Felicite Duras, The Countess de la Rochjacquelin
Associate membership with the Sisters of St. Joseph has a rich history, dating back to the time of our founding in seventeenth-century France when lay persons became spiritual companions and partners in service with the Sisters. In our Albany Province, individuals have made “formal” association with us for nearly 25 years, bringing the Gospel of Jesus to thousands through the CSJ charism of reconciliation and unifying love.
A Faithful Friend
Felicie de Duras, Comtesse of de la Rochejacquelin, is considered by many to be the first lay associate of the Sisters of St. Joseph. A philanthropist, a holy woman, and a great admirer of Mother St. John Fontbonne, the Countess assisted in the mission and ministry of the Sisters through her influential presence and through her generous financial contributions both to the Sisters in France and to the Sisters in the “New World.” The Countess dreamed of sending the Sisters of St. Joseph worldwide. In 1835, she wrote the following letter to Bishop Joseph Rosati of St. Louis:
Letter from Countess Rochejaquelin to Bishop Rosati, June 10, 1835
“I think the excellent Father Odin and the Vicar General of Lyons have written to you several times on the subject of the desire I have to send Sisters of St. Joseph to America. Your silence on this subject proves either that the letters did not reach you or that you are not anxious for this establishment. If, indeed, you have any objections to it, I wonder what they may be.
“It is not a vague idea to do a good work in America which has made me propose them to you. Protected by Divine Providence, in a singular manner, in all the difficulties and misfortunes to which I have been exposed, I promised God, in so far as He would deign to bless this design, to send six Sisters of St. Joseph to America to convert the savages, to teach their children and those of Protestant families, and to convert also those to whom the missionaries, too busy or too few, are able to make but passing visits. The reading of the Annals of the Propagation of the Faith made me shed tears over these harvests for which there are no laborers.
“These incomparable Sisters, once they are established, could be sent two by two into little villages, and there prepare the way for Baptism, First Communion and Confirmation. A settlement near the Indian territories, built on a rather wide plain, could be, after a short time, of the greatest advantage.
“My Lord, perhaps you do not know the Sisters of St. Joseph. They … make perpetual vows. Their Rule obliges them to all the virtues of the cloister joined to those which exact and ardent charity for their fellow-beings. It was the first thought of St. Francis de Sales; one which he renounced, with sorrow, for his Visitation. Thus piety, interior recollection, self-denial, humility and prayer on the one hand, and on the other a devotion, without restriction, to all works of charity. They work in free schools, paid boarding houses, great hospitals, hospices for the elderly or abandoned children, jails, refuges for the poor, home care for the sick, the care of people with scabies and ringworm; in pharmacies, at manual labor, sewing and weaving.
“If you had seen, as I, their spirit of poverty and humility; it is evangelical. I have known them for thirteen years. I have established several convents and contributed to the establishment of others. The East of France is alive with the activity of these Sisters. I have sent them to the West. They are not numerous enough for the demands….
“My Lord, the spirit of the Congregation of Saint Joseph is something without precedent. It is this poverty and this lowliness which Our Lord taught, and which conquers the world. It seems to me that if I succeed in establishing the Sisters of St. Joseph in your America, near the savages, and near so many heretics in your diocese, I shall have done, during my life, something pleasing to God to win His mercy for my sins. I know what I have given is not enough, but I will give more, I will help; only say, My Lord, what you think is necessary for the beginning.
“I pray you to answer as soon as possible. I am anxious that the work be accomplished. Be persuaded that I am altogether unwilling to impose my views on you as to the place and the best means to be taken to accomplish this end. Do what you think best. I have but one desire; namely, that they not be far from the territory of the savages and that they work for the conversion of poor Indians and poor Protestants … for all unhappy sects….
“I am imposing on your time which is so valuable. Permit me to ask you to remember me to Madame Henrietta Kersaint, my cousin, a Religious of the Sacred Heart in Saint Louis. I ask her prayers and yours particularly, while begging you to accept my sentiments of respectful consideration and devotion in Our Lord.
“I have the honor of being your very humble and very obedient servant,
Felicite de Duras, Countess de la Rochejaquelin”