Bon Secours Sisters

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Congregation of the Sisters of Bon Secours is a Roman Catholic religious congregation for nursing (gardes malades), whose stated object is to care for patients from all socio-economic groups. Reflecting their name ("bon secours" means "good help" in French), the congregation's motto is "Good Help to Those in Need." In 2014, the order was in the news over the issue of an early 20th century Irish maternity home in Tuam, Ireland, due to allegations that the home had a high death rate from disease and some of the children may have been buried on the site.


The congregation was begun by Archbishop de Quélen of Paris in 1822, and was formally approved by Pope Pius IX in 1875. While its patients were expected to pay what they could afford, the congregation provided nursing free of charge to the poor. According to their founding constitution, "After the personal sanctification of its members, the principal aim of this pious society is the care of the sick in their own homes". Its Nuns traditionally wear a black habit and a white cap with a frilled border and black veil.

By 1913, there were sixteen houses of the congregation in France, four in Ireland, one in England, two in the United States, and one in Belgium. Founded with governmental approval during the monarchic and catholic Bourbon Restoration, the congregation became a target of anti-clerical governments[1][2][3] during the early 20th century. For example, in northern France, four large schools in the mining districts around Lille and Lens were closed, based on accusations that they were not in compliance with the institute's approved charter. In addition, the Sisters' treatment of sick and wounded miners was suppressed, as was a program called "la goutte de lait", or "the drop of milk", a dispensary-like initiative which supplemented the food available to miners' infant children.[citation needed]

The foundress[edit]

The congregation's foundress, Josephine Potel, was born on March 14, 1799 in the small rural village of Becordel, France. At the age of 22, she traveled to Paris and was moved to pity by the suffering she observed. At that time, France had been shaken by centuries of political, social, and religious upheaval—including, most recently, the French Revolution. The violence of the Revolution—particularly the Reign of Terror—had taken many lives and left psychological scars. With the rise of philosophers including Voltaire and Rousseau, who both railed against organized religion and the clergy, faith in religion and the Catholic Church had decreased significantly among many of the French people.

With rampant poverty among France's lower class, healthcare for the poor was scarce and low-quality. When people fell ill or were injured, they avoided the hospitals, which were seen as death traps and often had filthy, prison-like conditions. Care, if available at all, was usually provided by a family member with little or no experience caring for the sick. With overcrowding and a lack of sanitation, diseases spread quickly through city streets, afflicting rich and poor alike.

Wanting to combine her strong Catholic faith with her desire to serve those in need, Josephine joined a group of women involved in caring for the sick and poor. However, the group was a secular organization, and its members did not wish to take religious vows or incorporate spirituality into their work. In order to create a similar organization rooted in Catholicism, Josephine and eleven other women formed the group that would become the Sisters of Bon Secours, choosing Josephine as their leader.

The original twelve Sisters dedicated themselves to going into homes in the community and staying with the sick and dying, offering care and religious messages regarding God's love and redemption. The idea of religious women going out into the world to perform such work was then unheard of.[citation needed] Contemporary norms held that nuns were supposed to return to the world behind convent walls by nightfall, if they left the convent at all. Consequently, when the Sisters applied for acceptance of their new congregation by the Catholic Church, the Archbishop of Paris was skeptical. The Sisters also met with some suspicion from the Church due to their willingness to care for all in need, regardless of religious affiliation or social status, which was a radical approach at the time. Nevertheless, after persistent efforts by Mother Potel, the Archbishop eventually granted the Sisters a one-year probationary period.

The early days[edit]

In the beginning of the religious institute, the Sisters’ living conditions were harsh. With little funding, they shared all possessions, including clothes. Meals were minimal and the Sisters often slept on mattresses laid on the floor. However, the group persisted, fueled by their central beliefs, including their conviction that by serving the needy, they were doing God's work.[citation needed]

Despite the divisions between social classes in French society at the time, the Sisters cared for rich patients in large estates as well as the poor, avoiding distinctions based on socioeconomic status. In addition to providing care to the sick, among hungry families, the Sisters would also share their food with patients' hungry family members, striving to help bring health to everyone in their patients' homes, not just the actively ill. Furthermore, among the ill, the Sisters took a holistic view, considering not just the body but also the mind and spirit of each patient, and aiming to bring healing to the whole person. Another radical view at the time, this approach, along with the group's extension of care to the patient's family, distinguished them from traditional religious congregations operating at the time. Also a unique element of their work was the Sisters' practice of remaining with the terminally ill throughout the dying process, reflecting parallels with modern-day 24/7 home care and hospice care.

Word of the Sisters' work spread quickly throughout Paris and the surrounding countryside, and the Sisters were sought out by other women who, inspired by their work, wanted to join the institute. By the end of its first year, eighteen new members had joined, bringing the number to thirty.

Impressed by the institute's success, Archbishop de Quelen officially recognized the Congregation of Bon Secours on January 24, 1824.

New leadership
Although the group's official recognition was a major success, the Sisters were, at the same time, facing an impending crisis of leadership. Having contracted tuberculosis, the institute's leader and founder, Josephine Potel (now known as Mother Mary Joseph), was terminally ill. Attempting to identify a successor before her death, Mother Josephine selected Angelique Geay, a 33-year-old sister who, as the eldest of six children, had spent most of her youth helping her mother raise and care for her brothers and sisters in the French countryside. Josephine's spiritual advisor, a priest called Father Desjardins, agreed with the selection, instructing Geay: "Sister, you will begin your retreat because you will pronounce your vows in eight days. Prepare yourself to be named Superior."[citation needed]

On May 5, 1826, Angelique pronounced her vows, and the following day Mother Josephine died. Three days later, on May 9, 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.

Growth of the congregation's mission in France[edit]

Under the new Mother Superior's leadership, the Bon Secours Sisters continued to grow throughout France. The organization's success was bolstered by the Sisters' policy of providing care without initiating discussions about believing in God or needing to pray for forgiveness. This policy recognized the historical context of the time—scorn and skepticism for clergy and religious organizations was high—while also reflecting the Sisters' belief in "sharing God's love in action", or through their actions, rather than words.

The Sisters reached a major milestone in 1827, when the French Bourbon government legally recognized them as the first association of nursing religious individuals in the country. Following this milestone, the demand for the organization's services continued to grow. In 1829, Mere Geay established a new group of twelve sisters in Lille, and the following year the Sisters began a ministry in Boulogne. Three years later, at the Archbishop's request, the congregation took over an orphanage in Paris.

As the Sisters’ numbers continued to grow, they moved in 1833 into a larger home in Paris, which remains the Mother House headquarters to this day. Meanwhile, France continued to be plagued by epidemics, wars, and social upheaval. After the King of France was exiled during the Revolution of 1848, the former King's palace became a hospital where the Sisters cared for the wounded; they also tended to the injured on the streets of Paris. Similarly, 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. The following year, while the Paris Commune of 1871 brought new restrictions on religious organizations and increased anti-religious sentiment, the Sisters' popularity continued because of their reputation for risking their lives to care for those in need, regardless of their patients' belief systems or stations in life.[citation needed]

Moving into a wider world[edit]

In addition to extending their work around France, the Sisters of Bon Secours began to expand beyond the country's borders due to international demand for their services. In 1861, Ireland - which was still reeling with widespread starvation and poverty following the devastating Irish Potato Famine - became the Sisters' first foreign foundation. The order would go on to open Magdalene asylums for unwed mothers, some of which were much later found to have been unsanitary and prison-like. Nine years later, the congregation was invited to establish themselves in London. The Sisters would also be asked in 1948 to bring their home nursing services to the people of Scotland, and also to open a home for the elderly in Glasgow.

The United States
The Sisters of Bon Secours’ arrival in America came about because of a honeymoon gone awry in the late 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 care she provided. Upon returning to the States, the couple spoke to some prominent area physicians, who contacted Archbishop Gibbons of Baltimore to request that the Sisters be asked to practice their ministry in the United States.

Approving of the request, while on his way to Rome to become a cardinal, Archbishop Gibbons stopped in Paris to ask the Sisters if they would be willing to provide their home care services in Baltimore. In 1881, three Sisters sailed to the United States, and in the following year they opened a convent in Baltimore on the site of the present Bon Secours Hospital.

