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Sisters of St. Joseph celebrate 140 years of ministry in Boston

Sisters of St. Joseph join in the closing procession following an Oct. 6 Mass celebrated by Bishop Robert P. Deeley at St. Agatha Parish in Milton to celebrate the 140th anniversary of their founding in Boston. Pilot photo/George Martell, Pilot Media Group

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MILTON -- The Sisters of St. Joseph came to the Archdiocese of Boston 140 years ago to teach, which continues to be a critical part of their mission today. In 1873, four sisters traveled from Brooklyn, N.Y. at the request of Father Magennis of Jamaica Plain who knew of their reputation as good teachers. Since that time, they have staffed over 130 educational institutions in the archdiocese, including the most recently established school, St. Joseph Preparatory High School in Brighton, which was founded last year.

The Sisters of St. Joseph celebrated the 140th anniversary of their founding in Boston with a Mass at St. Agatha Parish in Milton. They were the first teachers at the parish's school 72 years ago.

After the service, James Dowd, a St. Joseph's board member, called the sisters the "primary drivers" in Catholic education in the Boston area. He said the Mass celebrated the sisters' legacy and their continued mission.

Head of the Brighton school, Thomas Nunan Jr., agreed, calling the sisters a "great blessing" to the students. Every day, the students witness the sisters' "living faith."

"The sisters bring a real prayerful presence to our school," he said. "They are so faithful and open. It is no wonder that they are known for their gracious hospitality."

From their first days in Boston, the sisters found many ways to contribute their gifts to the Catholic community. When they first arrived, the Catholic immigrant population was growing at a rapid rate and many were struggling to find work. The sisters helped them and assisted those who were hungry, ill and homeless.

In his homily, Bishop Robert P. Deeley said the sisters raised money by sewing and selling baseballs. Originally from LePuy, France, the order was known for making lace.

"It was quite a journey from the lace at LePuy to baseballs in Boston," he said, praising their ingenuity and creativity. "The sisters had arrived in America and were staying -- as they involved themselves in America's pastime."

Bishop Deeley commended the institutional achievements of the sisters who have worked in over 30 health care ministries and participated in over 85 service ministries within Boston. He added that as important as those achievements are, the sisters have left indelible marks in the way they have touched so many individuals' lives.

Bishop Deeley himself received 12 years of instruction from the sisters, first at Sacred Heart School in Watertown and then Matignon High School in Cambridge. He praised the education, advice and encouragement in his vocation that he received from them.

He recalled a vivid memory of a large slice of lemon meringue pie, given by the sisters one cold winter afternoon as a reward for clearing snow off the convent steps. He said that growing up with five brothers, he rarely had such a large serving of dessert and that the sisters' generosity made an impression.

"The influence of the sisters and their encouragement and support to my parents and my brothers was tremendous, and an important part of our formation," he said. "I cannot think of a time during my 40 years of priesthood in the Archdiocese of Boston when a Sister of St. Joseph has not been a resource, a collaborator or a staff person working alongside me in the ministry of the Church."

During the Mass, Sister Rosemary Brennan, CSJ, president of the Sisters of St. Joseph, addressed those gathered, expressing the sisters' gratitude for the numerous students, families, parishioners and clergy who work with and support them.

"We have not been in this grand adventure by ourselves," she said, adding that the sisters' constitution states, "We acknowledge humbly and gratefully that from those to whom we minister we receive more than we give, indeed, in full measure and flowing over."

Sister Patty Johnson, CSJ, executive director of the Sisters of St. Joseph Federation, traveled from St. Louis, Mo. to represent the 16 congregations of the order at the celebration.

"It's good to take time out to remember what was and think about the future together," she told The Pilot. "We've all adjusted to changes and grown and developed in new ways none of us would have imagined."

Denise Higgins Cohen, who attended schools staffed by the sisters for 11 years, said that the sisters' charism has inspired changes in her own life. She said while attending Fontbonne Academy in Milton, she thought she might be called to religious life, adding, "I always had a fondness for the sisters."

But it was later in life when she reconnected with the sisters and became an associate that their presence influenced the way she approached her job as a corrections officer. She began to view the inmates in a new way. She sought to be kinder and to be a "healing presence" in their lives.

Theresa Ferris of East Bridgewater attended the Mass with her husband and four children in support of her cousin, Elsie Cheverie. Cheverie, an associate with the Sisters, mainly works with the poor and homeless in a way that gives them hope, she said.

Ferris said of the sisters, "They do so much for people, always giving of themselves."

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