By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Since 1650, when Jesuit Father Jean Pierre Medaille and Bishop Henri de Maupas of Le Puy, France, “listened to the voice of the Holy Spirit” and received the first six Sisters of St. Joseph into the Church as active religious, the Sisters have heard and heeded God’s call.
They are now celebrating 150 years in the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese. A Mass held Sept. 24 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was presided over by Jesuit Father Tom Curran, president of Rockhurst University, and attended by 44 of the Sisters and their families. A reception followed in the Muehlebach Hotel’s Old Lobby. Kansas City Mayor Sly James presented them with a proclamation praising their ongoing presence in the city and how they continue to make a difference.
The first difference the Sisters made was through lace. They taught lace-making to women forced by poverty into prostitution so that they could support themselves and their children respectably.
The years of the French Revolution, 1789-99, saw the suppression of churches and religious orders and a number of priests and sisters sent to the guillotine.
The Sisters of St. Joseph were re-established in 1808 by Mother St. John Fontbonne.
Fast forward 58 years to 1866. The Sisters of St. Joseph had come to America in 1836 at the invitation of Bishop Rosatti of St. Louis to open a school for the deaf. They settled in Vide Poche (Empty Pocket), outside St. Louis. Understanding that they would have to fend for themselves, they set to work and quickly made the log cabin provided for them into a home and a school. Vide Poche was soon renamed Carondelet. The school, St. Joseph’s Institute for the Deaf, was making a difference for its students — word spread. Less than 30 years later, Mother St. John Facemaz received a letter from Kansas City’s first resident pastor Father Bernard Donnelly, inviting Sisters to open a parish school. She listened. Five sisters accompanied Mother Francis Joseph Ivory to the fledgling city on the Missouri River. They arrived Aug. 4, 1866 and, again, went quickly to work, opening St. Joseph’s Academy that fall.
A year later, the school, near the site of the future Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, was incorporated as St. Teresa’s Academy. And the rest is history …
A timeline of the CSJs in Kansas City and elsewhere in northwest Missouri, would highlight many institutions they established and administered over the ensuing years. Among them:
St. Teresa’s Academy 1866 – present
Annunciation Parish School – 1872 – 83
St. Joseph’s Hospital/Medical Center 1874 – 2015
St. Mary’s Orphanage-St. Joseph – 1880 – 1900
St. Columban Parish School (now Bishop Hogan Memorial School) -Chillicothe 1883 – 1935
Our Lady of Perpetual Help Redemptorist Parish – 1885 – 1999
St. Patrick Parish School – St. Joseph 1892 – closing
St. Teresa’s Academy moved to 5600 Main, Kansas City – 1909
College of St. Teresa (junior college) opened on Academy campus 1916
St. Joseph’s Hospital moved to Linwood and Prospect location 1917 – 1977.
In 1939, Bishop Edwin V. O’Hara announced that the College of St. Teresa would expand to a four-year college, housed in its own building on St. Teresa’s campus. Donnelly Hall opened for classes in 1941, and the first 4-year graduation was in 1942.
The College separated from the Academy and relocated to 119th and Wornall Road; renamed Avila College, opened for classes – 1963.
Following local riots and racial unrest after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., St. Joseph’s Hospital administrators decided to relocate to I-435 and State Line Road. The new St. Joseph’s Medical Center opened in 1977.
During the first century in Kansas City and elsewhere in the diocese, 2,115 Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet served in parish schools, orphanages, St. Teresa’s Academy, Avila College, Rockhurst College, at St. Joseph’s Hospital and nursing school and other ministries. Today 21 Sisters live, work and volunteer in Kansas City
Since 1966, their ministries have changed to include service at K.U. Med Center, Samuel U. Rodgers Health Clinic, Research Medical Center, St. Mary’s Medical Center, Penn Valley and Johnson County community colleges, Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kan., Carondelet Manor, Villa St. Joseph and CSJ Care Ministries. Recently, ministries to serve men and women reentering the community after serving time in prisons have begun. Sisters volunteer in Uganda and Peru. Sister Patty Clune has just returned to the States after six months in Gulu, Uganda, her second service trip there.
