Catch the Fire

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New students take a powerful journey to get a true understanding of the history, mission and spirituality of the CSJs.

By Catie Dandridge | Fontbonne Magazine, Spring 2018

Those who have spent even a small amount of time on Fontbonne University’s campus understand the bond shared between the university and its founders and sponsors, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. The sisters made Fontbonne a reality, and reminders of their relationship with the university pop up everywhere — at the bottom of letterhead, in artwork on campus and even etched into the cornerstone of Ryan Hall. But “founded and sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet” is more than a disclaimer. It’s a badge of honor that the university wears proudly and shares with every student who walks through its halls.

As an institution, Fontbonne deeply values the history it inherited from the CSJs. As the times change and the number of sisters on campus dwindles, the university has established a number of traditions that help the campus community carry on the mission and passion of the compassionate, driven women who paved the way for so many, and whose legacy will continue to do so into the distant future.


In recent years, two traditions have emerged as opportunities to envelop the Fontbonne experience in the tradition of the CSJs. One introduces new students to Fontbonne’s mission and history; the other sends them on their way, prepared to “serve a world in need.”

WING Leaders at a Catch the Fire ceremonyOn the very first day of orientation, new students kick off their Fontbonne career with Catch the Fire, a ceremony that illustrates the journey of the CSJs through an interactive storytelling experience.

“We want everyone who attends to see, hear and feel the mission that is a living part of Fontbonne,” said Lori Helfrich, Fontbonne’s director of campus ministry. “Students get a real understanding of the history and mission of the CSJs. They hear the story and receive a blessing from the sisters. They’re encouraged to learn about and engage in their spirituality.”

During the Catch the Fire ceremony, new members of the Fontbonne community are welcomed into the darkened gym by faculty, staff and student leaders holding candles to light their path. At the center of the room, a CSJ begins to tell the story of the original sisters who left their home in France to found a new congregation in the United States, a brave act that would, in time, lead to the creation of Fontbonne. Standing in a circle around a cauldron of fire, a small group of CSJs lights candles from the cauldron, then, throughout the story, lights the candles of the other participants. Participants see the fire spread throughout the group, just as the passion and mission of the original CSJs spread throughout the world.

“They likely don’t know it then,” Helfrich said, “but the students are spreading the legacy of the sisters through their education and actions.”

Years later, upon graduation, students mark the end of their college career with the Sending Ceremony, an inclusive interfaith ceremony held in the spirit of the CSJs and their charism.

Faculty and staff at a Catch the Fire ceremony.The Sending Ceremony features the same cauldron of fire used during the Catch the Fire ceremony, only this time, the graduates are the ones who light the fire and share their own reflections on how the values of the university and its founders shaped their journey.
Following both ceremonies students have the opportunity to ring the chapel bell, which was donated by the class of 1949 and historically rung at each commencement. Then, the number of rings coincided with the year of the graduating class as a way for Fontbonne to celebrate each individual’s effort and success. Today, each student is invited to ring the bell at the beginning and ending of his or her time at Fontbonne.

“I absolutely love the bookends of Catch the Fire and the Sending Ceremony,” said Linda Markway, CSJ and Fontbonne director of mission stewardship. “It’s a very powerful and transformative journey. The students take the passion and charism they’ve learned in their time here and take it out into the world. It really doesn’t get much better than that.”

Little Ways

Nods to CSJ history exist in the every day at Fontbonne as well. In recent years, a number of smaller, informal activities have been introduced on campus as regular reminders of history and heritage.

Fontbonne recently began celebrating National Catholic Sisters’ Week, which was lovingly renamed “I  ♥  CSJs Week” on campus. The celebrations begin on March 8, International Womens’ Day, and last all week with educational, spiritual and entertaining events.
One of the most popular events during this week is “Rockin’ with the Sisters,” which allows CSJs to spend time on campus — in rocking chairs. Students, staff and faculty are welcome to join them for companionship and conversation. This event has become so popular that it is now hosted several times a year.

“I am just amazed at how popular ‘Rockin’ with the Sisters’ has become,” Markway said. “Sometimes a sister will be here for hours with just one person, and sometimes they’ll get to chat with 10 people. You just never know! But the truly amazing thing is how willingly our students share their stories and form a relationship with the sisters. That’s how our collective story continues the mission.”

A monthly series called “Our Sisters, Our Heritage” brings members of the campus community together in the library to get to know a different CSJ over friendly discussion and a light lunch.

“This is a great opportunity for everyone to get to know a sister and what inspired her to become a CSJ,” Helfrich said. “It’s a chance to learn the personal stories that make up the bigger story.”

The programming Fontbonne has developed with the CSJs on campus fosters a collaborative relationship that, in spite of changes in the world, will share the light and the spirit of the sisters with Fontbonne students long into the future.

“The history of the CSJs is just as much a part of campus as it is the Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph,” Markway said. “It’s knowing our heritage; the same way you would know your grandparents’ heritage. I’ve been very touched to see how deeply people actually do catch that fire. I see it in everyone: Catholic, non-Catholic, agnostic, atheist. You don’t have to be Catholic to care for the dear neighbor without distinction. Let’s all work together in this mission.”

Celebrating the CSJs

There is no shortage of programming at Fontbonne to celebrate the CSJ heritage. Learn more about several other regular events below.

  • Fontbonne Day is a CSJ-inspired, campuswide day of service. Students, faculty and staff are invited to fan out across the St. Louis area in the spirit of “serving the dear neighbor.”
  • Service with the CSJs is held twice a year, in the fall following Founders’ Day and in the spring around the Feast of St. Joseph. This service project is coordinated in collaboration with the CSJs and CSJ Associates.
  • Mother St. John Fontbonne’s birthday is celebrated in March with Mass and a cake reception.
  • The LePuy Kitchen sits outside of Doerr Chapel on a semi-permanent basis. This life-sized replica of the kitchen shared by the original CSJs in France is a constant reminder of a humble beginning. The kitchen is significant because it was the daily gathering place of the sisters, where they would pray and share their thoughts and goals before going into the streets of LePuy to serve the dear neighbor.
  • Motherhouse tours are hosted regularly throughout each year. The CSJs invite faculty and staff to join them at the Motherhouse in South St. Louis for a tour and dinner.