The St. Joseph Worker (SJW) program is a year-long service opportunity for women ages 21-30 in preparation for a lifelong commitment to social change and personal transformation. Our congregation supports program sites in St. Paul* and Los Angeles.
Sister Judy Molosky, CSJ, founding director of the Los Angeles SJW program, wanted to start a SJW program in Los Angeles because she encountered the hunger of young women wanting to “connect with something bigger than themselves” and who “were passionate about making the world a better place.”
The SJW program has four dynamic pillars that interplay with each other and deepen throughout the year-long commitment social justice, community with simplicity, leadership as a woman and spirituality.
The program is rooted in the Sisters of St. Joseph’s charism of unifying love and our foundational practices such as State of the Heart, which has been practiced since the founding six women in France began it in the 17th century.
These pillars and traditions provide a sacred space for St. Joseph Workers to practice building bridges with each other in community, with people in their ministry, with God and with themselves.
State of the Heart
State of the Heart is a practice of Sisters of St. Joseph around the world that offers a way to build connections and compassion among different personalities and perspectives. It involves gathering together prayerfully with time for each person to share her own awareness of God’s action in her life. This practice is a core part of the SJW program and invites the women to be vulnerable with themselves, God and their community.
Sister Julie Fertsch, SSJ, program director for the Los Angeles SJW program, describes State of the Heart as, “a guaranteed space for depth.” She believes the gift of State of the Heart is when the group can, “lean into the vulnerability and hear where people are experiencing both joys and hardships of life.”
Andrea Pearson Tande reflected on her year as a St. Paul SJW in ‘02-‘03 and how State of the Heart made her a better listener as a parent. “I am able to listen to [my kids] and hear what they are telling me, what is important to them, how they are with friends and what they care about in the world, without me as a parent jumping in…[I] don’t interrupt, don’t fix or do, just listen.”
For recent ’21-’22 Los Angeles SJW Elaina Wall, State of the Heart helped her get in touch with what was going on inside herself. “Weekly State of the Heart grounded me…it was a great time to check in with my feelings…Did something this week make me feel uncomfortable [or] excited?…[It] gave me time to say, ‘Ok what do I do with this information going forward?’ [State of the Heart] gave me better self-awareness of myself and what I was feeling throughout the year.”
Naturally built into State of the Heart are elements of active listening, holding space for and honoring what someone has shared, not offering advice and reflecting on what is going on in one’s inner world. In a world that is full of noise and divisions in families and polarized conversations about politics, religion, race, sexuality, etc. the SJW program offers practice in building these connections where there could be tension.
For Bridgette Kelly, co-director of the St. Paul SJW program and a St. Paul SJW in ’04-’05, State of the Heart is a reflective practice of actively listening. “It is profound to just be yourself and be a human with other people…I think that builds up a sense of value of human dignity and human story… this builds people’s capacity and experience with people you disagree with…having a community where you are always coming down on a spiritual level helps make connections with folks that maybe they wouldn’t.”
The bridges built throughout the year are not one-way streets; they are built from both sides. SJWs are also learn to allow others to build connections with them. Sister Julie mentioned other questions one can ask oneself during State of the Heart like, “Who’s teaching me? What are the people I am working with showing me…showing me a way perhaps different than what I thought?”
The Dear Neighbor
This love of God and the dear neighbor without distinction is the key to the charism of the Sisters of St. Joseph. During their year in the SJW program, women are put into situations that invite them to turn toward the dear neighbor. Their neighbors include community members, coworkers, clients, the Sisters of St. Joseph and even the person they see in the mirror every day.
Our charism of unifying love is the material to build strong connections. It is foundational for Cat Dowling, a current St. Joseph Worker in Los Angeles, when she encounters anyone new, allowing her to see them as a potential friend not a stranger. This humanizes people and she says it makes her first instinct “to want to connect with them not ignore them.”
For Elaina, she engages in the charism by leading with love. She says this, “takes down the guard of judgement and preconceived notions…you are seeing the person for who they are.”
Meeting people and herself exactly where they are is where Amanda Steepleton, a St. Paul SJW from ’08-’09, engages with the charism as well. She described what she tells herself when she sees how she could’ve handled a situation better. “I will have another chance tomorrow. There are always more opportunities to love and to choose to love…and recognize that everybody is really doing the best that they can with what they have in any moment in time.” She continued to reflect how the best that one can do, “might look different for me than it does for somebody else. But we have had very different lives and different circumstances…that helps me have compassion.”
Lessons for Life
The SJW program may one year long, but as past St. Paul SJW Program Director Sister Suzanne Herder, CSJ frequently says, “Once a Saint Joseph Worker always a Saint Joseph Worker.” The pillars of the program only deepen once the women end their volunteer year. Their connections to the dear neighbor blossom and the lessons and experiences during their year help them navigate their current and future relationships that need bridging.
Bridgette lives her life connecting to her neighbor by something the SJW program teaches, which is to stay at the table. She acknowledges that, “maybe there is some avoidance of conversations or hearing people’s perspective in small doses.” Yet Bridgette feels it is her job to call people back to the community. “I see how if people are isolated that leads to more isolation.”
Bridgette goes on to say that “The charism of unifying love reminds me that everyone is truly connected at a heart level. Below whatever opinions or life experiences that we have had there is a connection at a foundational level and there is respect offered at that level.”
The charism of unifying love is a part of Andrea’s spirituality now. “We might feel individual and disconnected, but the reality is that we are connected,” she said. “There is not an area where that [the charism of unifying love] is not relevant. You know it in your head and spend your whole life living into that…what does it really mean to be connected to people, Earth, creation or the whole universe? Its big and inspiring!”
*The St. Joseph Worker program in St. Paul will not continue in 2024.