The sisters of charity of jesus and Mary
The Foundation (1803) and our beginning as a Congregation
The Congregation of the Sisters of Charity had a modest beginning in the rural district of Lovendegem. At the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, Europe underwent a serious crisis in the economic, social, and religious spheres. During the first years after the French invasion in 1793, the Low Countries were rife with anti-clerical fever. The ultimate goal was to lessen the power of the Church in all the sectors she controlled in order to bring about the complete separation of Church and State. In 1796 a law was passed suppressing all convents and religious foundations and all church property were confiscated by the state. Its administration was given over to the newly created Hospice Commissions. Secular priests could no longer carry out their spiritual duties unless they had sworn an oath of fidelity or allegiance to the French Republic and the detestation of the monarchy. Many were condemned to exile or went into hiding so as to be able to carry on their work clandestinely, with the threat of deportation to overseas continually hanging over them.
The Congregation of the Sisters of Charity had a modest beginning in the rural district of Lovendegem. At the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, Europe underwent a serious crisis in the economic, social, and religious spheres.
It was only in 1801 that this situation changed with the signing of a concordat between Pope Pius VII and Napoleon. This reestablished peace in the religious sphere. Dioceses were again set up and in April 1802 Mgr. E. Fallot de Beaumont was appointed Bishop of Ghent. Acceptance of this new religious setup meant a break by the Church with the Ancient Régime. The Church was to renounce her ancient traditional privileges and no longer exercised a monopoly in the charitable and cultural fields. She was, however, granted sufficient freedom to carry out her spiritual mission. One of the characteristics of this Catholic revival was the foundation of numerous religious congregations, which devoted themselves to nursing care and education. The congregation of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary was one of the first of these and became very popular.
At the beginning of 1803, Peter Joseph Triest was appointed parish priest in Lovendegem. The poverty, the moral depravity, the crying need for education and care of the sick spurred P.J. Triest into action. Responding to the local needs, he gathered together a few devout single women into a religious association. They soon moved into a little house in the hamlet of Appensvoorde: this was to be the cradle of the Congregation.
On 4th November 1803, the feast of St.Charles Borromeo, the congregation of the “Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary” was canonically established by Mgr. Fallot de Beaumont, their convent being dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels.
Little by little the foundation took shape. P.J. Triest was able to rely on the assistance of Maria Theresa Van der Gauwen, who had been a novice in the Cistercian Abbey and so had some experience of religious life. She became the first superior or leader under the name of Mother Placide. On 2nd July 1804, the first Sisters of Charity pronounced their first vows and decided also to devote their lives to “the caring of the poor and destitute”. In Lovendegem the sisters gave lessons, looked after orphans and went into the homes of the sick and old to care for them.
Peter Joseph Triest was born in Brussels on 31st August 1760 in a well-to-do family. He first attended the Jesuit school in Brussels and went on from there to the Latin School in Geel. Subsequently, he followed a two-year philosophy course at Louvain University. At the age of 22, he began his studies for the priesthood at the Seminary in Malines and was ordained priest in 1786.
He began his ministry in Malines and the surrounding district. In 1797 he was appointed parish priest of St. Peter’s, Renaix. It was then that Triest refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Republic and decided to go into hiding in order to help his parishioners in their spiritual needs. After the signing of the Concordat in 1802, Triest could openly take over the parish of St. Martin in Renaix but his stay there was short-lived. One year later he was transferred to Lovendegem, where he would start his life’s work. He was moved by the poverty and misery of the people around him, especially the plight of children. Hence, he gathered together a small group of young women to work for the care and education of the neediest.
Thus in 1803 he laid the foundation of his first Congregation, the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary. In 1806 he was appointed as a member of the Poor Relief Committee in Ghent. It was in that function that his pastoral inspiration started to really grow. He devoted practically all his time to the elderly, the poor, the mentally ill, and to foundlings or, in other words, to those in whom society did not seem to take any interest. In 1807 he founded the Congregation of the Brothers of Charity. The Brothers’ duties consisted primarily in nursing the impoverished elderly and mental patients. In 1825 he founded the Brothers of St John of God who had to nurse the poor in their homes (this Congregation is no more). One year before he died, in 1835, he founded the Sisters of the Childhood of Jesus who had to look after foundlings.
The role of Mother Placide Van der Gauwen cannot be underestimated, especially in the realm of religious life. It is true that she is less well known than P.J. Triest. This is due in part to the fact that the sisters carried out their tasks anonymously and that very rarely attention was drawn to an individual sister, even a superior, by name. It was also the result of the outlook of the times, which relegated women to the second place in society.
Maria Theresa Van der Gowen was born in Etikhove on 16th January 1769 of a well-to-do family of gentlemen-farmers. Little is known of her early years or education. In all likelihood, she received a good education before entering the convent. It seems clear that she was a novice in the Cistercian Abbey of Maagdendale near Oudenaarde until the political and religious upheavals forced her to leave the convent. She experienced the consequences of the Revolution and was aware of the great poverty and suffering. Many people struck down by incurable diseases received neither help nor relief. Mentally-ill patients, men and women, were held in chains in mental asylums. Delinquency among youth, abandonment of children and prostitution were social scourges. In the beginning of 19th Century, illiteracy was deplorable. Eighty percent of women were illiterate in Belgium!
Mother Placide was 33 years old when on 5 May 1804 she presented herself to the young religious community at Lovendegem. At first she was sent away by the sisters on the grounds that she could not spin. Later, she was accepted through the intervention of Fr. Triest himself as he saw in her a valuable collaborator. The same year she was elected superior/leader of the community and, in 1807, Superior General of the Congregation in Ghent. She outlived Triest by eight years. During the 40 years of her administration, this deeply spiritual woman of courageous faith eventually founded, in collaboration with Father Triest, 18 religious communities in order to assist people in the above stated situations. She also laid solid foundations for her 500 religious sisters who were to influence the future development of the Congregation. Her death on 28 September 1844 was a great loss to the Congregation.
The Gothic-styled crest is coloured red and gold – red symbolising love and courage, and gold denoting faith and wisdom.
The upper section exhibits the wounded Heart of Jesus surmounted by his cross. These epitomise his love and self-giving.
Central to the crest is a golden band upon which are three red roses. These indicate the different fields in which our love finds expression: teaching, nursing and missions.
The lower section shows a lily surrounded by twelve stars symbolising the Virgin Mary and purity of life. Her name, incorporated in the title ‘Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary’, denotes our loving union with her.
At the base of the crest are the words Cor Unum Anima Una – One Heart and One Soul. (Acts 4:32)
These words express both the spiritual and apostolic ideals of our lives.