The early days
In the beginning of our order, the sisters’ living conditions were harsh. So few were their possessions even their clothes had to be shared. A sister returning home from a long nursing shift would hand over her street clothes to another sister heading out. Her dinner would be minimal and her bed often a mattress on the floor. But this deprivation didn’t deter the first sisters. They were on fire with faith and the desire to serve. Their passion to do God’s work sustained them – and the need for their work was great.
Central to their mission was recognizing Christ in each person they tended. Just as crucial, they realized, was bearing witness to Christ through their own hands-on care and healing. The dual nature of the sisters’ presence affirmed God’s love for every individual and brought hope to the dying.
Word of the care and compassion the sisters gently shared with those who suffered spread quickly throughout Paris and the surrounding countryside. When they cared for a person who was sick and whose family had nothing to eat, they shared what little food they had with hungry family members, striving to bring health and wholeness to everyone in the home, not just the patient. They cared for rich men and women in their estates, making no distinction between people because of what they possessed or did not possess.
Women who were inspired to serve with the sisters sought them out. By the end of the first year, their number had swelled from 12 to 30, still not enough however to meet the endless needs of the sick and dying.
From the start, the sisters sought to bring healing to the whole person. Their holistic vision of a patient as body, mind, and spirit, and their extension of care to the patient’s family, were well ahead of the times and another element that set them apart from other religious congregations. So was their faithfulness, remaining with the suffering through their entire ordeal. They personified 24/7 care long before the term was invented and advanced understanding of how to care for the dying.
Impressed by their faith and their tireless work, Archbishop de Quelen officially recognized the Congregation of Bon Secours on January 24, 1824.
New leadership born of crisis
Joyous as this day was, a crisis was looming. Josephine Potel, now known as Mother Mary Joseph, was dying of tuberculosis. She looked for a woman who could lead the fledgling congregation and found her in an unexpected place.
Father Desjardins, Mother Josephine’s spiritual advisor, agreed that novice Angelique Geay’s obvious leadership qualities were matched by a deep spirituality. The 33-year-old sister was the eldest of six children and had spent most of her youth helping her mother raise and care for her brothers and sisters in the French countryside. She showed abundant trust in God’s will when the priest informed her, “Sister, you will begin your retreat because you will pronounce your vows in eight days. Prepare yourself to be named Superior.”
It was a tumultuous week for the order. On May 5, 1826, Angelique pronounced her vows. The following day the sisters gathered around their foundress as she died, sharing with her the same compassion and spiritual encouragement they had shown to so many others. Three days later, on the ninth of May, the congregation’s first leader was buried and Angelique was appointed Superior General, taking her predecessor’s name, Mother Mary Joseph, as all subsequent heads of the Congregation have.
Sharing God’s love in action
While the sisters’ concern was very much for the spiritual as well as the physical condition of their patients, they were careful not to impose their beliefs on others but to show God’s love by their actions. They nursed the sick without initiating discussions about believing in God or needing to pray for forgiveness.
This had a remarkable effect. At a time when clergy and religious were being scorned and persecuted, the government legally recognized the Sisters of Bon Secours in 1827 as the first association of nursing religious in the country. The congregation’s ecumenical approach and humanitarian service to both rich and poor made them an asset to the entire populace.
The demand for their services continued to grow. In 1829, Mere Geay established a new group of twelve sisters in Lille, and the following year sisters were called to begin a ministry in Boulogne. Three years later, at the Archbishop’s request, the congregation took over running an orphanage in Paris.
As the sisters’ numbers grew, they moved into a larger home in Paris in 1833, which remains the Mother House headquarters to this day. Epidemics, wars, and social upheavals continued to plague France. With the Revolution of 1848, the exiled king’s palace became a hospital where the Sisters of Bon Secours took care of the wounded, as well as tending to them on the streets of Paris. During the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, the sisters cared for the wounded and dying on the battlefield and brought them into their convents to convalesce.
While priests and religious were executed in a new reign of terror in 1871, the Bon Secours Sisters were once again spared because they had risked their lives, caring for all, regardless of their belief system or station in life.
Moving into a wider world
Not only did the Sisters of Bon Secours extend our work around France, but we were sought abroad as well. Ireland, in a terrible state with the ongoing famine, became the Congregation’s first foreign foundation in 1861, followed in 1870 by an invitation to establish ourselves in London. In 1948 they were asked to bring our home nursing to the people of Scotland and also open a home for the elderly in Glasgow.
South America and Africa
In time, our work reached beyond the borders of Europe to South America and Africa. An African Bishop in 1957 requested that the sisters open a home for sick children in Chad where we worked to educate mothers and reduce the infant mortality rate. The Irish Sisters of Bon Secours brought our charism of caring to South America in 1966 when the Bishop of Cork and Ross took responsibility for a shantytown on the Peruvian coastline and invited the sisters to minister to the impoverished populace there.
