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A Short History of the Sisters of Charity

(From the program marking the beatification of Elizabeth Ann Seton)

The beatification of Elizabeth Ann Seton manifests one of the striking ways in which Divine Providence extends the Kingdom of God upon earth. Usually, when the foundress of a religious congregation is accorded the honors of the Church, the good works of that one community give glory to her name and add conviction to impression in the record of her sanctity. In the case of Elizabeth Seton, however, there are six communities of which she is the acknowledged Foundress and Mother.

Tracing their origin to her first establishment, these six communities, in God's good time and tinder various circumstances, were formed by His Hand to be the branches of a wide-spreading tree in whose branches millions of His children would find the shelter of His charity. Today these communities total eleven thousand living members.

In 1809, Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton founded her community at Emmitsburg, Maryland. The nucleus of the little community was comprised of five Sisters who were soon joined by others. Her desire to consecrate her life to works of charity led Mother Seton to request the Rules of the Daughters of Charity founded by St. Vincent de Paul in 1633. Bishop Benedict J. Flaget presented the request to superiors in Paris and in 1810 brought to Mother Seton the Rules by which she guided her community during her lifetime. At the time of her death in 1821, the community numbered fifty Sisters.

In 1850 the community at Emmitsburg affiliated with the Mother House of the Daughters of Charityat Paris and at that time adopted the blue habit and the white collar and cornette. The community grew steadily. Today it has 1,246 Sisters in eighty-six establishments in the United States and in Bolivia, South America. Schools, hospitals, homes for the aged, child-caring institutions, day nurseries, social service centers, catechetical works, and the visiting of the poor in their homes are the primary works of the Sisters. They are located in twenty-one dioceses of the United States.

In 1910 the jurisdiction of Emmitsburg was divided into two Provinces with the Eastern Provincial House in Emmitsburg and the Western Provincial House in Normandy, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. At the present time 1,266 Sisters comprise the Western Province and oversee eighty-seven establishments in twenty-six dioceses of the United States, Puerto Rico, Japan, and Formosa.

In 1817, Mother Seton sent three Sisters to New York at the invitation of Bishop Connolly to open a home for dependent children. Their services were urgently needed, for many parents were victims of the epidemics that frequently invaded the young metropolis, where there was as yet no system of sanitation. By 1846 the Sisters of Charity had staffed three child-caring homes, four academies and four parochial schools in New York City and Brooklyn.

To meet the increasing need of expanded educational and social welfare facilities in New York, a separate Mother House known as Mount St. Vincent was founded in 1847. At present the New York community numbers 1,482 members engaged in one hundred twenty centers of zeal. Their works include colleges and schools on all levels, hospitals, child-caring homes, educational units for the retarded, lay retreats, and missions in the Bahama Islands. The Sisters have retained the rule, customs, and spiritual exercises established by Mother Seton, and her costume consisting of a black habit, cape and cap.

In 1829 at the request of Bishop Edward Fenwick, four Sisters from Emmitsburg opened a free school, orphanage and academy in Cincinnati in the Cathedral parish of St. Peter, and thirteen years later a boys' orphanage. At the time of the Emmitsburg affiliation, the Cincinnati Sisters formed, a separate Mother House under the direction of Archbishop John B. Purcell. As the community grew in numbers anti missions, the Sisters entered new areas of work for the Church: hospital service, secondary and college education, catechetics, social service and missionary works. The sixteen hundred members now pursue apostolic labors in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Mary land, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas; Rome, Italy, Lima and Huancane, Peru.

In 1849, two years after the New York Mother House was opened, Archbishop William Walsh of Halifax, Nova Scotia, applied there for Sisters to organize in his diocese. Four Sisters were given him with the understanding that, if the work succeeded and became self-sustaining, the Halifax community could become independent. The conditions were fulfilled and a new Mother House, later known as Mount St. Vincent, came into being in 1856 in Halifax.

Over the years, by the Providence of God, the community mission houses spread throughout Canada, the United States, and Bermuda. The Sisters conduct schools in the States of Washington, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Now York, close to the community from which they had emanated. Today, over 1700 Sisters of Charity of Halifax, in ninety-seven missions bring the spirit of Mother Seton to students on the elementary, secondary, and college level; hospital patients; the aging and orphans.

The story of the New Jersey Sisters of Charity comes next in sequence. The diocese of Newark was created in 1853 with the Most Reverend James Roosevelt Bayley, a nephew of Mother Seton, as its first Bishop. Finding it impossible to procure a sufficient number of Sisters to staff his schools and orphanages, the Bishop decided to establish it branch of the Sisters of Charity in his own diocese. Accordingly, he recruited five young women from his diocese and sent them to the Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati in 1858 to make their novitiate under the ttitelage of Sister Margaret Cecilia George, a former companion of Mother Seton.

