Mother St. John Facemaz’s vision still impacts lives today in Oakville

By BIll MILLIGAN

The entrance to the Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, 6400 Minnesota Ave., St. Louis, will be converted into a tribute honoring influential members of the order including Mother St. John Facemaz, whose vision continues to this day to impact lives in Oakville.

Mother St. John Facemaz, 1821-1900, in 1869 purchased the land at the corner of Forder and Ringer roads for what is now known as the Nazareth Living Center.

She envisioned the property as a retirement facility for as many as 65 retired and infirm Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

Today, more than 150 sisters reside at what is now referred to as a skilled nursing home.

Born in Bourg, St. Maurice, France in 1821, Mother Facemaz entered the Sisters of St. Joseph in Moultiers, France, when she was 24. Mother Facemaz and three other sisters volunteered in 1854 to come to America’s Kansas territory “for the religious instruction and civilization of the Indians,” according to records held by the order.

On Dec. 7, 1854, she arrived in New Orleans from Le Havre aboard the sailing ship Heidelberg. It was in the port at New Orleans where Mother Facemaz saw slaves “being bought and sold like cattle. They did not understand the meaning of the cry of anguish that burst from the lips of some poor mother as her child was taken from her arms and handed over to its new master.”

The scene left Mother Facemaz with “undying sympathy for the slaves,” according to the order’s records.

During that same year Missouri became embroiled in a bitter and bloody border war with the Kansas territory that lasted through the Civil War.

The debate was over whether to allow slavery in the Kansas territory and tensions heightened by the issue reverberated throughout the nation.

Mother Facemaz and the other three sisters never were called to the Kansas Territory. Instead, Mother Facemaz became a trusted lieutenant of Superior Mother Celestine. Upon Mother Celestine’s death in 1857, Mother Facemaz was named to replace her. It was in that capacity that Mother Facemaz left her mark on history, yet her writings leave the impression she never believed herself capable of performing the task.

“I was born in a village in one of the most remote areas of the upper Tarentaise into a very large family,” she wrote in her memoir. “I learned at a young age to care for cattle in the pastures. This work suits my talents and is the only thing that makes me useful and able to render service to the mission.”

Mother Facemaz played a pivotal role in the adoption of a constitution, or the general rules governing the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, a uniquely American order.

A fire in January 1858 destroyed the sisters’ convent in Carondelet and delayed the effort to separate the American order from its European counterpart. By the end of the year, the new constitution was nearly complete, a new Motherhouse had begun construction and Mother Facemaz had overseen the opening of the first of 28 schools the order established during her 12 year administration.

That first school, St. Francis de Sales Academy in Ste. Genevieve, continued the work of Mother Celestine and established the order’s reputation for outstanding school administration.

The devotion of members of Mother Facemaz’s order was valued highly by those they served — so much so that when Sister Saint Protias died in 1872, the Indians at L’Anse, a settlement on Michigan’s lower peninsula, would not let her body be transferred back to St. Louis for burial.

St. Joseph’s Orphans Academy was established by Mother Facemaz in 1864. It was there when, at 1 a.m. on Oct. 9, 1871, that Sister Mary Joseph Kennedy shepherded more than 200 children to safety through the Chicago fire.

“”The waterworks behind our property took fire, and even in our barnyard, three loads of hay, bought in the previous afternoon, were ablaze. It was time for us to leave,” wrote one of the sisters.

Members of the order carried smaller children while the entire cadre formed a human chain and held on for life.

“Mad rushing of people, some jumping through windows to save their lives, the hurrying of horses and vehicles, made it almost impossible to keep together. The greatest difficulty was at the street crossings. A team of horses was rushing towards us on the right, and one on the left. As there was danger of breaking our group, and therefore losing some of the children, Mother called to both drivers to halt in God’s name. One did so, but the other, roused by the danger, tried to go on. Mother stepped up and took the horses by the bridle, while he continued to beat them,” according to the order’s records.

“Passersby, seeing the situation, tore the driver from the seat, and gave him what he richly deserved. While this was going on we seized our opportunity to get across. Imagine us trying to make our way with burning buildings on each side of us; and plank walks burning buildings on each side of us; and plank walks burning at intervals underneath. The flames crawled around the buildings like serpents.”

The group walked until four in the morning before sheer exhaustion compelled them to stop.

They were found by Jesuits the next day and lived for two weeks in a Jesuit college until a new dormitory could be prepared to house them. More than half were transferred to orphanages in St. Louis and Cincinnati.

Though Mother Facemaz began most of the order’s schools in Missouri and Illinois, the Sisters of St. Joseph were asked to open schools from Michigan to Florida during her 12 years at its head.

Though several have changed names since she began them, many remain in operation.

“We want to recognize the contributions of individuals who have served the order,” Sister Jane Behlman said. “Mother St. John Facemaz will have a wall in that exhibit.”