South America and Africa

By the 1950s and 1960s, the Sisters had begun to expand into the Third World with work in South America and Africa. In 1957, at the request of an African bishop, the Sisters opened a home for sick children in Chad, working also to educate mothers and reduce the infant mortality rate. Nine years later, the Irish Sisters of Bon Secours began the institute's first work in South America after 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.

Introduction of home healthcare abroad[edit]

The Sisters' work reflected the beginnings of home healthcare in a number of the countries that they expanded into, including the United States. For example, the Sisters were the first congregation to provide overnight home nursing care in the United States. In 1907, they were also the first to open a day-care facility to assist working mothers, an innovative idea for the time. With convents opened in Washington, D.C. in 1905 and Detroit in 1909 the sisters’ reputation for devoted home nursing care spread. Numbers continued to grow as well, and the Sisters opened a novitiate in Baltimore in 1912 to train young women who wanted to become sisters and join in their work.[citation needed]

As hospitals became the preferred place of treatment, the Sisters broadened where they cared for the sick and dying. Soon the Sisters were building their own health care facilities. By 1916 the Sisters were staffing a home for crippled children in Philadelphia, the first Catholic home for the physically challenged. In 1919, they opened the doors of Bon Secours Hospital in Baltimore, the first Bon Secours hospital in the U.S. They began formally training young women at the Bon Secours School of Nursing in 1921.

The United States Province[edit]

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.

They also broadened the scope of their work, bringing spiritual healing and nourishment to people through the Spiritual Center at provincial headquarters in Marriottsville, Maryland, which was opened in 1968. Expanding the way they 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 1960s and 1970s in an effort to serve the poorest and most forgotten.[citation needed]

Throughout the 1980s, 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 they 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.

The 1990s saw the birth of a number of outreach projects designed to help the poor, the elderly, disadvantaged elementary school students, and families in crisis as the sisters again reaffirmed their commitment to caring for the most forgotten people in society. They also reached out to people in need outside of the U.S., opening a mission in Riobamba, Ecuador. Like the previous decade, the 1990s were a period of tremendous growth within the Bon Secours health system, adding more than 15 new hospitals and nursing care facilities, many joint ventures with other religious congregations dedicated to health care.

Current activities[edit]

At present the congregation works in the United States, Ireland, Peru, France, Ireland and Great Britain. Within the U.S., the sisters live and serve in nine states: Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia.

Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home controversy[edit]

In 2014, there were widespread media reports that the bodies of 796 children and babies who died of malnutrition, neglect, and disease had been discovered in a former septic tank at the St. Mary's Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Ireland. The child mortality at the home had allegedly averaged four a week, and (it was claimed) evidenced the discrimination and maltreatment that children of unwed mothers experienced while at the home.[4][5][6][7]

Eventually it was revealed that the original news reports misunderstood, if not actively misrepresented, the original story told by Catherine Corless, a local historian. Corless had obtained death records for 796 children — an average of 22.1 per year — who had died of various diseases at the home between 1925 and 1961, a time of high poverty and infant mortality in Ireland. However, she had not uncovered a mass grave or any other evidence of mistreatment. In 1975, two local boys had lifted a concrete slab and seen the skeletons of "maybe twenty" babies. While Corless speculates that the pit in which the skeletons lay may have been part of the sewage tank installed by the workhouse in 1840, eighty-five years before the Bon Secours sisters took it over, she told the Irish Times, "I never said to anyone that 800 bodies were dumped in a septic tank. That did not come from me at any point. They are not my words. ... I just wanted those children to be remembered and for their names to go up on a plaque. That was why I did this project, and now it has taken [on] a life of its own."[8]

The death records obtained by Corless had established the identities of those who died in the home. She concluded that their bodies had been buried in an unofficial graveyard on the St. Mary's property, and she has set up a fund to build a memorial for the site.[9] Bon Secours sisters are said to have donated money for this purpose.[10]

On 4 June 2014 the Irish government announced it was forming a panel of representatives from a number of government departments to investigate the deaths at the home and propose a course of action for the government to take in addressing the issues.[11]

See also[edit]


External links[edit]

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company.