When these novices returned to Newark in September 1859, Sister Mary Xavier Mehegan and Sister Mary Catherine Nevin where loaned by Mount St. Vincent to organize and head the new community. The Sisters had the option of returning to the New York community at the end of three years, but at the expiration of that period, they elected to remain with the New Jersey foundation. In 1860 the Mother House was transferred to Madison, now known as Convent Station, and was called Saint Elizabeth's.

The New Jersey community now numbers eighteen hundred Sisters in on hundred twenty-four missions. The rule of Mother Seton has been retained, but the black cap has been replaced by a veil and coif. Immediately after the Civil War, Bishop Domenee, the second bishop of Pittsburgh, asked the superiors of the Cincinnati foundation to establish an independent branch of Mother Seton's Sisters in Pennsylvania. In 1870 five Sisters from Cincinnati opened the first Mother House in Altoona. The Altoona house soon proved too small, ind in 1882 the two hundred acre farm in Greensburg, now known as Seton Hill, became the permanent Mother House. The community has from that date been identified as the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill.

The apostolates of the youngest community in direct descent from Mother Seton parallel those of the earlier foundations. Eight hundred Sisters in fifty-seven convents from the Archdiocese of Washington, D. C., to the Vicariate Apostolic of Kwanju in Korea are engaged in teaching, nursing, catechetical instruction, social service, and missionary work. The Sisters retain the black cap of Mother Seton as their distinctive headdress.

'Be children of the Church." Mother Seton's last words to the Sisters who were gathered around her deathbed on January 4, 1821, sums up the history of the American Sisters of Charity. From the begin, their role in the Church was clearly understood by the great missionary bishops who laid the foundations of Catholic life in the thirteen States of the Union and in the endless stretches of rolling prairie that lay beyond the Alleghenies. Scope for limitless opportunities of apostolic labor "in distant parts of the United States" was written into the Constitution of the Sisters of Charity by Archbishop John Carroll, founding father of the Church in America. As religious teachers and social workers, they pioneered in education and clarity in the United States.

If the United States had been a compact, self-contained little country in the European tradition, everything would have been much simpler. But it was a mission country in which prelates and priests traveled miles on horseback to offer Mass and administer the Sacraments once a month in distant sections of their Dioceses, often embracing one or two States. And year by year the frontier pushed westward as immigration provided laborers to hew forests, cut through roads, canals and finally roadbeds for the "iron horse" that, before tile chugged its across 3,000 miles of farmland, mountains and desert to the Pacific Coast.

"We want our children educated in the Catholic faith," pleaded thousands of immigrants as they began a new life in the one nation that promised equal opportunities to all its citizens. In response to their appeal, one bishop after another wrote to superiors in Emmitsburg to beg for Sisters.

Beginning in 1814, the Sisters of Charity opened orphanages, parish free schools and academies in the key cities along the Atlantic seaboard, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Baltimore, Washington and Wilmington. In 1823 they were introduced to hospital work in the Baltimore Infirmary, established that year by the facility of the Medical Department of the University of Maryland.

In 1828 Mother Setonís daughters crossed over the Alleghenies for the first time and sailed down the Ohio to the bustling river town of St. Louis, where they opened in turn a hospital, an orphanage, and an industrial school. In 1829 they staffed an orphanage, an academy and a free school in Cincinnati. Pioneers in the accepted American tradition, they traveled by stage coach, covered wagon, canal and river boat, sharing the physical dangers of a journey through unsurveyed wilderness, the hardships and grinding poverty of the frontier.

Davy Crockett and Kit Carson would have envied the adventures of these fearless women who carried the message of Christ's love to tile most remote corners of the United States and Canada. In Nova Scotia, Sisters of Charity from Mount St. Vincent, New York, begin in 1849 an apostolate that has been carried on since 1856 by the independent congregation of Sisters of Charity of Halifax. Traveling often by sleigh, the Sisters carried the spirit of Mother Seton to the rural areas of the Maritime Provinces and to Western Canada, in such varied fields of the apostolate as the mining towns of Cape Breton, the fishing villages of Nova Scotia, and the foothill of the Rockies.

In 1852 seven Daughters of Charity left Emmitsburg for California, and two died along the way, one of exhaustion, the other of cholera contracted on the fever-ridden Isthmus of Panama. In 1865, Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati crossed the desert by stagecoach to open a hospital in Santa Fe, a military outpost in the Territory of New Mexico. A second contingent of Sisters, traveling by wagon train in 1867, nursed members of the caravan who were dying of cholera while the arrows of attacking Kiowa Indians whirred through the encampment. Frontiersmen, miners, railroaders, notorious gunmen with a price on their heads - respected the Sisters for their courage , utter realism and humor, no less than for their Undiscriminating charity.

