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A Brief History of the Society of the Sacred Heart

St. Madeleine Sophie Barat as a young woman
St. Rose Philippine Duchesne
María Josefa Bultó, RSCJ
Concepción Camacho, RSCJ
Superior General Kathleen Conan, RSCJ

The Society of the Sacred Heart was founded in the turmoil of post-Revolutionary France by Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat. Its history is the story of strong and dedicated women true to the Society’s motto, “Cor unum et anima una in Corde Jesu” (One Heart and One Mind in the Heart of Jesus).

The daughter of a wine cooper in the wine country southeast of Paris, Madeleine Sophie Barat was educated beyond the norms of her contemporaries and well-suited for leadership of a religious community dedicated to prayer and education. In Paris, on November 21, 1800, at the age of twenty, she and three other young women consecrated themselves to “make known the revelation of God’s love.” Centered in personal and communal prayer, they set out to give young women a classical education - not common in their day - and to offer religious studies and practical skills. They began to call themselves the Society of the Sacred Heart.

In 1806, Mother Barat (women religious took the title Mother or Sister in addition to their family name), was elected superior general. During her 65-year leadership, the Society of the Sacred Heart grew to include more than 3,500 members, expanded to the Americas, and broadened its educational mission.

Saint Rose Philippine Duchesne first brought the Society to the Americas - to St. Charles Missouri - in 1818. The first free school west of the Mississippi was founded in St. Charles in a log cabin by five RSCJ, (Religieuses du Sacré-Cœur de Jésus in French) led by Mother Duchesne.

In 1865, Mother Josephine Gœtz,from Alsace-Lorraine, became superior general. Self-declared “arch-orthodox,” her aim was to conserve and deepen the spirit of the founder by “creative fidelity.” Mother Goetz fostered the study of philosophy and advanced levels of teacher training and encouraged day schools and parish schools. Wars prevented the spread of the Society abroad.                                          

During the term of Adele Lehon (1874-1894), a Belgian, the Society of the Sacred Heart spread into eight new countries, literally spanning the globe. Mother Lehon and those who governed with her made “necessary concessions” to the needs of new lands and cultures.

Mabel Digby, an Englishwoman and convert to Roman Catholicism, guided the Society through the turn of the century, from 1895 to 1911. Between 1906 and 1909, the Masonic government of France forced the closing of forty-seven houses of the Society in that country, and 2500 religious were dispersed to other countries. But for each house closed, another was opened - as far abroad as Japan. From a temporary motherhouse in Ixelles, Belgium, Mother Digby directed educational growth and brought the academic program up-to-date by bringing in a telescope and a microscope for the teachers in training. In 1900, the Society celebrated its centenary and, in 1908, the beatification of Madeleine Sophie Barat, an official Church recognition of the founder.

Janet Erskine Stuart, superior general from 1911-1914,maintained the same emphasis on strong studies as Mother Digby. She also intensified the spiritual life of the Society and felt that “epochs of transition must keep us on the alert; the mind must keep flexible in order to…acquire any knowledge that can aid our mission.” During this time the Society became recognized for its strong tradition and its commitment to and excellence in education particularly under the leadership of Mother Stuart.

When Marie von Loë, a German woman, was elected superior general in 1915, war prevented her from leaving Italy. She was serving in Rome at the Villa Lante and thus, the Society’s motherhouse was established there. The canonization of Madeleine Sophie Barat on May 24, 1925, the return of the Society to France, and its spread into China and the Congo highlighted Mother von Loë’s term. She also produced a new version of the Plan of Studies that described education as “a work of progressive development.”

During the first half of the 20th century, the Society of the Sacred Heart reached into all the continents, took on new enterprises and entered new fields of education. In the United States, the Society opened institutions of higher education for women in Cincinnati, Grand Coteau, Louisiana; Lake Forest, Illinois, New York, Omaha, St. Louis, San Francisco, Seattle, Newton, Massachusetts and San Diego.

Manuela Vicente (1928-1957), a Spaniard, was experienced in the formation of nuns and children and took the attitude of “adapting … to the needs of the times without touching, as far as possible, any of our traditions.” As Superior General, Mother Vicente gave permission for educational practice to surpass theory and sent the Society into India before World War II brought devastation to the houses of Europe.        

