In the early evening of Ascension Thursday, 1870—May 26 on the calendar—seven weary sisters approached the frontier town of Tucson, the last stop on what had been a risky, 2,900-mile journey by train, steamboat, covered wagon, and on foot. For the final leg of the trek they at least had a carriage, along with a mounted escort of U.S. soldiers and local supporters. They had hoped not to attract attention, but as they entered the city limits a volley of fireworks and the cheers of the crowd crashed around them.
The locals’ enthusiasm grew out of their concerns. The rugged region was now part of the United States and the railroad was passing through Tucson, but there was not a single school or hospital to be found in the Arizona Territory. For two years, church officials had been asking for help from women’s religious orders. The plea had been heeded at the CSJ motherhouse in Carondelet, Missouri, and now the sisters had finally arrived. Despite their exhaustion, they did not take much time to rest, writes Sister Mary Williams, CSJ, in her history, “All Things New: The Story of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in the Los Angeles Province.” Just 11 days after their arrival, St. Joseph Academy for young ladies was open for business.
More sisters continued to arrive from Missouri, and a handful of local women entered the novitiate. In their first decade in Arizona, the number of sisters more than doubled, and they opened six schools and two hospitals. By 1900, there were 20 separate ministries, including seven in California. The need for sisters was acute, so the province moved to even faster-growing Los Angeles, and for most of the next century the CSJ ministries grew at the same heated pace as California. At the time of the province’s centennial in 1970, there were hundreds of sisters serving in more than 100 ministries.
Even as growth slowed down in the 1970s, the CSJs continued to follow the needs of the time. Instead of hospitals and schools requiring large communities of sisters, contemporary projects led by one or two sisters addressed new problems that the Arizona sisters could not have envisioned. The most recent ministries include shelters for homeless and abused women, services for the incarcerated and advocacy for victims of human trafficking.
The CSJs of the Los Angeles Province had hoped to travel to Tucson in May to celebrate 150 years; they can still look back on a legacy of more than 140 ministries— an average of almost one a year—in Arizona, California, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Hawaii. Not only have they impacted countless communities and individuals, but the CSJs are truly an enduring part of the history of the West.