Bon Secours traces its roots as a Catholic Health Ministry back to France where in 1824, Josephine Potel went to Paris and joined with eleven other like-minded women whose concern for the needs of the sick and the poor led to the formation of the Congregation of the Sisters of Bon Secours. In 1881, three Sisters, in response to an invitation from the Archdiocese of Baltimore, left France and came to America. The rest, as they say, is history.
A History of Healing and Caring
Bon Secours’ ministry has a powerful history that has touched the lives of hundreds of thousands in Richmond, Hampton Roads and throughout the world. What started in 1824 with the single mission of the Sisters of Bon Secours to help the sick and dying has evolved into an international collaboration helping those who are in need.
In 1824, Josephine Potel went to Paris, where she found herself surrounded by unimaginable suffering caused by centuries of political, social, and religious upheaval. Filled with a strong faith and a deep desire to serve those in need, Josephine joined a group of eleven women who were concerned with caring for the sick and poor. These twelve young women, who became the Congregation of the Sisters of Bon Secours, dedicated themselves to going into private homes and staying with the sick and dying, offering care and hopeful words of God’s love and compassion. The idea of religious women going into homes to serve others was unheard of at the time. They undertook the unique practice of caring for all who were in need; rich and poor; atheist and believer. They served the sick and dying at their bedsides, often 24 hours a day. Because of the extraordinary nursing care provided by the sisters, they were invited to the Archdiocese of Baltimore to establish a health care ministry in America. In response to this request, three Sisters of Bon Secours arrived in the United States on May 18, 1881.
The Baltimore Sun wrote of their arrival:
“Three sisters of the Order of Bon Secours, anxiously expected in Baltimore for some time, arrived early yesterday morning, having reached New York the night before, on the steamer Parthia, of the Cunard Line, after a trip of eleven days from Queenstown…With the exception of occasional fogs, they had not a bad crossing…They will immediately begin to prepare and make all necessary arrangements for the installation and reception of three other Sisters who are to join them in a short time. Thus will be established the first foundation of the “Soeurs du Bon Secours” in America. The object of the order is particularly the care of the sick of all denominations suffering from diseases of any character, whether infectious, contagious or innocuous…
The punctuality and thoroughness with which they carry out the orders of the physician at all times, day and night, make no little difference in the chances of recovery of the cases submitted to their nursing; they are now at the house of their praiseworthy hostess, awaiting the call of those who may need their experience and services, without money and without price..”
And so it began. From the very beginning, the Sisters were in great demand caring for the sick in their homes and not letting a call for help go unanswered. This was the first formal home health organization.
The Bon Secours sister with her black bag and fluted cap was a familiar figure in the streets of Baltimore. Unaccompanied, and trusting in God, she went out at all hours of the day and night to the homes of the poor and the sick. Her bag was made of heavy surge, the same material as her habit, and contained all that was necessary in the sick room. Sometimes it also carried a sister’s personal belongings for a prolonged stay in the home of a patient. The bag was looked upon with wonder by the poor for it contained so many things that they needed.
The spirit of prayer and love during those early years continues to be the foundation upon which the Sisters of Bon Secours build their lives. Sister Margaret Mathewson continues the legacy of home care today. As a Nurse Practitioner, she cares for residents in local nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Following in the steps of those who came before her, living their charism of healing, compassion, and liberation, Sister Peggy says, “Serving the community in their homes with passion and purpose is my role in bringing good help to those in need.”
Sister Rita Thomas, former healthcare administrator, has been with the Bon Secours Health System for over 50 years. She has been instrumental in the development of health care services in Hampton Roads. “Health care is not just a business,” she says, “but a ministry to help all those in need.”
In Hampton Roads the Bon Secours’ ministry has teamed up with the Bernadine Franciscan Sisters as well as the Holy Union Sisters to bring health and healing to our community. Sister Pat Heath, Senior Vice President of Sponsorship with Bon Secours, states “my order, the Holy Union Sisters, has a mission that is compatible with the Sisters of Bon Secours’ mission: to serve the community with passion and caring, bringing good help to those in need.” It is my way of striving “to be at the heart of the world revealing God’s love” (Holy Union mission).