Originally a pious association of ladies formed in 1626 for the care of the sick in the hospital of St. Charles at Nancy, but constituted a religious community in 1652 after being generously endowed by the father of Emmanuel Chauvenel, a young advocate who had given his life in the service of the sick. The members placed themselves under the patronage of St. Charles Borromeo, the Apostle of Charity, and adapted the rules and constitutions drawn up by Père Epiphane Louys, Abbot of Estival and Vicar-General of the Reformed Premonstratensians. By the middle of the eighteenth century the congregation was in charge of numerous hospitals, and shortly afterwards took up as an additional task the Christian education of children. During the Revolutionary period the members, although dispersed and deprived of their garb, continued their work so heroically as to win the encomiums of their persecutors. On 22 July, 1804, they reassumed their religious habit, obtained the approval of Napoleon, and were soon in a flourishing condition. Their rule, based on that of St. Augustine, received papal approbation in 1859, and additional constitutions were confirmed by Leo XIII in 1892. Their work includes the direction of all manner of charitable institutions, such as domestic and trade schools, homes for first communicants, protectories, poor-houses, homes for defectives, and female reformatories, as well as the care of the sick in their homes. They also have charge of schools, including a number of normal institutes in Austria. Candidates must spend one year as postulants and from three to four and a half years as novices before being admitted to the congregation. The auxiliary sisters for the care of the sick renew their vows annually.
There are several entirely independent branches of Borromean Sisters. In 1838 one was established by Aloysius Joseph Freiherr von Schrenk, Prince- Bishop of Prague (died 1849), which was confirmed as a separate congregation in 1841, and now numbers 900 members in 102 houses, chiefly in Bohemia, Moravia, and Upper and Lower Austria. In 1848 Melchior Freiherr von Diepenbrock, Prince- Bishop of Breslau, invited the Prague Borromeans to found a house at Neisse, which, in 1857, was raised to the rank of the mother-house of a separate congregation. Later the mother-house was transferred to Trebnitz, and temporarily, during the Kulturkampf, to Teschen, where a provincial house for Austria was later established (1889). A house of this congregation founded at Alexandria in 1884 was, in 1894, made a provincial mother-house and a novitiate for the Orient, with the direction of schools, an asylum for the aged, and a hospice for German pilgrims. Affiliated foundations have been made at Jerusalem (1886), Haifa (1888), Cairo (1904), and Emmaus. The members of the Trebnitz congregation number 1900, in 211 houses. In 1811 a foundation was made from Nancy at Trier whence the congregation spread to other cities of Western Germany. In 1849 a provincial house was erected at Trier which by decree of Pius IX (18 September, 1872), was made the mother-house of an independent congregation. A famous Borromean institution is St. Hedwig's Hospital at Berlin, founded in 1846 by Angelika Eschweiler. The Trier branch comprises over 1200 sisters in 70 houses. A foundation was also made at Maastricht in 1837 by Peter Anton van Baer.
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