways to best help others. To learn more about how the Sisters’ and Sarah’s histories of service are intertwined, read on!


Bobbin lace created by Nancy Marsh, CSJ as part of a square on a ministry quilt crafted in 1991 to commemorate the 140th anniversary of the Sisters’ arrival in St. Paul. The lace was sewn on the panel by Margaret Hackett, CSJ. Photo and caption information courtesy of CSJ archivist Michelle Hueg.


The story of the Sisters of St. Joseph begins in approximately 1650 in the small community of Le Puy-en-Velay, France. Jesuit Father Jean Pierre Médaille founded a group of Sisters who would live and work among the common folk, uplifting others through their daily activities. This was unusual for the time, as the church historically only approved cloistered communities of religious women who were isolated from laypeople. The six women who were the very first Sisters of St. Joseph—Françoise Eyraud, Clauda Chastel, Marguerite Burdier, Anna Chaleyer, Anna Vey de Saint-Jeure, and Anna Brun—embraced works of mercy as a form of prayer. They ventured out into the surrounding community, seeking to make a positive impact on those in need through concrete action.


Since the Sisters did not have access to much formal education and had limited means to make a living—most of them did not know how to read or write—they made ribbon and lace to sustain themselves and their service work. Knowing that other women also needed a way to support themselves other than through prostitution*, they began teaching their lace making techniques to women who were seeking out a trade for reliable income. After the Thirty Years’ War ravaged the continent from 1618 to 1648, many were struggling with the after-effects of famine, disease, and violence. The Sisters sought to apply themselves to, “the practice of all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy of which woman is capable and which most benefited the dear neighbor,” supporting the poor when they most needed uplifting.


In fact, this tradition of helping women find pathways to support themselves has continued throughout the Sisters’ history. During the years leading up to the French Revolution, around 1785-86, the Sisters of St. Joseph in Monistrol, France, led by Mother St. John Fontbonne, sought to begin a workshop where women of different backgrounds could work together to serve the needy. Women were welcome to produce artisan goods to support themselves or their families, or on behalf of those less fortunate if they were donating their labor. The Sisters were no doubt aware of the economic landscape of the country at the time, in which class divisions were stark, corruption ran rampant, and taxation of those with the lowest incomes was high. Recognizing the needs of the women around them, the Sisters sought to hand them the tools for a better life.


Although the Sisters nearly died out during the French Revolution due to the persecution of those associated with the Church during the Reign of Terror, they recovered under the leadership of Mother St. John and expanded their reach in the following decades. The Sisters of St. Joseph spread across parts of Europe and eventually across the ocean, first moving to St. Louis in 1836 to teach children and to establish a school for the deaf. A few years later, on November 3, 1851, four Sisters from St. Louis arrived in St. Paul to establish a province in the city. It was here, through the generosity of Sisters who recognized a need for a home for women seeking refuge, safety, and a fresh start, that Sarah’s… an Oasis for Women was founded.


In 1996, when the Sisters no longer had a need for a building that used to serve as a convent, Sarah’s… an Oasis for Women was established as a home for women seeking to begin their lives anew. Following the tradition laid out by the first six Sisters of St. Joseph hundreds of years ago, for 27 years Sarah’s has sought to equip women with the means to independently and sustainably determine their own life paths. The Sisters have historically been concerned with the homeless and those seeking a home, and Sarah’s is proud to serve as one branch of that legacy.


Sarah’s first ensures that all women here have their daily needs met, for there can be no growth without the basic tenets of life: food, clothing, health care, and safety. After this baseline is established, Sarah’s connects residents to the resources they need to flourish, including transportation, legal assistance, social work, and mental health support. A woman’s journey at Sarah’s ends with helping them to receive the education they need to secure employment, financial stability, and independent housing.


In this way, Sarah’s continues the Sisters of St. Joseph’s good work of uplifting women. As a modern iteration of what began centuries ago, Sarah’s similarly provides women with various educational and vocational opportunities. The women who find solace within its walls embark on a journey of healing, self-discovery, and empowerment.


Sources:


*Sarah’s recognizes that this term is not appropriately used in a modern context. We apply it here conscientiously as the most accurate descriptor applicable to the mid-17th century.


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