The Sisters of Bon Secours’ arrival in America came about because of a honeymoon gone awry in the 1800s. A newlywed couple, the Whedbys, were on their wedding trip in Paris when the bride fell ill. An English-speaking Bon Secours sister nursed her back to health and the couple was deeply impressed with the extraordinary, compassionate care the sister offered.
Upon returning to the States, the couple spoke to prominent area physicians, who contacted Archbishop Gibbons of Baltimore in hopes that the sisters could be asked to practice their ministry in this country.
On his way to Rome to become a cardinal, Archbishop Gibbons stopped in Paris and asked the Sisters if they would be willing to come to Baltimore to nurse the sick in their homes. After careful consideration, we accepted the invitation and three sisters sailed the ocean in 1881 and opened a convent in Baltimore the following year on the site of the present Bon Secours Hospital.
The very beginnings of Home Health Care!
The Sisters of Bon Secours were the first congregation to provide overnight home nursing care in the U.S. In 1907 we were also the first to open a day-care facility to assist working mothers, a remarkable innovation for the time. With convents opened in Washington, DC in 1905 and Detroit in 1909 the sisters’ reputation for devoted home nursing care spread. Our numbers continued to grow as well, and we opened a novitiate in Baltimore in 1912 to form young women who wanted to become sisters and join in our work.
As hospitals became the preferred place of treatment, the sisters broadened where we cared for the sick and dying. Soon we were building our own health care facilities. By 1916 we were staffing a home for crippled children in Philadelphia, the first Catholic home for the physically challenged. In 1919, we opened the doors of Bon Secours Hospital in Baltimore, the first Bon Secours hospital in the U.S. We began training young women at the Bon Secours School of Nursing in 1921.
A United States Province is formed: additional services are added
In 1958 the Congregation of Bon Secours in the United States became a separate Province. As the twentieth century progressed, the sisters responded to people’s changing needs, opening convalescent homes, running clinics and mobile health care vans, caring for the sick in rural areas and those struggling with addictions in inner cities.
We also broadened the scope of our work, bringing spiritual healing and nourishment to people through the Spiritual Center at our provincial headquarters in Marriottsville, Maryland which we opened in 1968. Expanding the way we cared for people in need, they built safe, affordable housing for low-income families and opened several assisted living facilities in Virginia and Florida. The sisters took on experimental health and community support apostolates in Harlem and Appalachia during the 60′s and 70′s in an effort to serve the poorest and most forgotten of God’s people.
In 1981, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Province in the United States. Things had changed tremendously since that day 100 years before when three sisters first set foot on the shores of Baltimore to begin their work in America. Throughout the 80′s, the Bon Secours Health System grew rapidly, opening a number of hospitals, community health clinics, nursing care facilities for the elderly, alcohol and drug abuse rehabilitation centers, affordable housing units, and medical office facilities in Maryland, Virginia, Florida, and Michigan in response to the needs of the communities we served. To ensure the system remained true to its essential mission of providing care for the whole person to all people in face of such growth, the sisters developed new processes and positions within the system focused on mission and core values. We continue to refine and redefine those processes today.
The 1990′s saw the birth of a number of outreach projects designed to help the poor elderly, disadvantaged elementary school students, and families in crisis as the sisters again reaffirmed our commitment to caring for the most forgotten people in our society. We also reached out to people in need outside of the U.S., opening a mission in Riobamba, Ecuador. Like the previous decade, the 90′s were a period of tremendous growth within the health system, adding more than 15 new hospitals and nursing care facilities, many joint ventures with other religious congregations dedicated to health care.
Over the intervening years, the Sisters of Bon Secours continued to expand the reach of our mission, building an integrated health system that includes 20 hospitals, eight long-term care facilities, eight assisted living facilities, ten home health and hospice agencies, and two nursing schools in Michigan, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, Florida, and Kentucky.
Today, the Sisters of Bon Secours have grown from a group of twelve devout women to a community that includes more than 20,000 lay co-workers. In all their works the sisters and those who work with us stress compassion for every person, care for body, mind and spirit, and the redemptive power of God’s love for those who suffer. The sisters reach out to those in need, serving as nurses, doctors, chaplains, administrators, advocates – demonstrating God’s love each day as we care for others.
No matter where we serve, the Sisters of Bon Secours continue to bring our charism of healing, liberation and compassion to all, especially the poor and suffering, and share the Gospel’s message of hope and salvation. Though the means of reaching out have evolved, the heart of the mission and charism remain strong and unchanged.
“Our charism is so alive and the work we do is so very needed today. This is an exciting time to be a Sister of Bon Secours. You have the opportunity to join us and help shape our future,” says Sr. Mary Catherine Rogers enthusiastically.