The Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, Ohio (1852-Present)
By: Michael Barga
Introduction: The Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati (SCCs) were originally associated with the Catholic order of sisters started by Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, MD. Upon the Emmitsburg congregation’s unification with the French order, those in Cincinnati decided to become independent. The work of the SCCs, starting with their 1829 arrival in Cincinnati, includes the creation of orphanages, schools, and hospitals in the local Ohio area as well as missions in the Western United States and abroad. SCCs make vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience to God and strive to live simply, be in solidarity with the poor, and embrace multiculturalism in ministry and membership.
Background: Four sisters traveled from Emmitsburg, MD to Cincinnati, OH at the request of Edward Fenwick, the first bishop of the city. The Catholic community was a relatively small part of the population and mostly made up of lower class families. Through collections from outside the community a Catholic church was erected, but teachers and caretakers for a school and orphanage were pressing social needs in a city where many were not tolerant of the Catholic faith. On the other hand, Cincinnati was known as a city of social concern at that time which made it fertile ground for the work of the SCCs.
Development and Activities: Upon their arrival in 1829, the sisters found their two-story dwelling to be largely unfinished. Despite this initial difficulty, they were able to start their educational and social ministry later that year with the opening of St. Peter’s school and orphanage for girls. Eight children were in the care of the sisters upon its opening, and money was raised for potential expansion through a variety of efforts including fairs that featured public performances by the orphans. In 1832, Cincinnati was hit by an outbreak of cholera, and the sisters nursed many afflicted as part of their ministry. After another episode of the disease in 1834, the sisters cared for 30 orphans, many the children of cholera victims. In the midst of increasing ministry activities, the congregation had to handle other practical difficulties. Initially, a private citizen had allowed the sisters to use his property as a convent, but the sisters were forced to re-locate twice by 1836.
The sisters joyfully received three more sisters to help with their ministry in 1837. In addition to the school and orphanage, they were involved in the “Mary and Martha Society” to visit the sick. By 1840, the orphanage cared for 58 children, and an orphanage which specifically aimed to serve the German Catholic community had been established. Financially supporting the ministries was a constant battle. More fairs were held and the priests continued to make appeals to their parishes, but the need was so great that reportedly Sr. Anthony O’ Connell, one of the new arrivals, begged in the marketplace. She was met by a mixed reception; some expressed anti-Catholic sentiment while other Protestants gave generously and reproached those who insulted her.
Systemic bias was also present in Cincinnati in the early 1840’s and played a significant part in the financial difficulties of the sisters’ ministries. While funding was allotted by the Ohio legislature to support Protestant asylums, the sisters’ petition was denied because they were considered a sectarian group. Still, the sisters’ ministries continued to expand, and in 1844 a boys’ orphanage was opened stemming from their previous ministry of placing male orphans, mostly Catholic, into community families. By 1847, St. Peter’s orphanage had outgrown its facility twice, and new facility construction projects proved helpful in caring for the nearly 150 orphans who needed services, many whose parents had passed away in another cholera outbreak.
The key development at the end of the 1840’s was a structural change for the small Cincinnati community of sisters. The order in Emmitsburg, Maryland informed sisters around the country, including those in Cincinnati, that they had decided to become associated with the Daughters of Charity in France. This new association would require changes in the rules of the order, including a policy for the sisters to serve only females in orphanages. Sr. Margaret Cecilia George, who had arrived in the community in 1845, was a personal friend of Elizabeth Ann Seton, deceased founder of the order. With the support of Cincinnati’s bishop at the time, John Baptist Purcell, she led the community in the decision to become an independent order and was elected to the position of Mother Superior.
While the split was met with mixed emotions, the community received other sisters who felt called to work under the original rules and structure of Elizabeth Ann Seton, and the community became known as the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. At this point, roughly 300 orphans were under the care of the sisters at St. Peter’s. Additionally, 23 boys were served by the newly formed St. Joseph’s Benevolent society, and St. John’s Hotel for Invalids was opened as the first private hospital in Cincinnati. In 1853, Mt. St. Vincent was opened as a boarding school to help support the growing social service activities.
When the American Civil War broke out, the SCCs were one of the many orders called upon to serve as nurses. Sister Anthony and four others were brought to nearby Camp Dennison, where initially they cared for those who were too sick to fight. Eventually, soldiers were sent to the recently opened St. John’s in Cincinnati, partly based on the good reputation of the five sisters serving on military grounds. A request was made from Cumberland, VA for nursing assistance, and eight sisters were sent to the location to serve the wounded of both armies.
