To help you understand the CSSJ Federation and the novitiate

January 25, 2012 by

(Published Jan. 25, 2012; updated in April 2016)

The “family tree” that is the Sisters of St. Joseph began with a single, small group of women in LePuy, France, in about 1650. And 362 years later, there are branches throughout the world.

In the United States, the independent communities of women religious who are a part of that genealogy form a loose cooperative organization called the U.S. Federation of Sisters of St. Joseph. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia is one of about 20 individual congregations (depending on how your count them). Together there are roughly 7,000 Sisters of St. Joseph in the United States.

In the 1970s, the federation began inviting novices — women who have already spent a year in formal preparation for becoming a sister and discernment on their religious calling — and the formation directors from their congregations to come together four times a year. Those gatherings would be long weekends to study their common history, spirit and spirituality.

Through the 1980s and into the ’90s, more congregations took part, and the time devoted to the increasingly formal “novitiate program” increased.

Sister Anne Davis

“But this was never driven by the federation,” explained Sister Anne Davis, who in 2012 was one of two federation novice directors and is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet-Los Angeles Province. “This was a response of the federation to the needs of the novices.”

As the 1990s ended, the federation approved what is now an eight-month residential program. That was offered for the first time in 2000, hosted by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chambery in West Hartford, Conn.; 14 novices took part that year.

Other congregations have hosted the novitiate, and twice in the ensuing years there have been no novices in the program. Beginning in the fall of 2011, the program was hosted by the Congregation of St. Joseph — a community that formed when seven smaller communities (including the Sisters of St. Joseph of Wichita) merged in 2007 — and was located at a house owned by the congregation in Chicago.

Sister Bernadette Dean

The other federation novice director at the time was Sister Bernadette Dean, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph (and formerly a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Nazareth, Mich.). Sister Bernadette served in that role since 2006, while Sister Anne began her first year in August 2011.

In early 2015, the Federation accepted a proposal from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia to move the novitiate program here for at least two years, and the first novices arrived at Manna House of Prayer in August 2015.

Sister Betty Suther is the novice director, Sister Mary Jo Thummel is the assistant director and Sister Ann Ashwood is the program coordinator.

Although there is some variation among congregations, the basic process for women who feel called to vowed religious life is this:

Postulancy — A year during which the woman lives with sisters in community to acquaint herself more fully with our life. She participates with sisters in prayer, communal life, meals and ministry and participates in classes designed specifically to orient her to life in community.

Novitiate — Following the postulancy the woman enters a two-year novitiate. During the first of these years, she continues to discern through prayer and study. In particular, she deepens her understanding of Scripture and studies the constitution of that specific congregation, as well as the vows, charism and spirituality. The second year is one of preparation for future ministry. (Traditionally, the woman may use the title “Sister” once she begins the novitiate.)

Temporary Profession — The woman professes the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. She lives and ministers as a professed sister, experiencing more of religious life and continuing to discern and integrate her identity as a woman religious. This period is generally no less than three years.

Perpetual Profession — Through a lifelong commitment to live the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, a sister dedicates herself to God, to unifying love in community and to serve a world in need.

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