This summer, two Chestnut Hill College students, Matt Velez '25 and Skye Bennett '23, were chosen to make a pilgrimage to Le Puy, France, alongside faculty member, Ryan Murphy. Together, the CHC contingent joined students from other Association of the Colleges of the Sisters of Saint Joseph (ACSSJ) institutions as part of a multi-day immersion experience in Le Puy, where they learned about and walked the footsteps of some of the earliest SSJs. To celebrate Founders' Day, the three shared their stories during a campus-wide panel.
A Remarkable History and Legacy
Every year, on October 15th (or the 16th or 17th if the day falls on a Saturday or Sunday), Chestnut Hill College comes together with other SSJ-sponsored works around the world to celebrate Founders' Day in recognition of the legacy and impact of the Sisters of Saint Joseph. The day is an observance in memory and recognition of when the original six Sisters of Saint Joseph (Françoise Eyraud, Clauda Chastel, Marguerite Burdier, Anna Chaleyer, Anna Brun, and Anna Vey) and Father Jean-Pierre Médaille were given the official affirmation and recognition to live their holy lives serving their neighbors as a religious apostolic community in Le Puy, France.
“Founder’s Day reminds me of the ordinariness of the original sisters’ lives," says Ryan Murphy, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology. "It’s important to remember that the six founders were widows and young women, with only one being able to read and write, yet they were able to form an apostolic community."
In addition to his teaching, Murphy studies the history of how religious women in the Catholic Church respond to gendered constraints in their day-to-day lives.The Sisters in particular, were revered for serving people on the margins where the community and Church were not at the time. Murphy believes that communities of women religious, including the Sisters of Saint Joseph, were among the first feminists in a patriarchal society that challenged inequalities. For example, “during the pandemic of 1918 in Philadelphia, the Sisters of Saint Joseph congregation would go to private homes of Black, immigrant, and Jewish people who were not welcomed in traditional hospitals and would risk their own lives to help treat and support those who were sick,” notes Murphy.
Locally, Founders' Day has dual symbolism as Mother Saint John Fournier, who on the counsel of Bishop Saint John Neumann founded the Philadelphia branch of the SSJs, passed away on October 15th, 1875. Her memory and legacy lives on today through the College's Fournier Hall, dedicated in her honor.
"Retracing their Footsteps": Sharing an Experience from Le Puy and Leon
Ryan Murphy was one of the faculty that accompanied a pilgrimage to LePuy, France this past summer for a group of 15 students who attend one of the nine ACSSJ colleges and universities. According to Murphy, the trip inspired him to continue to live fully in the moment because the Sisters of Saint Joseph were able to be present in their everyday work to positively influence others and create lasting change. “It’s important to emphasize the influence that all people can have, even on a small scale," notes Murphy. "I bet the Sisters could not imagine the far-reaching applications of secondary learning that happens here at Chestnut Hill College 400 years later because of their mission.”
Skye Bennett ’23 was one of the two Chestnut Hill College students selected to participate in the pilgrimage abroad. “For me, the trip was something I’ll never forget, and it solidified my desire to serve the dear neighbor, like Sister Fontbonne said, without distinction,” says Bennett.
Currently, Bennett lives out this mission by supporting her campus residents through community-building programs in the residence halls on campus. In addition, Bennett plans to go to law school to be an attorney specializing in medical malpractice so that she can advocate for Black people, especially Black women who face systemic oppression, bias, and unequal access to medical treatment.
Matt Velez '25, a media and communication major, shared a similiar expression when talking about one of his favorite parts of the journey to France. “College moves so fast that you don’t often get to pause and reflect," he said during the panel. "But being in France, surrounded by religion for a week, you get an understanding of the belief behind Chestnut Hill College and the whole reason we are here. This school is a result of sacrifice, religion and faith. Seeing where it all started gave me a sense of pride and joy in my school."
Sister Michelle Lesher ’00, Director of Mission & Ministry, moderated the discussion and reminded attendees that Founders' Day is not only a reflection of the past, but a call to embody the mission in our everyday lives.
“We don’t celebrate just to remember our history. There’s so much work and love still to be spread in this community and beyond. Founders' Day is our invitation to continue the legacy to circle the city with love,” said Lesher.
If you’re interested in learning more about what the Chestnut Hill College group did during their time in Le Puy, Murphy will also be offering a colloquium on the pilgrimage on Monday, October 30 at 2:00 pm.
- Jaime Renman