With few clergy and no religious women—other than the small monastery of cloistered Carmelite nuns—Bishop Carroll was well used to depending on the laity to take an active and collaborative role in the necessary ministries of the Church. Meanwhile, a widowed convert to the Catholic Church, Mrs. Elizabeth Ann Seton, had met the Rev. Louis Dubourg, SS, an émigré from the French Revolution. The Abbé Dubourg was one of those brilliant souls who travels fast through life proving the axiom “still waters run deep.” In other words, Dubourg razzle-dazzled his contemporaries with his accomplishments without laying good foundations for his work. He was better at starting projects than following through on them.
Seton came from a socially prominent family in upper-crust Manhattan society, but her husband had gone bankrupt shortly before his death and her conversion to Catholicism lost her the support and friendship of most of her relatives and practically all of her social set. In an effort to support herself and her five children, she had opened a hospital in New York but it failed—in great part due to her being ostracized from New York Society for her becoming a Catholic. She heard Dubourg preach in New York and was deeply impressed and at his suggestion she moved with her family to Baltimore where Dubourg had established a seminary for Archbishop Carroll. Mrs. Seton opened a small school and was joined by five other women whom Dubourg thought should be organized into a sisterhood based on the model of the Daughters of Charity, the community founded by Saints Vincent DePaul and Louise de Marillac. Dubourg guided the small group along the paths of the Vincentian spiritual life and on March 25, 1809, Elizabeth Seton professed her vows—renewable annually on the Vincentian model—to Bishop Carroll. The Sisters—like their French counterparts—did not adopt the guimpe and veil of nuns but wore the black dress and bonnet typical to widows. (The French Daughters of Charity had originally worn the highly starched bonnets of serving-women of their day.) Several months later the Sisters relocated to Emmitsburg Maryland where a benefactor had donated 269 acres for the establishment of a school. The school, St. Joseph’s, opened the following February and the Sisterhood itself grew remarkably fast despite the hardship and consequent illness and early deaths of some of the Sisters. By 1814 Mother Seton was able to send sisters to Philadelphia to open an orphan’s home. In 1817 Sisters went to New York at the invitation of Bishop Connolly to make a foundation and take care of orphans. In 1829 a foundation was made in Cincinnati.
In 1847 Bishop John Hughes of New York—a bishop noted for his autocracy as you might remember from earlier blogs—insisted that the Sisters of Charity in his diocese become independent of Emmitsburg and he named his sister, Mother Angela Hughes, their superior. Other bishops followed suit, either breaking the sisters in their various dioceses off from the jurisdiction of groups in other dioceses or, as in the case of the Sisters in New Jersey, recruiting candidates from their own dioceses, sending them to an established group for their formation, and then bringing them home to establish a new Congregation. Today autonomous congregations of Sisters of Charity in New York, Convent Station NJ, Halifax NS, Cincinnati, and Greensburg PA, all trace their origins back to the Seton heritage. The original community at Emmitsburg, affiliated themselves with the French Daughters of Charity, in 1850, at which time they traded Mother Seton’s widows’ bonnet for the starched cornette of the French Daughters of Charity. In 1964 that was exchanged for a simple modern habit designed by Christian Dior. Meanwhile, some of the daughter congregations had traded the bonnet for a more traditional veil.
Mother Seton was not the only foundress of a congregation of Sisters of Charity. Only three years after her taking vows, Catherine Spalding, the daughter of a prominent Catholic family from Charles County, Maryland and two friends were encouraged by Father (later Bishop) Jean-Baptiste Marie David, another émigré priest, to form a Sisterhood near Bardstown Kentucky—a Catholic stronghold in the Ohio Valley to which settlers were streaming in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Spalding was only nineteen when she undertook this project, but she, like Seton, modeled her Institute on the French Daughters of Charity. Their original outreach was education, but they soon took on the care of orphans and nursing. Like Seton’s Charities, the Kentucky women, known as the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, did not adopts nun’s habits but a plain black dress and bonnet.
In the midst of an 1829 cholera epidemic, Irish born Bishop John England of Charleston, South Carolina—one of the most progressive prelates in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States—established a congregation of sisters, also based on the Vincentian model, and known originally as the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. (In the twentieth century they changed their names to the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy.)