When Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick of St. Louis visited the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet motherhouse in 1857, the sisters were reeling from the unexpected death of their popular French-born superior who had expanded, stabilized and Americanized the French community since their arrival 21 years earlier. To replace her, the sisters had chosen a highly-respected, American-born sister to lead them into the future. When the archbishop walked into the chapel that morning to announce that their newly-elected superior had declined for health reasons, he had decided to make the appointment himself. According to early historian Sr. Lucida Savage, when Archbishop Kenrick announced his choice, which was his right under the sisters’ existing French constitution, he selected a French-born sister who had only been in the United States for three years and had a reputation as a stern task master who “countenanced no half measures.”
After Kenrick announced his unilateral decision, he received a stunning and totally unexpected reaction. In her memoirs housed in the motherhouse archives, Sr. Febronie Boyer, who was present at the scene, described what happened next. “This announcement caused great excitement. The sisters screamed – threw themselves on the floor. The Archbishop left immediately, even ran from the chapel and would not hear or see anyone.” Sr. Febronie stated that “many sisters were so dissatisfied that they went to other houses and gave up their [work].”
The patriarchal, but well-meaning, archbishop had not understood the ethnic, class and national-identity politics involved in his decision. The 1857 Sisters of St. Joseph community was no longer the 1836 “French” congregation of its origin. It had become an eclectic band of Irish, German, French and United States-born sisters who feared and resisted a return to a more French, authoritative leadership style. Decidedly, they had begun to think of themselves and their community as “American.” Archbishop Kenrick’s unilateral decision and its aftermath created internal strife in the community that took years to resolve.