“I ask you to place all your hope in God alone…Look to God
as the Primary Mover, as the Center and End of all our plans.”
~ Jeanne Chézard de Matel
Although our Order was founded in 1625, it wasn’t until 1852 when Bishop Odin visited France to
seek Sisters for the mission territory in Texas, that God transported our Order to the New World. A small group of Incarnate Word Sisters responded, and the first house was opened in Brownsville, Texas in 1853.
The Bishop of Tula, Mexico, visited the house in Brownsville and requested help for his mission. Mother Mary of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Hord, Mother Vincent Helena O’Herlihy, and Sister Theresa O’Keefe went to Tula, Tamaulipas in 1903, where they ministered for a short time. They moved their monastery to Gòmez Palacio, Durango, México in 1906.
Persecution and political unrest caused the Sisters in Gómez Palacio consternation for many years. Finally, the religious persecution in Mexico under General Plutarco Elias Calles in 1926 forced the Sisters to leave their monastery. They either returned to the homes of their families in México, or escaped to the United States where those who were not Mexican citizens sought asylum.
Congregations in Texas offered hospitality to the Sisters from March until August 1926. After this, seven Sisters received permission from the Superior of the monastery in Gómez Palacio to begin a new foundation in the United States: Sister
s Mary Columba Byrnes, Mary Thecla Sullivan, Mary Baptist Fitzgibbon, Mary Brendan Fitzgibbon, and Mary Thomas O’Herlihy, and two novices, Sisters Mary Gabriel O’Regan and Mary Raphael O’Connell.
St. Michael School in Sioux City needed teachers and these seven women responded to an appeal by the Bishop of Omaha, Nebraska. This was not meant to be a lasting home, since Nebraska permitted only American citizens to teach in their schools. The Sisters were of Irish descent and had not yet applied for naturalization papers in the United States.
Trusting in God, Sister Mary Columba Byrnes and Sister Mary Brendan Fitzgibbon sent letters of introduction to various Bishops. Archbishop Joseph T. Schrembs was the first to reply, inviting the Sisters to the Diocese of Cleveland in the State of Ohio.
Believing this was a sign from Divine Providence, the Sisters proceeded to Cleveland.
They arrived in Cleveland on Mother’s Day, May 8, 1927. The Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine gave the Sisters a home for several months upon their immediate arrival in Cleveland. In September 1927, the Sisters were asked by Bishop Schrembs to teach at Annunciation School in Brook Park. They lived in Annunciation Parish rectory while they looked for a permanent location for theirnew Motherhouse.
In December 1929, the Diocese purchased the Carl Miller estate, which consisted of ten acres of land. The existing house on the property was converted into a convent and on March 4, 1930, Archbishop Schrembs presided at the Mass of Dedication.
God blessed the young congregation with vocations and the diocesan authorities assigned other parish schools to the capable hands of the Sisters.
In 1935, just five years after establishing their Motherhouse, a fire destroyed the Sisters’ home on Pearl Road. The Sisters were once again offered a home by the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine for one month, until the 2
8 Sisters took up residence in a home on St. Clair Avenue that had been vacated by the Carmelite Sisters. While the Sisters continued to live on St. Clair Avenue, rebuilding began immediately. The first priority was given to building a school, and as a result of generous financial support from many sources, the Sisters were able to open the doors to Incarnate Word Academy and its first 35students on September 11, 1935.
Soon thereafter, Queen of the Holy Rosary Shrine and the outdoor Stations of the Cross were added. This area became an oasis of prayer for many residents in the surrounding community.
By 1940, the increased population in Parma Heights called for an appeal to build a new convent and boarding residence for the students of Incarnate Word Academy. In December of that year, a new home was built to serve as a residence for the Sisters, with a section set aside for boarding students.
The 1950s and 1960s were growth-filled years for our community in Cleveland. Parish schools, an orphanage, catechetical works, and mission work with the poor were just some of the many ministries undertaken by the Sisters. The present convent and academy were constructed in May 1952 with further additions to the building in 1960 and 1985.
