(UPDATED: Oct. 18, 2022)
There’s still a bit of wonder in Sister Marcia Allen’s voice when she recalls a gathering in St. Louis last summer, where women from communities of St. Joseph came together to learn more about the agrégée movement that had been revitalized here nearly 20 years ago.
There were some 40 agrégées in person, plus many more on Zoom video calls, including women from Canada and India.
“It was like being in a popcorn popper just as the popping begins,” Sister Marcia said. “The energy was incredible.”
Even more incredible, in her telling, was that “all of this energy has been unleashed on the world because of an accident that happened here in Concordia in 2003.”
Well, hardly an accident…
Historians among the Sisters of St Joseph elsewhere in the U.S. had spent decades translating and studying the original French documents that dated from the congregation’s founding in 1650 in Le Puy, France. As they learned more, they shared with leaders of other congregations — including Sister Marcia and the late Sister Bette Moslander in Concordia.
“Bette and I had read and heard the word agrégée many times, but we didn’t understand its significance,” Sister Marcia recalls. “Just listening to Sisters Anne Hennessy and Patricia Byrne, two of the historians, Bette and I just felt like we’d stuck our fingers in an electric socket.”
Canonical sisters are the most familiar. In 17th century France, they were often referred to as the “principal” or “city” sisters; they professed the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience; and lived together in communities of six or so.
There were also “country” sisters — the agrégées, pronounced ah-gre-ZHEY and from the French word for “attached to” or “aggregated with.”
They made a vow of stability that included the three vows and lived according to the rules of the Sisters of St. Joseph just as the “city” sisters did. They lived in villages singly or in groups of two or three, and were recognized by the local people and the local churches as Sisters of St. Joseph.
The shocking realization for the two Concordia sisters was that this was a different form of religious life. That was soon followed by a second shocking realization: There were already women attracted to the spirit and spirituality of the Sisters of St. Joseph who might wish to deepen their commitment as a agrégée sister.
Today they are defined as Catholic women who commit themselves to active and inclusive love of God and the dear neighbor as expressed in the spirit and spirituality of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
The first was the late Rosabel Flax of Ness City, Kan., who became an agrégée candidate in 2006 and professed her vow of fidelity to the congregation in 2008. Sisters Rosabel died in March 2014.
Others soon followed. When Christine Carbotte and Connie Palacio stood before the congregation in October 2022, they became the 19th and 20th agrégée sister.
And as Sister Marcia saw in St. Louis, the agrégée movement has generated excitement as it’s been revitalized in other St. Joseph communities.
Congregations in Springfield, Mass., Brentwood, N.Y., Erie, Pa., Winslow, Me., and Boston have all revived agrégée membership, and others in the U.S., Canada, Europe and India have expressed interest in learning more — but because each community is independent, each definition of agrégée is slightly different.
For example, 11 agrégées have joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Northwestern Pennsylvania, in Erie. Agrégée membership there is open to both married and single women.
The Sisters of St. Joseph of Springfield, Mass., allow even broader membership, according to Sister Natalie Cain. “We’re open to having male agrégées,” she said in an email. “We have a young married man who is quite interested.”
Concordia agrégées are unique from the other communities in one aspect: Only here are they called Sister and viewed as members of the congregation.
But there are a couple of significant differences that are true across all the communities of St. Joseph:
►“Canonically vowed sisters” profess the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, as defined by canon — or church — law. As part of the vow of poverty, an individual sister relinquishes all personal wealth and income; at the same time, the congregation assumes responsibility for her economic well being for the rest of her life.
►“Agrégée sisters” profess a vow of fidelity to the congregation, but it is noncanonical, meaning that it is not governed by Church law and is instead a private vow between that sister and the congregation. And while it encompasses the three canonical vows, they are applied somewhat differently. The agrégée is called to live a frugal lifestyle, but she does not relinquish her finances to the congregation, and the congregation assumes no financial responsibility for her.
“As a movement, it has all kinds of new ingredients,” Sister Marcia explains. “There’s a freedom in it that’s not necessarily in canonical life. And that gives rise to what the vocation as a woman religious can actually do in today’s world -— the difference she can make and where she can make it.
“Our founder, Father Jean-Pierre Médaille, adapted the early vision to include women who had the vocation to religious life and could not follow the usual norms for it. Today’s agrégée is simply another adaptation.”
CONCORDIA AGREGEES (as of 10/18/22)
- Connie Palacio, Anaheim
- Kathleen Stairs, Elizabeth CO
- Sharon Hayes, Foxfield CO
- Lorren Harbin, Fruita CO
- Ann Ashwood, Grand Junction CO
- Crystal Payment, Douglasville GA
- Carol Goodson, East Point GA
- Kathy Schaefer, Concordia
- Emily Brito, Concordia
- Jean Ann Walton, Concordia
- Jan McCormick, Concordia
- Denise Schmitz, Hoxie KS
- DJ Rak, Junction City KS
- Sarah Ganser, Salina
- Rosemary Foreman, Topeka
- Susan Klepper, St. Louis MO
- Mary Jo Sullivan, Norman OK
- Robin Stephenson, Portland OR
- Christine Carbotti, Hamilton, Ontario Canada
Rosabel Flax was the first agrégée to profess her vow, in June 2008; she died in March 2014.
Virginia Flax was a candidate when she died in 2013.