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   June 12, 2008 Issue                                       

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Sisters of St. Joseph celebrate 150 years in Chestnut Hill

Descendants of the Middleton family, whose great-great grandfather John Middleton, sold the Sisters Of Saint Joseph his house, Monticello, in 1858, Mary Walsh, Virginia Walsh, Robert Moylan Walsh, Victoria Middleton Walsh.
(Photo By Erin Vertreace)

On a summer day in 1858, three Sisters of Saint Joseph came to Chestnut Hill for the first time. This was the beginning a long, meaningful relationship between their congregation and the Chestnut Hill community. The nuns had traveled from McSherrystown, Pa., to check on their newly purchased home, John Middleton’s property, “Monticello.”

As the day wore on, a storm raged and prevented the women from leaving the property, now part of the Chestnut Hill College campus. Forced to stay in the large vacated home, the women had no food, beds or chairs. As they were preparing for bed with empty stomachs, they noticed a woman, Ellen McGinnis Martin, crossing the fields to visit them.

This friendly and generous neighbor, whose home was at the corner of Germantown and Northwestern avenues, provided meals for the sisters for the next three days. When she discovered they had no furniture, she sent them a small table, which today they still hold dear and preserve in their archives as a tribute to their good neighbors.

The Martin family was the first of many good neighbors who have provided assistance to the Sisters over the last 150 years. In gratitude for the hospitality and welcoming spirit shown by their original neighbors, the Sisters celebrated their own anniversary by honoring the descendants of these neighbors.

At the “Dinner with the Dear Neighbors” last month, descendants from the Middleton, Quinn, Martin and Dwyer families, as well as priests from the religious orders dear to the Sisters, enjoyed an evening celebration at the SSJ Motherhouse, originally the Middleton family home. As it was when the Sisters first arrived here in 1858, a huge rainstorm greeted the guests.

The weather didn’t dampen any spirits however, and, as part of the festivities, Archival Associate Sister Roberta Archibald shared wonderful stories illustrating how the Sisters of St. Joseph came to call Chestnut Hill their home. The Sisters, who had arrived in Philadelphia from St. Louis a few years before, came to the area to serve at St. Philip Neri Parish. The church, however, was burned by members of the anti-Catholic Nativist Party so the Sisters served at the St. John’s Orphanage for Boys, at 13th and Chestnut streets, instead. Many young women joined their order, and requests for the Sisters to provide more service in the area were growing.

Soon the SSJs, as they are known, were serving in an orphanage, a hospital, a home for widows and parish schools. The growing congregation had many Sisters and even more novices (women studying to become nuns) to house. They moved to McSherrystown, Pa., but soon the house grew too small for the expanding number of novices. Bishop John Neumann had learned that John Middleton was interested in selling his home and 15 acres of land for the Sisters to house an academy and novitiate.

A former Quaker who had converted to Catholicism just four years earlier, Middleton was a pioneer in establishing a Catholic community in Chestnut Hill. Almost immediately after his conversion, despite the anti-Catholic sentiment of the Know-nothings and Nativists, he began plans to build a Catholic church.

When the diocese could spare no priests to lead the community, Middleton met with the Augustinians (a religious order of Catholic priests independent from the Diocese of Philadelphia) and convinced Dr. Patrick Moriarty, an Augustinian priest, to serve at St. Mary’s Parish, now Our Mother of Consolation (OMC). Since the Sisters’ arrival, the priests at OMC (first the Augustinians and now the religious order the Oblates of Saint Francis de Sales) have been dear neighbors, friends and colleagues to the Sisters.

At the anniversary dinner, as Archibald recalled the story of how Ellen McGinnis Martin helped the Sisters that first stormy night, she spoke of the many priests who served as spiritual companions and co-workers in service. The priests in attendance, as well as the descendants of the Martins, Middletons and Quinns, were thrilled to learn of their connection to the Sisters and the critical role their ancestors played in the Sisters’ experience in Chestnut Hill.

The families were touched to see historic photographs of their ancestors, many of which they were viewing for the first time. They enjoyed the opportunity to learn more and better understand their relationships with each other as well.

Tim Dwyer, the great, great grandson of Ellen McGinnis Martin who was in attendance at the dinner said, “I have always felt a close connection to the SSJs because over the years all my extended family and my children were taught by the SSJs.

“There are many other connections as well, but the dinner really solidified the great bond between our family and this wonderful group of women.”

Seated in two circles with baskets of bread as the centerpieces, dinner guests were presented a loaf of bread baked by the Sisters as a symbol of their gratitude and hospitality.

“It was such a wonderful evening,” Archibald said. “The family members commented how humbling it was to be a recipient of our deep gratitude.”

