Sister Mary McGlone Pens CSJ History

by Jenny Beatrice, director of communications

How do you eat an elephant?

That is how Sister Mary McGlone describes the huge undertaking of her project for the U.S. Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph—writing the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph in the United States.

The idea for this book has been percolating in the federation for at least 25 years, yet it was about three years ago that S. Mary picked up the project after the federation put out a call for a writer. Her experience in history and theology, as well as her track record having written history for the U.S. bishops and the vice province of Peru, made her the right candidate for the job. “After 25 years, I’m doing my best to bring this to completion,” she says.

S. Mary’s approach to this project is one “bite” at a time, grounding the book in each congregation’s founding story. “I’ll get every congregation highlighted with something that is unique to them in areas of healthcare, education, and the various other kinds of things we’ve been involved with in these 180 years.”

S. Mary says she’ll be putting everything in the historical and ecclesial context in which it happened to show how time and place affected us and how we contributed to them as well. “The second half is going to look like a history of women religious in the United States, starring the Sisters of St. Joseph.”

The intense amount of research needed for the project began with “two tons” of materials that had been previously collected by Sister Barbara Baer from Wichita. “I inherited the research that was sponsored by the federation, but I didn’t inherit a plan,” she says. After spending significant time plotting an approach, the intense research continues. In addition, S. Mary has visited every congregation at least once during this process.
Gathering information from each congregation has revealed that although the histories are written in silos, there are incredible connections throughout, particularly in the first 50 to 60 years. S. Mary cites some “movers and shakers” that people may not have heard of but who played a significant role in the sisters’ growth.

For example, Sister De Chantal Keating was based in Brooklyn around the time of the Civil War. She was lent to Wheeling, West Virginia, and became famous in Civil War nursing. Returning to Brooklyn, she ran one of the biggest orphanages in the city, but she continued her contacts with sisters from various areas, particularly in the East.  S. Mary says, “She subtly had her fingers in all sorts of pies.”

It was also during these early days that the sisters began to organize themselves in units but faced a challenge in their local dioceses. “Nobody thought of themselves as congregations for the first 25 years. Then they needed to start figuring out structures and how to maintain some freedom from being totally ruled by the bishop of the diocese,” S. Mary says.

While some ended up being controlled by the local bishops as if they were adjunct to diocesan clergy, one bishop was surprisingly supportive of the sisters—Bishop Kenrick of St. Louis. S. Mary says, “Kenrick supported our sisters going all over the country—Philadelphia, St. Paul, New York, out west. He was the ecclesial power behind us becoming a congregation as Carondelet.”

S. Mary says she is pushing to complete a draft this spring. Sister Patty Johnson, executive director of the federation, who has viewed the early chapters of the draft, says of S. Mary’s work, "I think this will fundamentally change the way we think of our history in the United States. I also believe that we will see implications for the future once we have a clearer understanding about how we evolved from our humble beginnings in a log cabin on the Mississippi."

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