In 1967 the “Little Red Barn,” which was on the property when the Sisters moved here in 1930, was replaced with a multi-purpose building named St. Joseph Hall. The facility housed a gym for physical education, a music room, and meeting rooms for use by Incarnate Word Academy, the Sisters, and many organizations that were being established around the growing ministries of the Sisters.
The renewal of religious life in the 1970s and 1980s was deepened by renewed communication and collaboration with other Incarnate Word congregations in Texas and Mexico. Eleven Incarnate Word congregations worked together to promote the process for the Cause for the Canonization of Jeanne Chézard de Matel, who was named Venerable in Rome on October 18, 1991. One of the most beneficial steps in this process was the translation of the writings of Jeanne Chézard from the original French, into both English and Spanish. This renewed collaboration also resulted in annual gatherings of members of the various congregations of the Incarnate Word, both nationally and internationally for the purpose of partnership in various projects, sharing ministries and personnel, and reflection on our shared mission and charism.
Collaboration with numerous other religious congregations within the Diocese of Cleveland also served to enhance the ministries of the Church in the Diocese.
Another significant movement toward collaboration developed early in the 1980s. Laity approached our Congregation with the desire to be formed in our spirituality and charism, in order that they might live their call to Christian discipleship in a deeper way-in their families, in the parishes to which they belonged, and in their places of work. These Associates of the Incarnate Word fulfill a desire for the Order of the Incarnate Word, which Jeanne Chézard de Matel had from the very beginning, to include an opportunity for lay women and men to “be extensions of the Incarnation” along with vowed religious. The first ten Associates made their commitment in December 1984.
As we welcome a new century, we realize that providing an environment that welcomes people to pray and to deepen their relationship with God is now more important than ever. We continually seek to share what we have by providing space where all are welcome, day or night, to encounter God through various traditional devotions. In 1999 Queen of the Holy Rosary Shrine was rebuilt and is a place where pilgrims come regularly to pray to Mary, Mother of the Incarnate Word. In 2000, a Labyrinth, Path of Blessings , a replica of the Labyrinth in the floor of Chartres Cathedral, was installed, where pilgrims can make “a little journey to God,” by walking the sacred path and reflecting on their own journey. And in 2007, the 1938 outdoor Stations of the Cross were replaced with new Stations where pilgrims can walk and pray Jesus’ Way of the Cross and pray for those who are suffering in so many ways in the world today.
As Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament, we continue to pray, develop community, and minister to extend the Gospel of love and mercy and to serve as the visible presence of God in the world today.
When the first Bishop of Texas, French Bishop Jean-Marie Odin, came to Texas and saw how large his diocese was, he realized that he would need many helpers to bring the Gospel to the people in such a vast area. He returned to France, looking for Priests, Brothers, and Sisters who would work with him in this very large Diocese.
Four Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament were among those who returned to Texas with him. Two were from the Monastery of Lyons: Sister St. Ange Barre (24 years old) and Sister St. Ephrem Satin (28 years old). The other two were from the Monastery of the Incarnate Word in Belmont: Sister St. Claire Valentine (22 years old) and Sister St. Dominic Ravier (32 years old), a turn Sister. Sister St. Claire, the youngest of the group, was appointed Superior by Father Galtier and Mother Angelique Hiver.
In the New World
On March 22, 1852, the group left France on board a ship, La Belle Assise, with members of various other religious Institutes. During the journey, a French woman, Gilberte Martignat, very impressed with the Sisters of the Incarnate Word, asked to join the community and was accepted as a candidate. She was received as a novice after her arrival in Galveston.
Mother Michelle WestThe Sisters remained in Galveston for eight months, studying both Spanish and English. Bishop Odin appointed Father Verdet, O.M.I. as their ecclesiastical superior, and Oblate priests offered daily Mass for the Sisters. Toward the end of February, 1853, several Oblates and the little community of the Incarnate Word Sisters traveled south down the Texas coast to the little town of Port Isabel. The next morning, Father Verdet celebrated Mass for them in Mr. Lafarge’s home, and at that Mass, they met a twelve-year-old girl, Rosa Solis.
On her return home, Rosa told her mother, “I want to be like the Sisters.” Six years later, she became the first postulant from the New World and the first Hispanic Sister in the Order. Her religious name was Sister Teresa Solis.
