Religious of Jesus and Mary celebrate 200 years of service

FALL RIVER, Mass. — Returning to the city of their first mission in the United States, the Religious of Jesus and Mary will celebrate the closing of their bicentennial year as a congregation on Sunday, September 16, at a 10:30 a.m. Mass in Holy Name Church, 709 Hanover Street in Fall River. The Congregation was founded in Lyon, France on Oct. 6, 1818 in the wake of the chaotic French Revolution. From the outset, the Sisters dedicated themselves to educating orphans and young girls at risk. Within a few decades the congregation spread to missions in India, Europe and North America.

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Committed to the apostolic call and style of St. Claudine Thévenet, the foundress, the members serve in various educational, pastoral, social and Spiritual ministries. Today more than 1,000 Sisters and their associates minister on four continents in 28 countries. Their mission is to reveal God’s goodness and forgiving love, as revealed in the hearts of Jesus and Mary.

Several celebrations have been held during the year in areas of the United States where the Sisters have served. The Religious of Jesus and Mary first came to Fall River in May 1877 as missionaries to the French-Canadian immigrants in the newly-formed parish of Notre-Dame de Lourdes. As the Sisters’ first U.S. foundation, the mission grew into an extensive network of convents and schools throughout New England, New York, Maryland, the South and the Southwest. 

Auspicious Beginnings in Fall River

 In 1876, two years after the creation of Notre Dame Parish, Mother St. Cyrille Reynier, provincial of Canada, made an exploratory visit to Fall River to see about a new foundation where she could send Sisters whose health was too frail to endure the harsh Canadian winters, but who might be able to minister to the needs of the growing number of immigrants who were employed in local factories. Unsuccessful with the pastor of St. Anne’s, Mother St.Cyrille found an enthusiastic welcome with Father Pierre Bédard, pastor of Notre Dame, who promised to give the Sisters some property he owned near the church and build them a convent on the grounds. 

On May 22, 1877, a pioneer trio arrived to take up temporary residence as guests in a house that was known as the “petit couvent,” a little-convent-that-could! By the end of May, they moved into a new home on the corner of Mason Street, large enough to house Sisters and school for the next 10 years. 

The foundresses were Mother St. Xavier [Louise Gosselin], M.St. Benoit [Mathilde Fournier] whose family was from the parish, and Sister St. Sabine [Philomène Marion]. Within weeks, seven more Sisters arrived to complete the original group. Early in September, they were teaching in makeshift classrooms in the church basement: 200 students in the elementary day school; nearly 100 working girls in evening classes; and 36 applicants for private music lessons. Within a year, under the pastor’s energetic leadership, they added a flourishing boarding school and a girls’ orphanage to their apostolic ministry. In spite of their fragile constitutions, these were women of steely resolve, stamina, and dedication. 

Growing Pains and Achievements

In August of 1884, Father Bédard died suddenly of a stroke. Fear grew among the parishioners that his dream of providing a solid education for the children in their native tongue would die with him. Throughout New England, tensions had grown between bishops who wanted immigrants to be taught in English in order to be assimilated to the growing nation, and Church leaders who felt that “to lose one’s language is to lose one’s faith.” A series of disagreements and misunderstandings led to some decisions on the part of Bishop Thomas Hendricken that were met with active resistance in the parish. In his frustration with their refusal to accept a pastor he had appointed to replace Father Bédard, the bishop closed the church and forbade services from February through August, 1885. The Sisters were deprived of the Blessed Sacrament in their convent chapel. 

Despite setbacks and difficulties, they went ahead with the construction of a new convent-school building on St. Joseph Street at a cost of $50,000, paid for from their resources. It opened in 1888 with 40 boarders and more than 300 day-students. Notwithstanding the crisis they had endured, the Religious of Jesus and Mary were grateful to God and the good people of the parish for the success of their first decade in the United States.

At the turn of the century, the Sisters began administering the new parochial Notre Dame School, where they took charge of instructing 1,200 girls and boys. The neighboring Couvent Jésus-Marie had become a well-known academy for young women, with 51 boarders from all parts of the diocese. At its 25th anniversary celebration in May of 1902, the Fall River Evening News reported that the institution, complete with chapel and infirmary, was “a model of neatness from the well-kept dormitory on the fourth floor to the cozy refectories on the first.” Day students were admitted in 1927, and their numbers were such that the Sisters added a four-story wing to their main building. In 1939, they built an auditorium with gymnasium, a decision that benefited parish activities as well as school functions. 

The rapid growth and success of the community’s educational work encouraged many vocations to priesthood and religious life from Notre Dame Parish. Thirty-six young women from Notre Dame School and/or the Academy chose to enter the Religious of Jesus and Mary in the 20th century. Twenty-five entered other religious orders.

Adapting to Changing Times

After World War II, the parish and the Sisters were forced to re-examine their ministry to a changed population. Their lives and work were also affected by the Church’s renewal after the Second Vatican Council. Social and cultural changes led to declining enrollment in the boarding school, which was closed in 1960. Jesus-Mary Academy became a secondary school exclusively for day-students. Population changes in the city and diminishing numbers of Sisters created economic and educational hardships. After deliberation and consultation with other religious institutions, Jesus-Mary Academy merged with two similar institutions, Dominican Academy and Mount St. Mary’s Academy, to form Bishop Gerrard High School for Girls. The last graduation exercises in 1971 marked the official closing of “JMA.”

The large building lent itself to a number of new services. Space was rented for Headstart programs and other educational projects for disabled children. The community of Sisters continued to live at the convent and teach in Notre Dame School or elsewhere. The third floor was refurbished and fully equipped as an infirmary for the Sisters, complete with elevator. By 1977, the RJM centenary year, Sisters who needed assistance or nursing care were received at the province retirement center in Fall River. 

A disastrous fire at Providence College resulted in a more stringent fire code for Catholic institutions in New England. The facility on St. Joseph Street was judged inadequate to meet the new code. The community’s infirmary relocated to the provincial house in Hyattsville, Md. In June, 1982, the remaining Religious of Jesus and Mary closed the doors of the Fall River convent. Later that year, the complex was sold to a developer of housing for the elderly, named Lafayette Place. Sister Irene Castonguay, an alumna of the academy, was its assistant managing director until 1995. Sisters lived and served in Fall River until 2004, when they left their residence on Highland Avenue.

The Religious of Jesus and Mary treasure their ties with Fall River’s religious and cultural history, its people and its Catholic life. If they have learned to be flexible and to “go with the flow” of changes in our Church and society, they have also held fast to the inspiration and zeal of the three courageous women who came in 1877. While there may be some nostalgia for a flourishing institutional past, these women religious have learned to “travel light” into their future. Echoing the words of St. Claudine Thévenet, their foundress, they praise the One Who began this good work 200 years ago and will bring it to fulfillment: How good God is! 

The Sisters are planning a celebration in honor of their 200th anniversary as a congregation on Sunday, September 16. Former students, relatives and friends are invited to join them for a 10:30 a.m. Mass of Thanksgiving at Holy Name Church and a buffet at White’s of Westport. Please contact Sister Diane Dube, RJM at 508-699-4427 or email for information and reservations before August 31.

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts