Bishop John Aelen was ordained a priest on 21 December 1878 for the Congregation of the Mill Hill Missionaries, England. His immense faith in God was rooted in these inspiring words of St. Paul: “Hope will not disappoint us” (Romans 5:5). His faith empowered him with missionary zeal and the desire to bring people closer to God. This missionary zeal brought Bishop John Aelen to our sacred soil who reached India in 1879 along with four of his companions. In 1881, Bishop John Aelen was appointed parish priest of St. Andrew’s Church, Vepery, Chennai – 600 112, South India, by Most Rev. Dr. Joseph Colgan, the then Archbishop of Madras.
Bishop John Aelen was ordained a bishop on 2 February 1902. He was appointed Co-Adjutor Bishop of Madras in order to assist Archbishop John Colgan. At the death of Archbishop John Colgan, he assumed the pastoral leadership of the Archdiocese of Madras as Archbishop on 17 February 1911.
The Founding Spirit
Bishop John Aelen was not an ordinary priest. He had a Spirit-Inspired theological vision of not only addressing the spiritual needs of his people; but he also expressed a keen concern about every dimension of human life. He said: “My mission is a very large one and I’m busy morning till night”. Hence, his Missionary Enterprise and Spirituality were far-reaching and holistic. It is this theological vision and missionary zeal that motivated him to found the Congregation of the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph on 19 March 1887. He entrusted the congregation to the patronage of St. Joseph. In view of this, St. Joseph’s Convent was established at Vepery, Chennai – 112, within the vicinity of St. Andrew’s Church.
Bishop John Aelen had a spiritual depth and a compassionate heart to understand the cry of the poor and the agonizing pain of the marginalized. It must be underscored in Golden Letters that Bishop John Aelen founded the congregation to liberate the socially discriminated people of his times, called the PANCHAMAS. He had a burning zeal and a blazing hope to offer them an alternate way of life and to evoke in them a consciousness of self-dignity and self-respect that would eventually promote a sense of radical equality among the people. He was convinced that this process of liberation could be initiated through education. Hence, he started a school with the singular purpose of liberating women and girl children at Vepery.
This intentional liberative process became the Founding Spirit of our Congregation as prophetically described in these words: “Towards Integral Liberation in Solidarity with the Oppressed and the Downtrodden with Singular Emphasis on Women and Girl Children.”
Every great journey begins with a small-baby step. On 21st February 1883, three aspirants Rosammal, Rasammal and Antoniammal joined the congregation. Bishop John Aelen looked forward to a big harvest. In the beginning Bishop John Aelen requested Msgr. Francis Jean Marie Laouenan, Bishop of Pondicherry to send four sisters from the Congregation of Franciscan Sisters of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, Pondicherry to help him. Three sisters, under the leadership of Mother Kanickai Mary were sent to support Bishop John Aelen in his new and daring venture.
The first three candidates made their First Profession on 19 March, 1887 the Solemnity of St. Joseph. In order to mark the beginning of a new way of life, Rosammal was named as Sr. Mary Francis, Rasammal was named as Sr. Mary Gertrude and Antoniammal was named as Sr. Mary Josephine. The Eucharistic Celebration at the First Profession was solemnized by His Grace, Most Rev. Dr. Joseph Colgan, the Archbishop of Madras at St. Andrew’s Church, Vepery. Bishop John Aelen witnessed this celebration with joy and fulfilment as this marked the birth of “The Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph”. Since that Grace-Filled moment of a humble beginning the congregation has grown over the decades. Mother Kanickai Mary left for Pondicherry in the year 1887 itself and the FSJ Congregation began to function independently.
