It’s been 150 years since the young women who became the first members of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word arrived in San Antonio. Their mission was to help the region recover from deadly epidemics; but that was only the beginning. Seeing so many young fathers widowed in the epidemics, the sisters entered the field of education to help raise the surviving children.
Since then and still today the sisters see evolving needs in San Antonio, St. Louis, Jefferson City, nationally and internationally in Mexico, Peru, Ireland and Zambia, and find the resources to address them. Their ministries include education, healthcare, transitional housing, pastoral care, the environment, care for the elderly, service to the Hispanic community and empowerment of women in poverty-stricken areas.
All their work is consistent with the original mission of service to education, women, children and the elderly and ending poverty. The foundation of the community, its spirituality and ministry, is the mystery of the Incarnation – that God in the person of Jesus Christ became human and lives among us. The sisters in turn discern how they can use their gifts to serve God and his creation.
“The sisters’ mission is to make God’s love a lived reality by service to education, women, children and the elderly, and the elimination of poverty.”
In celebration of the sisters’ 150 jubilee year, a Vespers Service was held at St. Ann Catholic Church in Normandy, Missouri on March 1, 2019. The worship aide included this detailed history of the sisters’ ministries in the St. Louis area:
The Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word was founded in 1869 by Claude Marie Dubuis, Bishop of all of Texas. The Sisters attribute their founding and the identification of their charism to Dubuis who wrote to a cloistered order of Sisters in Lyon, France:
“Our Lord Jesus Christ, suffering in the persons of a multitude of the sick and infirm of every kind, seeks relief at your hands.”
Dubuis recognized the incarnate presence of Christ in those members of his diocese who were experiencing the ravages of a cholera epidemic as well as of the Civil War. He also recognized Christ in himself and those called to serve the suffering. He wanted to found an order of Sisters whose mission it would be to “actualize the saving and healing love of the Incarnate Word by promoting human dignity” (Constitutions, Article 3). Three young women responded to the call and established the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, Houston, in 1866.
Three years later, Sisters Madeleine Chollet, Pierre Cinquin, and Agnes Buisson traveled by stagecoach to San Antonio and founded a second Congregation, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, San Antonio.
While beginning as a nursing order, the Sisters quickly diversified, learning to care for and educate children left to their care when one or both of their parents succumbed to cholera. Their exceptional abilities in health care, however, were noted by the burgeoning railroad industry which built its own hospitals to care for the sick and injured as well as the growing populations around their established stops. Twenty years after their founding, the Sisters responded to a call to work at the Missouri Pacific Railroad Hospital in St. Louis. They worked hard to expand their work in St. Louis, serving at St. Joseph’s Sanitarium, and later at the Josephine Heitkamp, a privately-owned hospital.
After many years of changing leadership and financial challenges, the Sisters were asked to purchase the hospital in 1932. Thus began their dedicated service to the poor which continued until the mid-1990s when the Sisters merged with the Deaconess Hospital, providing a continuum of care of the sick and elderly, including extensive outreach services to bring health care to those struggling to access it in a changing city. In 1997, Deaconess Incarnate Word Health System was finally sold. Part of the proceeds from the sale were used to establish Incarnate Word Foundation, whose mission today continues the ministry of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in the Greater St. Louis area.
In 1914, the Sisters were invited by Father Patrick Bradley to teach at Blessed Sacrament School on North Kingshighway. With growing numbers of Sisters, they requested to establish a Province in St. Louis. Cardinal Glennon granted that request. In 1921, the Sisters purchased eight acres of the Lucas Estate in North St. Louis County where they built a Provincial House and Novitiate. In 1932, they were finally granted permission to open a girls’ academy on the property. Incarnate Word Academy continues to thrive as the only single gender college preparatory school in the North County area. Always eager to expand their mission and ministry, the Sisters served in almost twenty parish schools in St. Louis, Illinois, and mid-Missouri:
- Blessed Sacrament School (1914-1970)/ Bishop Healy School (1970-1976), St. Louis, Missouri
- Immaculate Conception School (1914-2015), Jefferson City, Missouri
- Immaculate Conception School (1924-1989), Macon, Missouri
- Incarnate Word Academy (1930-present), St. Louis, Missouri
- Mary Immaculate School (1961-1968; 1984-1988), Kirksville, Missouri
- Our Lady of the Ozarks (1913-1915), West Plains, Missouri
- St. Dismas School (1957-1985), Florissant, Missouri (Now St. Rose Phillipine Duchesne Parish)
- St. Francis Xavier School (1915-1988), Taos, Missouri
- St. James School (1952-1969), Potosi, Missouri
- St. Joachim School (1924-1995), Old Mines, Missouri
- St. Patrick’s School (1950-1961), St. Patrick, Missouri
- St. Sebastian School (1955-1988), St. Louis, Missouri (Merged into Blessed Teresa of Calcutta School)
- Polish School (1883-1885), South Chicago, Illinois
- St. Catherine Laboure School (1959-1971), Cahokia, Illinois
- St. Frances of Rome School (1924-1998), Cicero, Illinois
- St. Josaphat School (1884-1885), Chicago, Illinois
Immediately after Vatican Council II, the Sisters faithfully responded to a call to read “the signs of the times,” resulting in the emergence of new ministries. Incarnate Word Sisters have served as Parish Associates at St. Anselm’s Parish, Incarnate Word Parish, St. Pius V. Parish, and Sacred Heart Parish in Valley Park.
In 1999, they established El Puente Hispanic Ministry, a ministry of presence and outreach to the Hispanic community in mid-Missouri. And in 2018, they assumed Canonical Sponsorship of St. Elizabeth Adult Day Care Center, at the request of the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood of O’Fallon, Missouri.
To welcome lay persons who want to share more deeply in their charism, the Sisters formed Incarnate Word Associates in 1984. There are three Associate Communities currently in the Missouri Area. The Sisters are grateful to form part of the Catholic fabric of St. Louis, where they established a Novitiate Community in South St. Louis in 2018.