This summer, members of Mount Saint Mary's community traveled to the southeastern region of France to learn about the rich tradition and history of our founders: the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet (CSJs).
In late May, a group of 15 students were the first to travel in this pilgrimage that follows the founders’ footsteps. Organized and led by the University’s CSJ Institute, the experience offers travelers the opportunity to connect with the Mount’s heritage and immerse themselves in CSJ's historic sites over eight days.
This was a special trip, not only because it was the first time that the University offered students the opportunity to travel to France, but also because the original pilgrimage was supposed to take place in March of 2020, a few days before the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic and the world shut down. The trip was postponed until it was finally safe to travel internationally this year.
The participating students started their trip at the village of Le Puy, a town built upon volcanic hillsides. It was there, in 1650, the first six Sisters of St. Joseph formed a revolutionary community of women who were not content to cloister themselves away from the world. Instead, they dedicated themselves to a new kind of religious life in which they responded to the needs of the world around them.
“This pilgrimage offers the opportunity to encounter the vision, tradition and the history of our institution by standing in the places where our founders came from,” says Shannon Green, director of the CSJ Institute. “I think it’s a profound experience and I am confident that it can impact students’ lives in lots of different ways.”
Students met with sisters from around the world, climbed to the top of Rocher Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe, and stood in the stone-built kitchen where the CSJs first met to plan their ministry. They also visited the Centre International of St. Joseph, a collaborative effort of Sisters of St. Joseph from around the world to welcome pilgrims. There, they learned about not only the history of the sisters but their ongoing mission and efforts to serve around the globe.
After three days in Le Puy, the group journeyed to Bas-en-Basset, the birthplace of Mother St. John Fontbonne, who re-founded the sisters after the French Revolution. The pilgrims finished their journey in Lyon, Fontbonne's gravesite. It was she who sent the first Sisters of St. Joseph to America in 1836 to Carondelet, Missouri. From there, the sisters fanned across the continent carrying a message of unifying love as they established hospitals; prison ministries; programs for women, children and the poor; and schools such as Mount Saint Mary’s.
For Jacqueline Mendez ’24, this was her first international trip. Although she admits that she felt nervous in the beginning, she thinks that this trip was “a huge milestone and an opportunity of a lifetime.” Mendez, who will start in the nursing program this fall, explains that her “call of becoming a nurse and helping underserved communities was reaffirmed” by this experience.
“What I took away from this trip is that there are a lot of things in my life that I’m doing that are meant for a greater purpose,” she says. “My purpose is to help those in disadvantaged communities. Learning the different lessons from the CSJs and seeing all the struggles that they went through to help others made me realize that I’m here with a greater purpose in life.”
Diana Martinez ‘23, a business administration major, also traveled abroad for the first time. She took two major lessons from the experience: the importance of teamwork and what it means to be a fearless leader. “We saw how the six sisters, even though they followed different paths to meet the needs of the communities in that area, always came back together and discussed what they saw and how they could help. Being in a group ourselves reinforced that idea of supporting and empowering each other, and we created a bond over the trip,” explains Martinez.
She thinks that it’s very important that the University offers this international experience to students, because “it draws a deeper connection into the value of being at Mount Saint Mary’s and the importance of being a leader and being unstoppable. When you come back from that trip, you feel the need to help others as well and live out that mission in the way the sisters intended to.”
Elissa Doering ’23, a social work major, shares a similar view. “I think that looking back to the University’s founders and fully immersing ourselves into their story, in a different part of the world, can be a great way to ground yourself in your Mount experience,” she explains. “I think there's a part of their story that everyone can connect to and this experience can help students feel connected to themselves, each other, staff and faculty, and the Mount at large.”
Faculty and staff pilgrimage
Immediately after the student pilgrimage concluded, a group of Mount faculty and staff followed a similar itinerary to explore the foundations of the University’s heritage. The trip, led by President Ann McElaney-Johnson, visited the same locations as the student trip, in addition to Annecy, a picturesque town known as the Venice of the Alps.
“The CSJs went against traditions, laws and commonly held standards for women in order to create something new," says Krishauna Hines-Gaither, PhD, vice president of equity, diversity and justice. "They dared to chart a different path, and today, we at Mount Saint Mary's University and beyond are continuing to build on their legacy of equity and justice.”
“This pilgrimage allowed me to walk where our founders had walked. I gained a deeper understanding of our CSJ heritage, and I was able to immediately relate that heritage to my role. I can do my job in a more profound manner now that I have a greater understanding of who we are,” adds Hines-Gaither.
For Danielle Salomon, director of libraries at Mount Saint Mary’s, it was eye-opening and rewarding to see the important role that archives and collections have played in preserving and communicating the history of the sisters over the centuries.
“As a women’s college committed to the advancement of women, I think that it’s important and motivational to provide a deeper understanding of the spirit of the CSJs. These were women leaders who were changing the rules more than 370 years ago,” says Salomon.
In her view, this trip also allowed an opportunity for Mount faculty and staff members to foster a sense of unity and teamwork, an experience that was especially rewarding after two years of largely remote work.