Our Humble Beginnings
Bishop John Aelen, our founder, offered his supportive presence to Mother Mary Francis the first Superior General of the congregation. This support encouraged her and all the sisters to be convinced of the fact that “Hope will not disappoint us”. Mother Mary Josephine who became the second Superior General of the congregation was imbued with the Spirit of St. Francis of Assisi and she trained the young formees to embrace a life of simplicity and poverty in a spirit of Franciscan joy. During this time the congregation observed the Rule of the Third Order of St. Francis of Assisi. Bishop John Aelen passed away on 11 February, 1929. This was an irreplaceable loss as well as an initial setback for the congregation. Added to this great loss, there was yet another setback for the congregation due to a natural disaster. In October 1942, the floods created a great havoc and the convent at Vepery was submerged in water up to ten feet high. It is very agonising to note that all the historical documents of the congregation were totally destroyed by the floods. It was during the same time the sisters also felt the serious impact of the Second World War, which compelled the sisters to find shelter in other places. Consequently, they moved to Vandavasi, presently, in Thiruvannamalai District. However, this struggle has proved to be fruitful as we witness it today. It should be noted that at her inception the congregation admitted local candidates. However, since 1947 candidates from other states were also admitted to the congregation through the initiative of Rev. Mother Mary Dominic. This initiative was further endorsed in the 28th General Chapter 2010 and a New Directive was formulated and promulgated on 13 May, 2010.
Till 1962 our sisters were totally engaged in the field of education. It was Mother Mary Francis who had the vision to offer the sisters alternative ways of being engaged in mission like health and social work. As a result, in 1972 the seed for St. Thomas Hospital was planted in a rented house at the foot of the hill of St. Thomas and later the land for the Hospital was gifted by Most Rev. Dr. R. Arulappa, the then Archbishop of Madras-Mylapore. Rev. Fr. Mathew Vettical, the then Parish Priest of St. Patricks’ Church, St. Thomas Mount, provided tremendous moral support in this venture. Today the hospital stands a Multi Speciality Hospital because of the hard work Sr. Rexline and other noble-hearted persons.
Most Rev. Dr. R. Arulappa the then Archbishop of Madras-Mylapore, together with the collaboration of Mother Mary Martina also gave an Evangelical thrust to the congregation, which enabled our sisters to be committed to preaching the Good News to the poor by being immersed in their struggles and sufferings. In 1975 a Convent was established at Melrosapuram to promote the evangelical thrust of the congregation in a concrete way.
However, today we have come a very long way in exploring new ways of actualising our mission for the poor, especially the oppressed women and girl children. Our apostolate is reflected in Parishes, Schools, Creches, Teacher Training School, Professional Colleges (B.Ed., M.Ed.) Hospitals, School of Nursing, Dispensaries, Working Women Hostels, , Slums, Prisons, Homes for the Aged, Vocational Training Centres, Homes for Children. We are also happy to underscore that our sisters are involved in creative ministries to Street Children, Self help groups, evening study centre and people Affected by HIV/AIDS., the Physically Challenged, the Gypsies, the Tribals, and the Refugees.
In 1962 Archbishop Louis Mathias renamed the congregation in accordance to our Charism and Spirituality as “The Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph”.
In 1215, Pope Innocent referenced to the Tau cross and the passage from Ezekiel (9:5-6) at the Fourth Lateran Council. It is believed that St. Francis was present at the council and that this is when he wholeheartedly embraced the Tau cross as his symbol. Francis referred to the cross in his writings, painted it on the walls and doors of places where he stayed, and even used it as his signature.
Due to St. Francis’s love for the Tau Cross, it became associated with the Franciscan Order. In order to emphasise the significance of Franciscan Spirituality, which we observe, we wear the Tau cross.
Mother Mary Metilda the then Superior General reviewed and renewed the charism of the congregation during her entire tenure.
All the sisters participated in the Franciscan Spirituality Course animated by Fr. Joseph Antony OFM, Cap. Every Sister was given an opportunity to develop Counselling Skills, by Fr. Stanislaus S.J, to listen attentively, to encourage each other to build loving relationships, to find meaning in life and to have faith in God, others and oneself.
