The Foundation (1803) and Our Beginning
The Congregation of the Sisters of Charity had a modest beginning in the rural district of Lovendegem. At the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, Europe underwent a serious crisis in the economic, social, and religious spheres. During the first years after the French invasion in 1793 the Low Countries were rife with anti-clerical fever. The ultimate goal was to lessen the power of the Church in all the sectors she controlled in order to bring about the complete separation of Church and State. In 1796 a law was passed suppressing all convents and religious foundations and all church property was confiscated by the state. Its administration was given over to the newly created Hospice Commissions. Secular priests could no longer carry out their spiritual duties unless they had sworn an oath of fidelity or allegiance to the French Republic and the detestation of the monarchy. Many were condemned to exile or went into hiding so as to be able to carry on their work clandestinely, with the threat of deportation to overseas continually hanging over them.
It was only in 1801 that this situation changed with the signing of a concordat between Pope Pius VII and Napoleon. This reestablished peace in the religious sphere. Dioceses were again set up and in April 1802 Mgr. E. Fallot de Beaumont was appointed Bishop of Ghent. Acceptance of this new religious setup meant a break by the Church with the Ancient Régime. The Church was to renounce her ancient traditional privileges and no longer exercised a monopoly in the charitable and cultural fields. She was, however, granted sufficient freedom to carry out her spiritual mission. One of the characteristics of this Catholic revival was the foundation of numerous religious congregations, which devoted themselves to nursing care and education. The congregation of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary was one of the first of these and became very popular.
At the beginning of 1803 Peter Joseph Triest was appointed parish priest in Lovendegem. The poverty, the moral depravity, the crying need for education and care of the sick spurred P.J. Triest into action. Responding to the local needs, he gathered together a few devout single women into a religious association. They soon moved into a little house in the hamlet of Appensvoorde: this was to be the cradle of the Congregation.
On 4th November 1803, feast of St. Charles Borromeo, the congregation of the “Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary” was canonically established by Mgr. Fallot de Beaumont, their convent being dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels.
Little by little the foundation took shape. P.J. Triest was able to rely on the assistance of Maria Theresa Van der Gauwen, who had been a novice in the Cistercian Abbey and so had some experience of religious life. She became the first superior or leader under the name of Mother Placide. On 2nd July 1804 the first Sisters of Charity pronounced their first vows and decided also to devote their lives to “the caring of the poor and destitute”. In Lovendegem the sisters gave lessons, looked after orphans and went into the homes of the sick and old to care for them.