In 1851 Bishop Joseph Cretin needed help to preach the Catholic faith to the growing St. Paul community. In July of that year he asked the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in Missouri to assist him. Mother St. John Fournier and three Catholic sisters traveled to the city in the fall and quickly influenced the health and welfare of the region.
Bishop Cretin invited the Sisters of St. Joseph to join him in St. Paul on July 2, 1851. He had spent three weeks at Carondelet in the late 1830s and was familiar with the mission there. Mother St. John Fournier, along with Sisters Francis Joseph Ivory, Scholastica Vasques, and Philomene Vilaine, boarded the steamboat St. Paul at eight o'clock in the evening on October 28, 1851. They headed north on the Mississippi River for Minnesota Territory, landing in St. Paul during the night of November 2, 1851. Their arrival there made them the first sisters of the city's fledgling diocese.
The Sisters were given the former church of Father Lucien Galtier to begin their mission. In that small building on the bluffs of the Mississippi they opened the city's first boarding school on November 10, 1851. They named it St. Mary's, later renaming it St. Joseph's Academy in 1859. The children enrolled there were taught reading, writing, and arithmetic. The first boarder was Mary Ellen Rice, niece of politician Henry Rice. Also included in the inaugural class of fourteen girls was Mary Theresa Mehegan, later more well known as the wife of railroad tycoon James J. Hill.
The Sisters overcame the challenges of their unfamiliar surroundings to spread their message and help the needy of the area. The region offered few roads, and travel by carriage through a sea of tree stumps was a challenge. Transit became nearly impossible in the snowy winter months. The Sisters dealt with cold living conditions in their small shanty below the bluffs, as well as the possibility of wolves attacking travelers as they crossed over the ice of the frozen Mississippi.
In spite of their difficulties, the Sisters were unwilling to end their work at the city limits of St. Paul. They soon considered mission opportunities in other parts of the state. Sister Scholastica was sent north to Long Prairie to teach at the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) Indian reservation there. Another sister was sent to St. Anthony Falls, within present-day Minneapolis. There she opened a school to preach to immigrants who had moved to town to take advantage of the site's water power.
The mission of the Sisters continued within the borders of St. Paul as well. In 1853 a cholera epidemic occurred and many citizens became ill and died. The Sisters, with nowhere to take the sick, offered them the best care that they could. Realizing the immediate need, they lobbied to build a hospital. Their pleas were heard and construction began on a new facility on Exchange Street. They offered their school as a makeshift hospital until the formal building, on land donated to the diocese by Henry Rice, could be completed in 1854.
As the needs of the growing population multiplied, additional sisters from the Carondelet mission were sent to the territory. Fostering the Catholic faith with the Indian nations of the region was no longer a part of their work. Instead, the Sisters focused on helping local people in need regardless of their prestige, nationality, or faith.
The Sisters' impact in Minnesota Territory was almost immediate and their legacy long-lasting. Within three years of their arrival they had established an academy, a hospital/orphanage, and other services in the region. Eventually, the Sisters opened over one hundred institutions for education and health care in Minnesota and surrounding states.
Coburn, Carol, and Martha Smith. Spirited Lives: How Nuns Shaped Catholic Culture and American Life, 1836–1920. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Hurley, Sister Helen Angela. On Good Ground: The Story of the Sisters of St. Joseph in St. Paul. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1951.
O'Connell, Marvin Richard. Pilgrims to the Northland: The Archdiocese of St. Paul, 1840–1962. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009.
Sampson, Sister Ann Thomasine. "Attacked By a Starving Wolf: Four Sisters of St. Joseph and Their Mission to St. Paul; Patience, Courage, Joyfulness in a Crude Log Cabin." Ramsey County History 35, no. 4 (Winter 2001): 4–14.
———. A Guide to Publications and Information About the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Paul Province. [St. Paul: A.T. Sampson, 1983].
Savage, Sister Mary Lucinda. The Congregation of Saint Joseph of Carondelet: A Brief Account of its Origin and its Work in the United States (1650–1922). St. Louis, MO: B. Herder, 1923.
Wall, Barbra Mann. Unlikely Entrepreneurs: Catholic Sisters and the Hospital Marketplace, 1865–1925. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2005.
On July 2, 1851, Bishop Joseph Cretin meets with Mother Celestine Pommerel of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in Missouri to request assistance in preaching the Catholic message to the citizens of the growing city of St. Paul.
Bishop Joseph Cretin travels to Carondelet, Missouri to request assistance from the Sisters of St. Joseph.
Four sisters board the steamboat St. Paul to begin the six-day trip north to the city of St. Paul.
Mother St. John Fournier and Sisters Francis Joseph Ivory, Scholastica Vasques, and Philomene Vilaine arrive during the night in the city of St. Paul, becoming the first four sisters of the diocese.
The Sisters open the St. Mary's boarding school in the former chapel of Father Lucien Galtier.
A cholera epidemic hits St. Paul.
St. Joseph's Hospital opens to care for the sick in the community.