By Debbie Shelley

The Catholic Commentator  

St. George Church in Baton Rouge had its prayers answered 60 years ago when the Sisters of St. Joseph arrived to staff the parish’s new school.  

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Pictured is one of the groups that made their commitment as lay associates of the Sisters of St. Joseph Oct. 13 at St. George. Photo by Debbie Shelley | The Catholic Commentator 


That legacy was honored during a Founders’ Day Mass and commitment of 14 new lay associates Oct. 13 at St. George.  

In her welcome, Sister Joan LaPlace CSJ said, “Our story here began in 1960 when pastor Father James Finnegan launched what he called ‘Operation Sister’ in an attempt to attract the sisters to the parish. He is quoted as saying, ‘talked to the good Sisters of St. Joseph in New Orleans. Pray for a miracle.’ ”  

Sister Joan said that on May 8, 1960 the St. George bulletin announced that “against all odds” two sisters and four lay teachers would staff St. George School that September. She noted there were 150 students registered for school.  

During the years, 23 sisters have faithfully served the St. George School community. In 1970 they entered a new ministry affiliated with the parish as religious education coordinators.  

Two sisters who mentor the lay associates served at St. George: Sister Lucy Silvio CSJ as principal of St. George School and Sister Illeanna Fernandez CSJ as religious education coordinator of St. George Church.  

“The St. George community was influenced in many ways by the charism of the Sisters of St. Joseph. The parish today is a leader and model of prayer, formation and action in our diocese,” said Sister Joan.  

In his homily, St. George pastor Father Paul Yi talked about how the young Jesuit priest, Father Jean Paul Medaille SJ, founded the Congregation of St. Joseph 370 years ago.  

Father Yi said the young man “stood on the shoulders of spiritual giant” St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, when he envisioned a movement in which discipline in prayer and contemplation led to a transformation in the vision of the world. That vision would be the catalyst for spiritual and corporal works of mercy.  

“This charism is a gift of grace,” said Father Yi, who added its gift is a “fire in our hearts to serve others.”  

After the homily, 14 inquirers made their commitment to become lay associates.  

The new associates were aglow as they spoke about their formation journey after the Mass.  

“It’s impossible not to experience the charism by being with them,” said Monique Harper, who is the food services director at the Congregation of St. Joseph Center in Baton Rouge.  

Learning about the history of the sisters’ journey to the United States and the sacrifices they made to minister to “dear neighbor” has helped Harper develop patience.  

“I learned a lot about being a woman from the sisters by the examples they set in serving others,” said Harper.  

Marla Silverberg said she came in contact with the sisters and their charism when her daughters attended St. Joseph’s Academy in Baton Rouge, which also has a rich history with the congregation.  

“They are very strong women,” said Silverberg, who said becoming an associate was an evolving process.  

Even though the coronavirus pandemic prompted the meetings of the new associates to change from in person to virtual since March, meeting with other associates remained Silverberg’s favorite part of formation.  

“We learned from each other because we’re on the same journey,” said Silverberg.  

Alex Torres’ interest in the lay associates came through a friendship developed with Sister Ily Fernandez CSJ.  

“She invited me to a retreat where I met associate Mary Karam and other sisters, including Sister Helen Prejean (CJS) and sisters working in New Orleans. I was inspired by their work and their focus on inclusivity,” said Torres.  

The Congregation of St. Joseph stands for radical inclusivity for Torres.  

“When we say ‘dear neighbor without distinction’ we mean it,” said Torres. “This means that the congregation is not afraid to say ‘Black lives matter’ and support policy that reflects this truth. The sisters condemn white supremacy and do the work to think about their privilege.  

“They think critically about how we can be good stewards of this earth. They work to make sure that those at the margins feel included and work towards holding those in power accountable. I love that I can see that contemplation in action – that radical love in action that is needed to transform the world. I feel inspired and hopeful because I know we are doing the work together. And in these current times, to feel inspired and hopeful is a blessing,” said Torres.  

Also becoming lay associates were: Amy Andrews, Blake Bruchhaus, Becky Demler, Fallon Gerald, Meg Gerald, Catherine Lowe, Rocio Coto, Linda Hipwell, Mary Michel, Margaret “Mag” Wall and Mary Williams.