Avila College, Avila University since 2002, now offers 32 undergraduate degrees and 13 graduate degrees. Avila is celebrating 100 years, still sponsored by the CSJs.
St. Joseph’s Medical Center and St. Mary’s Medical Center, Blue Springs, both part of Ascension Health Systems were purchased by Prime HealthCare in 2015.
Listen to several Sisters talk about their vocations and why they chose the CSJs.
Sister Mary Margaret Lazio was born in Grand Rapids, Mich. She recalled, “From the time I was a child, I was drawn to serve God and his people. As a family we had always prayed for vocations. My oldest sister became a Grand Rapids Dominican. My dad was transferred to Cleveland. Another sister (there were six of us girls) became a Sister of Notre Dame in Chardon, Ohio. My dad was then transferred to Denver, where I met the CSJs in grade and then high school. I admired the love, joy and how they interacted with one another. They had such a zest for life and it was magnetic. I entered the community from Denver. My youngest sister also became a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet.”
Sister Mary Margaret entered the community in 1963 and was received into the novitiate as Sister Helen Charles in 1964. “When I was a novice we were asked what field we might be interested in studying. We were given the opportunity to state a preference but there wasn’t any guarantee.” She preferred nursing. “We had to complete our formation in the juniorate at Fontbonne College prior to being sent out on mission. Three of us were told that we were to study to become nurses. Fontbonne did not have a nursing program. So we took biology, chemistry, philosophy and psychology classes. Our superiors decided that we would study nursing at Avila.” She received a BSN from Avila in 1970 and a MS in medical surgical nursing from The Catholic University of America in 1978. Her 50 years in health care ministry began at St. Joseph Medical Center in 1970.
Sister Mary Margaret went on to serve as Associate Administrator in Mission and Values; vice president and Director of Nursing, and in 1993 was named Chief Operating Officer. She completed 28 years of service in Kansas City as the executive director of special projects at Carondelet Health Corporation. She was transferred to Florida in 1998.
She has served her CSJ community in St. Louis as a nursing supervisor at Nazareth Living Center since 2007. Sister Mary Margaret was recently elected to the St. Louis Province Leadership Team and began her five-year term in July.
She has fond memories of Kansas City. There were many technological and scientific advances in healthcare during those years, but to her, “the most important aspect … that I cherish to this day is the relationships that developed with everyone connected to our ministry of health care. Together, we were able to serve and respond in a manner enabling us to participate in Jesus’ healing ministry. The encouragement, mutual support, and shared commitment kept us going in both the hard and the easier times.”
Sister Helen Flemington, pastoral administrator at St. Therese Little Flower Parish, recalled entering the community because, “In grade school and then at St. Teresa’s Academy, I saw the Sisters having fun with each other and with us. I knew I wanted the religious life and there were some really great sisters.” She said she found the CSJs to be strong, faith-filled women and she appreciated the education she received from them. “I entered in 1960 when I was 16 years old.” She never looked back. “When I was in my third year of formation, I thought, ‘this is really for me.’ I realized this is what God called me to and what I really loved.”
Besides parish work, she volunteers at St. Joseph Medical Center in the spiritual care department and serves on its board. Parish ministry, however, is her favorite.
“Our church community organizes outreach for food and utilities for our neighbors. The parish and community try to help the neighborhood and the city. I think we have stabilized a small parish in an urban area, and that has been very good for the community. We are their friends; we are here for them. And people come from all over the metro area; the hospitality, gospel music, and neighborhood draw them.”
Sister Helen is proud of her community. “Through the parishes we served and taught in over the years, St. Joseph Medical Center, St. Teresa’s Academy and Avila University, our sisters have had more of a presence here than any other institution. People know us. We have a very strong presence in all the ways we’ve served and still serve.”
St. Louis native Sister Barbara Moore, a convert to Catholicism, was baptized during her eighth grade year. She attended Rosatti-Cain Catholic high school, and loved it. “I only missed one day the whole four years,” she recalled. A field trip to Carondelet her senior year introduced her to the happiness of the CSJs. She entered in 1955, the first African-American to do so and, for more than 60 years, her experience as a CSJ has been very positive.
