Living the Charism

Two students from Elms College spent a week in France in June 2018, practicing their French, learning about French history and culture, and — perhaps most importantly — making personal connections with the legacy of the college’s founders, the Sisters of St. Joseph.

From June 16 through 23, Monica Karriem ’20 of West Hartford, CT, and Jane Dugan ’20 of Southwick, MA, joined a pilgrimage to Le Puy, France, led by the Association of Colleges of Sisters of St. Joseph (ACSSJ), of which Elms College is one of nine members. The group was led by Sr. Kitty Hanley, CSJ, Ph.D., and Sr. Joan Lescinski, CSJ, Ph.D., along with Martha Malinski, executive director of the Association of Colleges of Sisters of St. Joseph, and Campus Ministry representatives from some of the colleges.

The Sisters of St. Joseph founded Elms College in 1928 to create educational opportunities for young women with limited access to education to prepare themselves for a career and prepare for a life of service to others in the Catholic intellectual tradition. Today, as a coeducational college, Elms still holds to a mission of “educating reflective, principled and creative learners who are rooted in faith, educated in mind, compassionate in heart, responsive to civic and social obligations, and capable of adjusting to change without compromising principle.”

The focus of the pilgrimage was on the history of the first six sisters and Mother St. John Fontbonne, and also on sharing the charism of the sisters: “to live and work that all people may be united with God and with one another.”

After a long trip to Europe over the weekend, the students spent Monday through Wednesday in Le Puy, and Thursday and Friday in Lyon, France, visiting historic sites related to the Sisters of St. Joseph in each place.

“We got to learn a lot through going to places where they would have prayed or where they cooked,” Karriem said. “Another place I learned a lot was in the Mother St. John Fontbonne room. I got to learn a lot about the rebounding of the Sisters of St. Joseph.”

The student pilgrims learned about themselves, too. “I learned that if you listen, God will show you things about yourself,” Karriem said. “One of the things was to just be in the moment and to not worry about what was going on back home. Another thing I learned was that, through whatever happens, trust God, because the Sisters of St. Joseph were facing persecution but they stayed strong and trusted Him.”

Each day was different, but the students always gathered for breakfast and then set out for the day; every night, the group would come back together for reflection. “We would give our highs and lows before splitting into groups to discuss the theme of the day,” Dugan said. “Then we would come back together as a large group and conduct Sharing of the Heart, as the first six sisters did.”

The trip allowed today’s students to see the sites and walk the same earth as the first SSJs, and to connect profoundly with the stories and charism of the sisters in the place where they were founded. “Entering Mother St. John’s room and standing at her grave was such an emotional experience, and made me realize how lucky we were to have her survive the troubles she endured,” Dugan said.

Dugan, a secondary education and history double major, is a member of the Justice and Peace Committee, Agape Latte, and Campus Ministry. She also is one of the college’s Fontbonne Scholars, a group of undergraduates who wish to explore the mission of the college and the charism of its founders.

As a youngster growing up in Southwick, Dugan used to accompany her grandmother, Kathleen Dugan, to her job at Mont Marie, the SSJ motherhouse in Holyoke, MA. “I wanted to get to know the sisters in France because I’ve grown up with all the sisters here in Massachusetts,” Dugan said.

Despite her familiarity with the sisters, she said the focus on SSJ history during the trip opened her eyes to their impact on the world. “I learned that the SSJs stemmed from several strong women, and that we need to embody them more,” she said. “Starting with the first six sisters and Mother St. John Fontbonne, these women defied their society and were able to make a true difference in their times.

“If we were to act like them, we could certainly make the world better, as they strove to do.”

Karriem, a social work major and religious studies minor, serves on the advisory board for Campus Ministry and is a co-chair for the office’s Agape Latte series. She was inspired to apply for the trip through her relationship with Sr. Carol Allan, SSJ, director of Campus Ministry.

Karriem had always wanted to visit France. When she learned she was one of the students chosen to participate in the summer 2018 pilgrimage, she was ecstatic. “It was like God gave me a way to go to France,” she said.

‘Le Puy is a little town, but it has a big heart.’

Both students plan to carry the experience into their future careers.

“I am studying to become a history teacher, and this trip opened my heart to the charism of the SSJs indefinitely,” Dugan said. “In Le Puy, we met a group of middle school students from an SSJ school, and they were completely humble and grateful to be growing up in the warmth of the SSJs. I hope to use the charism of the SSJs to guide students who will care and carry out that charism as well.”

Karriem intends to hold the SSJs as an example in her social work career. “It has enhanced my Elms education and my religious education, and it will enhance my career as a social worker because I can give the SSJs as an example of persistence, and I can use their spirit to guide me through my helping of people,” she said.

Dugan and Karriem are back home now, but they look back on their trip with fondness and gratitude.

“This pilgrimage was truly a blessing,” Dugan said. “The people I met on this trip felt like family to me, and the places I went felt like home. I hope that we are able to send more students with the ACSSJ to experience this journey.”

“Le Puy is a little town, but it has a big heart,” Karriem added.

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