After the war, the keynote of the generalate of Marie-Thérèse de Lescure was élargir, a reaching out in response to need. She stressed advanced studies for the nuns, wide reading of the best modern authors, recruitment of students from a wider social range and, above all, social action. Mother de Lescure visited 103 houses in eighteen countries, oversaw a complete rewriting of the Plan of Studies, and composed Life at the Sacred Heart, a descriptive booklet to replace the old rule of the school. Open to social evolution, she was intransigent on one point: cloister was to be maintained.

In the mid-twentieth century, Sabine de Vallon brought the Society “face to face with the realities of today.” She assisted at sessions of Vatican Council II, called by Pope John XXIII, which called for the renewal of religious life in the Church. The Society of the Sacred Heart carried out the mandates of Vatican II by defining itself as an "apostolic community," removing the rule of cloister at the General Chapter of 1964. A simplified habit was adopted, gradually to be dropped in favor of contemporary dress, and three major movements were activated: experiments in education, a strong missionary thrust, and an energetic response to the universal cry for social justice - calling for penetration of inner city areas and a gradual assimilation of social classes in the schools. A special chapter in 1967 concluded that the Society should adopt every means of education as needs arose, from university campuses to inner city and vacation camps.

In seeking to meet human needs in a world of rapid and constant change, the Society committed itself to follow the "signs of the times" and entered into a period of experimentation from 1967 to 1982. RSCJ shaped the direction and priorities of the congregation that would be faithful to both the charism of Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat and to contemporary and urgent needs of people.

In articulating its renewed purpose and vision, the Society wrote new constitutions. For Religious of the Sacred Heart, the Constitutions of 1982 are the foundation of their life radically rooted in the Gospel. These Constitutions express their conviction and commitment to be women of communion, to live lives rooted in prayer, and to work for justice in all its dimensions.

In the United States, the Society's work of education also changed dramatically during this time. Convent schools were shaped into a Network of Sacred Heart Schools in the mid-1970's. Within the Network, each school reflected the unique local and regional needs and educational requirements, but continued to share the same educational philosophy and spirit expressed in the Goals and Criteria for Schools of the Sacred Heart in the United States.

María Josefa Bultó (1967-1970) served through three years of tension as the Society undertook the implementation of the changes enacted in 1967 - and the world of catholic education shifted. At the general chapter of 1970, another Spaniard, Concepción Camacho (1970-1982) was elected superior general. In the face of diminution of personnel, the Network of Schools in the U.S. was strengthened and many other provinces developed similar structures to articulate and safeguard the educational mission. U.S. schools continued to consolidate, and many RSCJ felt called to minister to the marginalized in society.

Helen McLaughlin’s (1982-1994) major task was applying for acceptance by the Vatican congregation of the new version of the Constitutions of the Society, enacted by the general chapter of 1982. This approbation was finally secured in 1987. In 1988, Philippine Duchesne was canonized.

Patricia García de Quevedo (1994-2000) guided the Society into the third millennium. The general chapter of 2000 called for “an education that transforms” and for movement “from collaboration to reciprocity” to a “dialogue of cultures.” Partnerships were enacted with social service organizations, and an organization of associates – lay people who support the Society’s mission and share its charism – began to develop.

In 2000, Clare Pratt was elected the first superior general from the United States, and a new mission was opened in Haiti. Global outreach again became the standard for the RSCJ. In 2005, the Society was among those in Aceh, Indonesia, helping with the tsunami effort, as a new mission in Indonesia developed.

In 2008, Kathleen Conan, another U.S. citizen, was elected superior general, with the mandate to faithfully carry out the mission of St. Madeleine Sophie - and be willing to serve the world’s needs.

RSCJ today exercise their educational mission, not only in traditional primary and secondary schools throughout the world but in ministries related to education and caring directly for people on the edges of society.

This international order of women religious now unites some 2,500 sisters in 41 countries in a mission to deepen the understanding of God's love and reveal it to the world through the service of education.