“The love of the dear neighbor without distinction is seen in the community’s response to the needs of parishes, schools and hospitals, in social work and in immigration,” she said.
She attended Fontbonne College for a year then transferred to the College of St. Teresa, earning her Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree.
“I was a nurse supervisor at St. Joseph hospital in March 1965 when I received a call from our provincial superior inquiring if I would like to go to Selma with the Kansas City delegation. I was aware of the demonstrations that were going on, I thought about it and said, ‘Well, yes,’ not really knowing what I was getting in into.” It was unnerving, inspiring and powerful.
Back in Kansas City she enrolled at Avila College for her Masters in Nursing. Sister Barbara went on to earn advanced degrees in nursing, sociology and a PhD in higher education administration. She later served as Nursing Department chair.
After leaving St. Joseph’s, she spent three years at Heart of America United Way as project director of KC Healthy Start, a comprehensive empowerment program to reduce infant mortality by serving pregnant women, infants and families at 10 sites in Kansas and Missouri.
In 1988, she heard the call to minister to more people of color in a diverse population, leading her to serve at Samuel U. Rodgers Community Health Center as Mother & Child Clinic coordinator.
She served on the Congregational Leadership Team 2002-08, traveling throughout the CSJ provinces in the U.S., and Peru, Japan and Chile. And in 2008, she volunteered in Gulu, Uganda.
She received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from St. Ambrose University in 2013 and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Catholic Health Association in 2015.
“It’s been a very blessed life,” she said. “I was the first African-American CSJ, but since I was rooted in a strong family that taught me to value service and education, I was certainly equal! Oh, and I loved Kansas City!”
St. Louis native Sister Ruth Stuckel met the Sisters of St. Joseph in first grade at St. Mary Magdalen School. The Sisters taught all 8 grades, and “were interested in us. They liked us and were kind to all of us, even during difficult occasions. The sisters were very human, easy to talk with and enjoyed each other’s company.” At a teacher’s suggestion, Sister Ruth began attending daily Mass during the summer after sixth grade. “My mom would call me each morning and so began my love affair with Jesus.” She continued the practice of daily Mass through high school. She had already decided she wanted to be a CSJ. “My certainty has never wavered,” she said.
She entered in 1954. “I was in love with Jesus, wanted to give my life to him as a Sister of St. Joseph.”
She continued, “I honestly can say I have loved being a CSJ. Initially I found teaching difficult but with master teachers in the convent helping me, I quickly got the hang of it.” She never questioned her calling.
“Initially I thought of my life as a love affair with the Trinity. My ministries were the fruit of my union with God, the means to show my love for him, God’s love for others and to draw them to God. During the first 15 years, my actions spoke louder than my words. After Vatican II and the beginning of the Charismatic Movement, I became comfortable sharing my faith and prayer life with others in ecumenical settings. Vatican II returned us to our religious roots according to our founders, and we became freer among ourselves, more accepting of our differences and supportive of each other’s ministries. The CSJ Associates were initiated in 1973.”
Sister Ruth’s association with Avila University spans almost 50 years. She taught Philosophy for 29 of the years from 1966 – 2008, retiring as Professor Emerita of Philosophy. In between teaching she was a doctoral student, a visiting professor, a CSJ Provincial Counselor and Regional Superior. Since 2006, she has served as volunteer co-director of the CSJ Associate Formation at Avila. More than 80 members of the faculty, administration and staff have made a year-long study of the history and spiritualty of the CSJs in the last decade. At the end of the formation sessions most have made a commitment as a CSJ Associate. “Their love of God and neighbor is furthering Avila’s mission,” she said.
The future doesn’t worry Sister Helen. “We’ll always be there for the dear neighbor. I don’t know where we’re going but we’re walking the journey with God, each other and the dear neighbor.”
The next years may see more changes in Avila’s relationship with the Sisters. Sister Ruth hopes the CSJ charism of loving unity of neighbor with neighbor and neighbor with God together with the mission and values of Avila will continue into the distant future. What call will God make? Time will tell.