Sister Patricia Kelly, president of the Sisters of Saint Joseph Congregation, called the event, “a vintage Sisters of Saint Joseph dinner.” Since the Sisters consider relationship to be at the core of their mission, it was most appropriate for them to celebrate the relationships deeply valued by those first Sisters who came to Chestnut Hill.

Their mission, “We live and work so that all people may be united with God and with one another,” is manifested in their work each day. Following the six Sisters who founded their religious order during the 17th century in war-ravaged LePuy, France, the Sisters today focus on union with God, themselves and neighbors.

Thousands of residents of Chestnut Hill and the greater Philadelphia area have benefited from the Sisters’ commitment to serving their neighbors. Six weeks after the Sisters’ arrival, they opened Mount Saint Joseph Academy in the first-floor parlors of the home. Today the original principal’s desk sits in the original classroom. (Joseph Middleton’s daughters enrolled in the school since Middleton had offered to remit $1000 if at least two of his daughters were enrolled.)

Because of the admission of student boarders and a growing novitiate population, the original house at “Monticello” was expanded to include classrooms, dining rooms, Sisters’ dormitory, chapel, and music room.

The Sisters reached out to one of their nearest neighbors, St. Mary’s Church, (now OMC) by providing religious education classes and, later, by teaching in their school. Beginning with classes in the basement of the church, they later moved into the new school in 1888 and have been teaching students there ever since.

The relationship the Sisters have at OMC is a strong one — they work in the school, support the parish religious education program and help minister to the needs of the parish.

The Sisters of Saint Joseph’s “sponsored works” are places founded and supported by the Congregation where the Sisters’ mission of unity directs the mission, philosophy and values of each place. Locally, some of the Sisters of Saint Joseph’s sponsored works are Chestnut Hill College, Mount Saint Joseph Academy, Norwood-Fontbonne Academy, Holy Family Academy (Bayonne, NJ), Saint Joseph Villa, SSJ Center for Spirituality and the Cecilian Center for Earth, Arts and Spirit.

The Cecilian Center, located on the former campus of Cecilian Academy, continues the legacy of the academy through education in the context of a growing awareness of the needs of planet Earth.

“Relationship with Earth is a newer aspect of our commitment to dear neighbor,” Sister Patricia Kelly said. “Now we are more conscious of needs of the Earth as part of God’s creation.”

Commitment to the earth has become a corporate stand for the congregation. In the past it has taken a corporate stand against the death penalty and apartheid. It is now in the process of initiating a stand on human trafficking.

“We undergo much prayer, reflection and conversation before initiating a corporate stand,” Kelly said.

When the congregation takes a position on a societal issue and initiates a corporate stand, the congregation fully examines all the ways in which it can take direct action to support the stand. They dedicate time, prayer and resources to taking direct action as a congregation and through their relationships with others. Many of their stands have revolved around social justice.

 “As a congregation, we are very serious about social justice,” Kelly explained. The SSJs have a Sister assigned as a full-time Social Justice Coordinator and a Commission of Justice, which are called to lead the congregation in challenging injustices and fostering right relationships. There are Sisters living in other countries, working to ensure that others are being treated with respect and dignity. In Flourtown, many elderly Sisters living at the Villa (St. Joseph’s Villa) serve as letter writers to government officials advocating for peace and justice, as well as, environmental issues.

SSJs host a “Welcome Center” on Allegheny Avenue in the Kensington section of the city. It offers opportunities for poor immigrants and other neighborhood newcomers to improve the quality of their lives through access to education and support services leading to self-sufficiency. As part of the Sisters’ anniversary commemoration, they celebrated the fifth anniversary of this special place where they greet their newest neighbors.

All the Sisters’ actions, subtle or direct, are rooted in their mission of relationship with others.

“We bring our mission into all aspects of our work,” Kelly said. As they did 150 years ago, the Sisters continue to find ways to serve their neighbors and develop meaningful relationships with the many different individuals they meet through their various ministries.

While recognizing that the number of woman choosing the Sisterhood has decreased in recent years, Kelly looks to the future with great hope.

“Given our fewer numbers, we are coalescing gifts in collaboration with others to build a collaborative structure where we work closely with our lay brothers and sisters,” she said. As her colleagues do, she considers religious life a gift from the Holy Spirit and hopes to nurture religious vocations in women so the Sisters of Saint Josephs in Philadelphia will continue with women who desire to live the SSJ mission.

Today, as they were so willingly when they first arrived in Chestnut Hill, the SSJs remain committed to serving their neighbors. In the words of Kelly, “We are always ready for any good work.”