Among the list of legendary religious women, Mother St. John Fontbonne of the Sisters of St. Joseph counts as one of its most admirable heroes. During the French Revolution’s reign of terror, she refused to renounce her loyalty to the Catholic Church and was sentenced to death by guillotine, saved only by the fall of Robespierre the day before her execution.
During those dangerous years in France, her family home played an important role in keeping many religious men and women safe from persecution. Her family gave shelter to those who sought protection, including Fontbonne herself and her sister, Marie.
When Fontbonne was released from imprisonment, she and Marie returned to their home and lived there for many years caring for their aging parents.
After learning that the house was for sale during last summer’s ”Following in the Footsteps of our Founders” pilgrimage, President Ann McElaney-Johnson conferred with the Mount’s board of trustees to make an offer on the house on behalf of the University. The board agreed.
Now, the Fontbonne family home in the small French town of Bas-en-Basset is part of Mount Saint Mary’s University. It will become a welcoming space for pilgrims, a house of study for faculty and students, and a destination for members of the Mount community seeking a different kind of French experience.
“Mother St. John Fontbonne stands as a cornerstone of the foundation of our history. Knowing her, we understand better the lives and love of the sisters who have followed,” says McElaney-Johnson.
Born Jeanne Fontbonne, Mother St. John was educated by the Sisters of St. Joseph in Bas-en-Basset and later in boarding school in nearby Le Puy. Very early on, Fontbonne was recognized for her leadership skills. The bishop of Le Puy, after meeting Fontbonne, told her family, “Form this little one well. She will be the glory of your congregation.”
Fontbonne served her first community in Monistrol, France, in 1778 and was elected as superior six years later. When the Sisters of St. Joseph refused to sign the Oath of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1790 — which required all religious people to swear an oath of allegiance to the state in an attempt to reorganize the Catholic Church in France — Fontbonne was forced to disperse the community. Several members of the congregation died for their faith, and several more, like Fontbonne, escaped execution only by Robespierre’s downfall.
For Fontbonne, nothing was impossible. In 1807, she was asked to reestablish the congregation in Saint Etienne, marking a new beginning for the Sisters of St. Joseph. She was a visionary with a discernible forward momentum and in 1836 she sent six sisters to the United States, who established the first house of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet (CSJ) along the banks of the Mississippi.
“Throughout her leadership she was admired and loved for her optimism in the face of difficulty, her fearlessness in the face of violence and injustice, her intelligence and resolve in the face of challenge, her compassion in the face of pain, her honesty, sensitivity, kindness and her deep, abiding faith,” says McElaney-Johnson.
The Fontbonne house will be open for the first time to the Mount community in June for the pilgrimage tour led by McElaney-Johnson and the Mount’s CSJ Institute. Starting in the fall semester, faculty will be able to use the space for research. The University hopes to provide study-abroad opportunities for students to visit the home and immerse themselves in experiencing the spirit of our founders.
The CSJ Institute also plans to work with other pilgrimage groups from CSJ-sponsored institutions so our larger faith community can enter the home and reflect more deeply on Fontbonne’s life, her legacy and her courage.