The two decades that preceded the Civil War doubled tile Catholic population of the United States. Harried bishops throughout tile country pleaded for Sisters or for Mother Houses in their own dioceses that would multiply as quickly as possible the courageous, resourceful women who extended the charity of Christ to thousands of souls

During these years hospitals, schools and orphanages were opened by Mother Seton's Sisters in Detroit, Milwaukee, New York City, Buffalo, Troy, Washington, Norfolk and Mobile. Additional orphanages and schools were staffed in Natchez, Syracuse, and Utica; hospitals were founded in New Orleans, Rochester, and Philadelphia. Throughout the Metropolitan area of Greater New York and up the Hudson, Parochial schools and academics were opened in nearly every parish. In the turbulent industrial cities of the North, in Mississippi and Alabama in the heart of the deep South, Sisters of Charity taught lessons in social justice that, had they been needed, might have spared the nation the bitter experience of Civil War.

When Fort Sumpter was fired upon in April of 1861, there were Sisters of Charity on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Union and Confederate officials asked for Sisters to nurse the sick and wounded in army hospitals, transport ships and barracks, and in improvised field hospitals set up along the shifting battle fronts. On the blood-stained field of Gettysburg, ten miles from Mother Setonís grave in St. Josephís Valley, at Antietam, Frederick, Point Look- out, Holly Springs, Natchez, Richmond, and Harpers Ferry, white winged Daughters of Charity nursed the wounded with deft hands and compassion that knew no distinction between the Blue and the Grey.

In the Midwest, Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati gave service beyond the call of duty at Camp Dennison, at Shiloh, Cumberland, Culpepper, and Galliopolis. Sister Anthony O'Connell, "Angel of the battlefield," whose portrait hangs in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, was revered by Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, Grant and Lee for her devoted care of their wounded and dying men. In New York City, the original Mother House of the Sisters of Charity of Mount St. Vincent was converted into a military hospital, staffed by Black Cap daughters of Mother Seton. In Newark and Trenton hospitals, Sisters of Charity of New Jersey contributed generous nursing service until the close of the war.

Beginning with the cholera epidemic that swept tile country in 1832, Sisters of Charity cared for the sick and dying during constantly recurring epidemics of cholera, typhus, yellow fever, and smallpox. In the great Charity hospital of New Orleans, in Philadelphia's "old Blockley," in the Cholera hospital on Ward's Island and the Smallpox Hospital on Randallís Island, New York City, in an improvised Cholera hospital on McNab's Island in Halifax Harbor, and in the National Leprosarium in Louisiana, Mother Seton's daughters risked their lives - and in many instances sacrificed themselves - in the care of the sick. In 1840 they introduced in the United States St. Vincent de Paul's revolutionary concept of compassionate care for the mentally ill. By 1879 they had staffed seven institutions, the first Catholic psychiatric hospitals in the country.

In such major disasters as the San Francisco and Chicago fires, the Johnstown and Pittsburgh floods, the sinking of the Titanic, the chemical explosion that wrecked one third of the city of Halifax, the Sisters of Charity were there, ready with doctors, nurses, ambulances and medical supplies to relieve human suffering. Through good times and bad times, with worthless "greenback" currency and without it, on the gold standard or on "free silver," through bank panics and dreary depression years, they fed and clothed the poor, found work for the unemployed, and prepared future American and Canadian citizens to make their way in a highly competitive society.

During the 1880s and 1890s, schools, hospitals and social welfare services were multiplied. Then came the Spanish-American War and a warm invitation to re-enter military service. In Cuba and Puerto Rico, on army transports on the high seas, in naval bases and in their own community-staffed hospitals, Mother Setonís daughters cared for soldiers stricken with malaria and yellow fever.

The twentieth century expanded horizons in every field. Education, nursing, and social welfare became exacting professions that required specialized training. A nation-wide epidemic of influenza and two World Wars brought new opportunities for Sisters of Charity to give every service in their power to all in need. There was literally no human problem from which they could remain aloof.

Because they can look back so far, Mother Seton's daughters can look ahead with confidence to the totally unpredictable challenges of a nuclear era. The nations of the free world look to America for leadership; the enslaved for deliverance. The beatification of a native born citizen of the United States is in itself a sign that the American Catholic Church has attained spiritual maturity. It is the prayer of the Sisters of Charity that millions of American Catholics will be inspired by the example of Blessed Elizabeth Ann Seton to enter deeply into the spirit of the Church, which is the soul of Christ.

Have your own memories of the Sisters of Charity?  
If so, send them to us at history@emmitsburg.net