The Sisters’ final destination was Brownsville, a town on the border between the United States and México. It was still very primitive, and for their first three days there, the Sisters lived in a warehouse with trunks and boxes as their only furniture. However, the priests and good people of Brownsville saw their need, and provided them with a house and some basic furniture. On March 7, 1853, just one week after their arrival in Brownsville, they opened a school – the first Incarnate Word Academy in the New World. Two weeks later, on March 20, 1853, the first stone for the first convent of the Incarnate Word was laid in Brownsville.
Later in the first year, yellow fever broke out among both students and Sisters, and the children had to be sent home. God provided for them, however. A gentleman from Matamoros helped them financially by paying tuition in advance for his children in the school; and a good lady, Mrs. Baucherie, moved into the convent to care for the sick. She nursed them back to health, but from time to time, outbreaks of yellow fever proved to be a recurring problem.
The first Convent of the Incarnate Word in the New World was built on what was later the 700 block of East Saint Charles Street, and the community moved into their new home on November 29, 1853. Then three more Sisters arrived from France – one, the first Irish Sister in the Order, Sister Ignatius McKeon; the other two, French turn Sisters, Sister St. John and Sister Lucie Chassagnat.
Developments in Ministry
Mother Evangelist KleiberAfter the outbreak of yellow fever subsided school re-opened, and the foundation flourished in spite of difficulties. In addition to teaching in two languages, English and Spanish, in which the Sisters were not fluent, they had to struggle with inadequate buildings and a lack of textbooks. Eventually, the Sisters acquired an old printing press, translated their French books, and printed their own texts. In 1857, they experienced the first death in the little community when Sister St. Joseph Martignat, the Sister who had joined the community on the boat from Lyons, died. She had served the Lord as a Sister of the Incarnate Word for just four years. When Sister St. Paul Goux came from France in 1857, she provided a great service by opening a free school for children who could not afford to pay tuition.
Yellow fever struck again in 1858, and all except two of the Sisters fell ill. Once more, Mrs. Baucherie nursed the Sisters back to health, but in spite of her best efforts, in this outbreak, two Sisters died: Sister Josephine Suson and Sister Lucie Chanudet.
Translation of Community Documents
For their first forty years in the United States, the Sisters continued to use the French Constitution brought from France, although the membership was now international. Only in 1893, forty years after their arrival in Brownsville, did they have the Rule of Saint Augustine and the Constitution translated into English. These translations were approved by Bishop Neraz of San Antonio and Bishop Verdaugaur of the Vicariate of Brownsville. They were then printed by a New York firm.
In 1865, Mother Saint-Claire went to Europe looking for vocations. She found eight French and four Irish postulants. With the increase in numbers, it was possible to send Sisters to found a second Monastery of the Incarnate Word in Victoria, Texas in 1866. Then Bishop Dubuis asked for a third monastery to be founded in Corpus Christi. This was done in 1871.
In 1894, the Monastery of Brownsville made the first Incarnate Word foundation in México – San Juan Bautista in Tabasco, México. This was the beginning of a most fruitful ministry for the Order in México. Brownsville also made a foundation in Rio Grande City, Texas in 1898, a Monastery which, in spite of great poverty, lasted for about twenty years.
The Twentieth Century
The Monastery of Brownsville continued to make foundations in México in the 20th Century as did the communities already in México. And within twenty years, there were Sisters from the U.S., France, México, and Ireland, speaking English, Spanish and French.
Sr. Theresa SolisiIn the early part of the 20th century, México was in the throes of a revolutionary movement. By 1912, Mother Teresa Solis of Chilapa, México, and Mother Stanislaus Dedieu of Brownsville, Texas, were in dialogue about the possibility of setting up a Generalate for the Order of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament. However, both these Superiors died without accomplishing this. But in 1929, the first Generalate in the Order was set up by Mother Concepción Solis of México City from the union of the three Monasteries of the Incarnate Word in Chilapa, Matehuala, and México City with the new Motherhouse in México City.
