Mary Helen BEIRNE. Ready for Good Work: History of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, 1944-1999. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2015, viii + 206 pp., ISBN: 978-0-7618-6584-1, $65.00, hardcover. Reviewed by Patrick J. HAYES, Redemptorist Archives of the Baltimore Province, Philadelphia, PA.
The title for this monograph misleads insofar as the first chapter runs at break neck speed covering nearly 300 years of prelude to this order’s post-war history. Founded in 1650 by six women and Father Jean-Pierre Médaille, SJ, at Le Puy, France, the Sisters of St. Joseph came to the United States in 1836. By 1847 a small community of four sisters was established in Philadelphia, near St. John the Evangelist in Center City, and subsequent postulants—the preponderant number coming from Irish backgrounds—began a ministry to local orphans. Soon their principal ministry became the teaching of children and their reputation grew as outstanding instructors and able administrators. In the course of the next hundred years, their ranks would grow into the thousands and the effects of their numbers on the schools and neighborhoods where they taught would climb into the millions.
By the time of the Second World War, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia were a fixture in classrooms in cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, Newark, Washington, and Wilmington. Though they maintained strict habits of obedience, their own internal changes were beginning to be felt. Words like “renewal” and renovation became part of their vocabulary, so that governance structures became as malleable as their spiritual lives. Retreats and the recitation of the hours were altered; new habits were introduced and, for the first time in their history, sisters’ hair could be seen under a modified veil in 1974.
The education of sisters was made a priority when in 1920 the Congregation’s Mount St. Joseph (Chestnut Hill) College opened. This did not happen without considerable belt-tightening from already cash-strapped convents and it was always a delicate balance between taking sisters out of the work force, finding ways to replace their stipends, and to allow them to work on their degrees. By 1940 there were approximately 1,900 sisters serving 135 educational institutions. In the post-war years that number would drop to 1,600, but the demands placed upon the sisters hardly let up, even as the rate of entrants declined. By their pivotal Chapter of 1968, Sisters of St. Joseph numbered 2,669 women, but their increase did not keep pace with the number of their apostolic commitments. Coupling this with the general decline in religious vocations after Vatican II and one sees a precipitous and dramatic downward turn. In 1989 their communities were in 99 parish schools—a virtual 50 percent reduction from 1980. In that year 400 sisters were serving in 45 high schools. By the end of the decade, the figure dropped to 228.
The present volume is not a sociological study of these sisters, though there is plenty of statistical data made available. It is meant to be a history that extends the work of Sr. Marie Kostka Logue, SSJ, whose Sisters of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia: A Century of Growth and Development, 1847-1947 (1950) has not been updated until now. Information on the governance structures and the changes in that realm effected by the Second Vatican Council comprise a significant, if tedious, portion of the narrative. One wished for a more sustained exploration of some of the key personalities in those debates, which seemed to have pitted several of the “young Turks” against the “Old Guard.”
The connectedness and respect between these two groups of sisters was what allowed for a gradual, though often painful period of reflection on the precise mission of the Congregation in the aftermath of Vatican II. More and more they took up social justice initiatives. It transformed their formation policies. Spiritual practice expanded the required horarium to include optional Zen meditation. Community life has also had to adapt. We find them now in senior housing and subject to escalating health care costs and lay boards.Happily, the author has supplied a number of small details on the evolution and daily tasks of convent life, which is so crucial in understanding not only the place of women religious in the wider Church, but also because it gives us a glimpse into their individual and collective responses to the perennial question: who am I before God?