In reaching back to their roots in 17th century France, the Sisters of St. Jospeh of Concordia discovered—and revitalized—a type of committed spiritual life for women known as agregees.
The order, which has grown worldwide over the centuries and now has autonomous congregations in more than 50 countries, began in the French city of LePuy in 1650. Based on research into the original constitution and rules for the congregation, written by founder and Jesuit priest Jean-Pierre Medaille, the Sisters now recognize that in addition to vowed members of the Order, there were also agrégée Sisters, from a French word meaning attached to or aggregated with.
An agrégée, pronounced ah-gre-ZHEY, did not make vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. She lived according to the rules of the Sisters of St. Joseph, and was recognized by the local people and the local churches as a Sisters of St. Joseph.
In the past decades, the modern Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia studied their origins and their original spirtuality, and revived that early practice based on what they learned. The Senate of the Concordia congregation appproved agrégée membership in 2006.
The first modern agrégée Sister, Rosabel Flax of Ness City, professed a vow of fidelity to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia in 2008. Sister Elizabeth Weddle is the 10th to enter the congregation, with other agrégée Sisters in Kansas living and serving in the cities of Topeka, Augusta and Chapman, as well as Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo., Grand Junction, Colo., and Fruita, Colo.
There also are five agrégée candidates from the cities of Concordia, Norton, Salina and WaKeeney, in Kansas, and from Elizabeth, Colo., and Douglasville, Ga.
Agrégées are defined as women who commit themselves to active and inclusive love of God and the dear neighbor as expressed in the spirit and spirituality of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia. In almost every aspect, they are viewed as full members of the congregation, meaning they have a voice and a vote on congregational issues.
Significant differences are:
•"Canonically vowed Sisters" profess vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, as defined by canon–or church—law. As part of the vow of poverty, an individual Sister relinquishes all personal wealth and income; at the same time, the congregation assumes responsibility for her economic well-being for the rest of her life.
•Agrégée Sisters profess a vow of fidelity to the congregation, but it is noncanonical, meaning that it is not governed by Church law and is instead a private vow between that Sister and the Concordia congregation. It also means that the agrégée does not relinquish her finances to the congregation, and the congregation assumes no financial responsibility for her.
•Canonically vowed Sisters begin their religious life with a formal formation that includes a postulancy and novitiate that are, together, about three years. During this time, they have left their previous life, but haven't yet taken up their works as a Sister of St. Joseph. For agrégées, the period of being a candidate may be about the same length of time, but they do not leave behind their regular work and life schedules. Once they have professed their vows, they return to that work and life schedule.
Other congregations of St. Joseph have developed similar definitions or are doing their own studies, but the Concordia congregation is the first to recognize agrégée Sisters as full members of the community.
In Concordia, the definition of who may become an agrégée Sister will be refined as individuals feel called to the community, Marcia Allen, president of the congregation, said.
"This opens up our charism to people who might not have traditionally given thought to religious life," Allen said. "We haven't answered all the questions, but we will—as they're asked."