In the early part of the twentieth century, the Bishops of Texas asked for the abrogation of the cloister, and permission for this was obtained from Rome. This made it possible for the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament to move into small communities in smaller towns in the Diocese of Corpus Christi, but always under the authority of the Superior General in the Motherhouse. In 1921, after the adoption of the 1917 Code of Canon Law the Incarnate Word communities in Texas became Pontifical Institutes.
In the late 1920’s, the Monastery of Brownsville was experiencing financial and vocational difficulties, and the Sisters sought permission from Rome to amalgamate with its daughter house, the Monastery of Corpus Christi. This brought an end to the status of these houses as Monasteries. Instead, together as one Congregation, they formed a Generalate with the Motherhouse in Corpus Christi.
Renewal and Updating
From the 1950’s on, Pope Pius XII was calling for religious Institutes to begin to update their life style and customs, and the Second Vatican Council built on this call. The Corpus Christi Congregation answered the call of the Church, and a new Constitution was finalized in the General Chapter of 1984, and accepted by a Decree of the Roman Congregation of July 2, 1986.
Today the Sisters minister in schools, diocesan offices, religious education, parishes, hospitals, and retreats. For eight years some of the Sisters taught in a diocesan high school in Nakuru, Kenya in East Africa with Sisters from the Generalate in Mexico City. Today the Sisters live and work in cities throughout Texas, including: Corpus Christi, Rockport, Laredo, Brownsville, Harlingen, Edinburg, Beaumont, and Houston.
In the 21st century, all Incarnate Word Congregations are involved in answering the call of the Church. They are in dialogue with each other, and as a result, new horizons are opening for the Church and for the Order of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament.
May 5, 1873 is Foundation Day for the Houston Congregation of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament, for it was on that day that Mother Gabriel Dillon and her Sister-companions first experienced the joy of having Mass offered and the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the chapel of the former Franciscan Monastery where they were living, across the street from the “old” St. Vincent’s Church at Franklin and Caroline Streets.
It was not until November 15, 1873 that, with their number increased by three, the Sisters moved into the partially finished new convent on Crawford Street, by Annunciation Church. In January of 1874, Incarnate Word Academy opened, and, a few months later, students were accepted as boarders. The noble work of Catholic education continues to flourish at this location today, without boarders; and Incarnate Word Academy has the distinction of being the oldest permanent Catholic school in the city of Houston. Our first Sisters accomplished so much in Houston, a young growing city of some 10,000 people, in a very short time!
With more Sisters arriving from France and Ireland, they opened and staffed schools, and in some cases even paid for the buildings which would later become parish property. By 1919, the Sisters were ready to staff St. Mary’s School in Temple, Texas, the first “mission,” to be followed shortly by several others throughout the state.
The courage and vision of the early Sisters, coupled with the enduring grace of God, has continued to energize the congregation over the years. In addition to staffing elementary and high schools, the community moved the motherhouse and novitiate to a 38-acre tract of land in Bellaire in 1932. There, they also built a co-educational high school in 1955, and a junior college in 1957, the latter for Sisters in formation. Another move occurred in 1982 with the sale of the Bellaire property and relocation to Bradford Street in the city of Houston. This time, the church next door was the “new” St. Vincent’s.
In 1962, in response to the request of the Holy Father that, “each Religious Community will send Sisters to the missions in South America and Central America,” the community sent sisters to Huehuetenango in Guatemala. From 1965 to 1981, a number of Sisters worked there. In 1981, this undertaking became the responsibility of the Incarnate Word Sisters in México City.
In the 1980’s, our ministry focus expanded to include many levels and areas of education, as well as ministries in pastoral and social services, all this in accord with the talents and gifts of individual Sisters and the needs of the times.
In recent years, it has become easier to know better Jeanne Chézard de Matel and the history of the Order. This is possible, in great part, thanks to the efforts of the Sisters who continue to make the translations of the writings and early history more accessible than formerly.
The Sisters in the community of Houston walk faithfully in the footsteps of their forebears, so that the Incarnate Word may be adored and praised by all generations to come! In the spirit of the hymn, they say, “grace has brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.”