From 1986 onwards our sisters were exposed to the real situations of life through village exposure programmes. This was initiated in the novitiate itself by Mother Mary Cyrilla, the then Superior General. Importance was also given to ongoing formation. In 2004 the formative period was extended to four years and this was the initiative of Mother Mary Venantia. In the year 2008, Mother Rita Catherine Michael, transferred the pre-novitiate to Kasganj, Uttar Pradesh to prepare the young candidates to work for the North Province.
In 1986 a seminar was conducted on Indian Spirituality by Fr. D.S. Amalorpavadass, the then Director of NBCLC. All the sisters participated in this seminar. Importance was given to breathing techniques, self awareness, process of meditation, surrendering the ego, and prayer. The seminar also emphasised the significance of presenting the person of Jesus in the Indian context.
In May 1992 Mother Mary Venantia, the then Assistant Superior General, wrote a book on the History of our Congregation both in English The Quest and Tamil Ftû\j úRÓm ¿úWôûP. This book is a very special gift to every FSJ Sister because it is through this book we come to know the history of our congregation, understand the visionary zeal of our founder, his singular commitment to women and girl children. This book, a beautiful spiritual and literary handiwork, was made possible also through the generous efforts of Rev. Fr. S.J. Anthonysamy, a priest of the Archdiocese of Madras-Mylapore.
7 April, 1998 is a Red Letter Day in the history of our congregation. It was on that day our congregation acquired the status of a Religious Congregation of Pontifical Right. This mighty process was initiated by Mother Mary Cyrilla.
In 2000, Mother Mary Venantia, the then Superior General animated retreat in Tamil for all the sisters on the theme §ûNLs – a search to discern God’s purpose in our lives. She emphasized that there would be moment of joy fulfillment, contentment, enlightenment as well as time of failure, sorrow and tragedy in our life. Nevertheless, every sister should have the inner strength to move forward trusting in God, in oneself, in others and the FSJ Family.
On 11 February, 2007 the New Constitution and Regulation Text came into effect on our Founder’s day. We remember with love and gratitude all those who worked tirelessly to bring out this text especially our Superior Generals, Mother Mary Cyrilla, Mother Mary Venantia and Mother Rita Catherine Michael.
On 5 May, 2007 every sister was given the book on “The Rule and Life of the Brothers and Sisters of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis” to enable the sisters continue the Franciscan way of life. This effort was initiated by Mother Rita Catherine Michael, the Superior General.
In 2011, every sister participated in Franciscan Spirituality Course in view of the Quasquicentennial Celebration. This course was organized to enable our sisters to understand more deeply the life and spirit of St. Francis.
In 2012 a seminar was organized for all the sisters as how to read, to pray, and to live the bible. The seminar was conducted by Rev. Fr. S.J. Anthonysamy, Professor, Sacred Heart Seminary.
This seminar was initiated by Mother Rita Catherine Michael, Superior General.
Fruitful and Hundredfold
August 2008 was marked by persecution and tainted with blood.
The four days, August 25-28 were a struggle for life and death for every Indian and especially for the FSJ family. It was outbreak of the Kandamal Violence in Odhisa. Our sisters suffered greatly because of religious persecution and fundamentalism. As soon as, the situation was brought under control, Sr. Saleth, Sr. C.A. Victoria Rose Mary, Sr. Roseline Mary, Sr. Rajeswari Pradhan, Sr. T.P. Shirely, Sr. Jeyammal Konath, Sr. A. Velanganni and Sr. R. Leema courageously decided to go back and work in Mondosora and Cuttack. This is a living witness of their Christian Faith and the love they have for the congregation. It cannot be overlooked that during every catastrophic situation that occur in any place our sisters really reach out to the afflicted people with a compassionate heart.
‘A Blazing Hope’. This celebration encourages all the sisters to be Beckons of Hope to all the people whom they meet in their lives.