In 1625, Jeanne Chézard de Matel began the Order of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament in Roanne, France. In prayer Jeanne Chézard de Matel had heard, “You shall carry My Name throughout the earth. I am not yet declaring to you how this will occur, for the hour has not yet come…” (1642). Two centuries later, in 1852, the time had come for His Name to be carried to the New World and from there throughout the earth, and Mother St. Claire Valentine would be the one destined by God to fulfill this promise and extend the Incarnation beyond the boundaries of France.
In 1852, Mother St. Claire Valentine, who was barely 24 years of age and the superior of three companion Sisters, left France to travel to America and open a foundation in Brownsville. This became the cradle of the Order of the Incarnate Word in America.
Foundresses of Nazareth Academy – December 21, 1866
Mother St. Claire Valentine
Mother St. Paul Goux
Mother Mary Louise Murray
Sister Mary of the Cross Murray
Sister Justine Fonvielle
Sister Regis Chavassieux
In a community meeting on August 22, 1866, Mother St. Ange and the Brownsville community gave their consent to Bishop Dubuis for the foundation of a monastery in Victoria, Texas. Five Sisters were chosen from Brownsville: Mother St. Claire Valentine, superioress; Sister Paul Goux, assistant; Sister Mary Louise Murray and her sister, Sister Mary of the Cross Murray; and Sister Justine Fonvielle. Sister Regis Chavassieux, a novice came directly from France.
On December 21, 1866, Mother St. Claire and her four companions from Brownsville arrived in Victoria and were joined by Sister Regis. They were warmly welcomed by the people of Victoria and by their pastor, Father Augustine Gardet, who offered them his two-story frame house which consisted of four rooms. The first school was opened on January 7, 1867, with an enrollment of 55 pupils. It was known as “The Convent School” while the official religious designated name was the “Monastery of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament of Victoria, Texas.” Mother St. Claire renamed the school, “academy of Nazareth,” and it was under this title that it was chartered on May 5, 1880.
From this monastery of Nazareth more monasteries were founded as the Sisters responded to the need for more schools. Because of the cloister, the Sisters could not leave the Victoria monastery to go to other parishes to teach, so new cloistered monasteries were established.
After the lifting of the cloister in 1916 the Sisters from each of the monasteries began to leave the monasteries and go out to other towns and parishes to teach and to minister in hospitals. After the promulgation of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the Sisters from the various Incarnate Word monasteries began to meet and discuss the possibility of some type of reconfiguration. There were three autonomous Houses of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament in the Archdiocese of San Antonio in Texas; on August 12, 1939 the Houses in Victoria, San Antonio, and Shiner voted to form a union. A decree of union was authorized on August 5, 1939, and the revised Constitutions received papal approval on August 14, 1939. The first General Chapter, held on December 28, 1939, chose Nazareth Convent in Victoria, Texas as the Motherhouse and Novitiate.
Nazareth Convent served as the central headquarters for the total membership from the union in 1939 to 1963. The facilities at Nazareth Convent became inadequate to accommodate the growth of the Community; with the help of the people of Victoria and surrounding areas a new structure was built on a 40-acre tract which the Sisters had purchased in 1880. The new headquarters, dedicated on April 28, 1963, was named Incarnate Word Convent.
Today the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament gather to adore the Incarnate Word and become living reminders of His Love through their lives, their prayer, and their apostolic work in the Church. Jesus Christ, the Word sent by the Father as humanity’s Savior, became incarnate in the fullness of time to reveal the Father’s Love to the world. To be faithful to their mission of continuing this revelation, they gather in unity to proclaim by their lives that LOVE has become Incarnate and dwells among us. They remember what their foundress, Jeanne de Matel wrote, “The intense fire that is burning within you is the Divine Word living in you. Through this union with you, the Word has been made flesh.”
As of November 2008, there are 86 Sisters in this community and you will find them ministering in Catholic and public schools, in child care centers, in parishes in religious education and adult formation, in diocesan offices, in hospitals and health care centers, in foreign missions, and in prison ministry. You will also meet them at retreat centers and addressing the concerns for peace and justice.
Called in the Church to witness to the Incarnate Word’s presence in the world, they generously exert every effort to radiate Christ’s peace and love in all areas of their apostolate. With Jesus they strive to accept unconditionally all persons who enter their lives, showing special concern for the poor.