The battle of Shiloh brought ten sisters to the scene including Sr. Anthony, who had quickly become the most well-known of the reputable sister-nurses. In the sisters’ work, doctors had called them ministering angels, and stories of greater tolerance for Catholicism and respect for the sisters became common. One man cursed at doctors and other medical personnel, but both held his tongue and reproached all who spoke offensively in the presence of a sister. Sr. Anthony would plead for permission to care for patients considered lost causes by the doctors, including victims of small pox and other contagious diseases.
Some describe Sr. Anthony’s word as being law with officers, doctors, and soldiers once she had established herself as a prudent and trusted administrator and nurse. She and other sisters often were picked to treat wounded prisoners of war since they showed no bias in serving rebel, yank, white, or black soldiers.
Sr. Anthony also played a role as merciful advocate of a young southern boy who had been caught crossing the lines and three deserting soldiers whose death sentences were commuted upon her passionate pleas. Even after the war, Sr. Anthony’s distinguished service would continue to be acknowledged. At a civil war reunion in Tennessee largely attended by the officers of the Army, the chief toast of the evening was one to Sister Anthony…responded to by the most enthusiastic cheers.1
The spirit of the SCCs was also honored by the Cincinnati community after the war. A local banker, Joseph C. Butler, had referred a man with typhoid fever to St. John’s and offered to pay for his care. The SCCs refused to accept payment, and after the war Butler and a friend bought a large facility to present to the sisters on two conditions: that no one be excluded from the hospital because of color or religion, and that the hospital be named “The Hospital of the Good Samaritan,” to honor the sisters’ kindness.2 The 95-bed facility opened in 1866 under the administration of Sister Anthony and still operates today.
Shortly after the war, requests for the help of sisters came from developing areas in New Mexico and Colorado in the Western United States. Schools and orphanages were established in both locations, despite very few resources at the sisters’ disposal. In the Colorado mission, the sisters were credited with creating the first public school, although they were later asked to change their clothing or be removed from their posts. In the early 1870’s, there was a growth in membership, and the SCCs also helped facilitate the creation of local congregations in the Pittsburgh area and in New Jersey which established schools and asylums, including the Allegheny School for Deaf Mutes, Academy for Boys, and Young Ladies’ Academy.
In the 1880’s, school and orphanage work spread significantly into different areas of Michigan. The SCCs also were responsive to the specific needs of communities. The St. Joseph Infant Asylum and Maternity Home was created as a haven for unwed mothers; the Santa Maria Italian Educational and Institutional Home was developed as a settlement house, the first of its kind in the Catholic communities of the United States. This was followed by an increase in Catholic high school education efforts in the early 20th century, and the opening of the College of Mount St. Joseph in 1920 for women’s education. At this time, the sisters also became involved in foreign missions, primarily in China, and their work began inclusion of associates and other laypeople in the post-Vatican II era like many other religious orders.
Conclusion: The Sisters of Charity, Cincinnati continue to sponsor various nonprofit ministries, including some originally created by the sisters in the Ohio area. A few more recent establishments include a counseling center that creates a therapeutic “homelike” environment, a facility for senior adults, and DePaul Cristo Rey High School opened in 2009. Cristo Rey High Schools enroll young men and women with economic need and include a corporate work study as a hands-on part of the curriculum. The SCCs continue to build on their history of dynamic individuals, like Sr. Anthony O’ Connell, and innovative social welfare initiatives, like St. Joseph’s Infant and Maternity Home, in response to communal needs.
1. “The Work of the Catholic Sister-Nurses in the Civil War.” University of Dayton Thesis by Betty Ann Perkins, 1967: 55.
2. “Good Samaritan Hospital: The Hospital of the Good Samaritan.” http://www.trihealth.com/hospitals-and-practices/good-samaritan-hospital/about-good-samaritan-hospital/
The History of Mother Seton’s Daughters, The Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, Ohio 1809-1917 by Sister Mary Agnes McCann. 3 Volumes. New York: 1917.
SCC website: “Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati Fact Sheet.” Accessed at http://www.srcharitycinti.org/about/images/May%20Fact%20Sheet%202012.pdf “Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati” http://www.srcharitycinti.org/about/history_sc.htm and http://www.srcharitycinti.org/about/mission.htm
“The Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati 1829-1852” by Judith Metz. Vincentian Heritage Journal 17(3), 1996, accessed at http://via.library.depaul.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1175&context=vhj.
Sister with Infants – http://www.saintjosephhome.com/pages/history
Civil War Memorial – http://www.wvxu.org/news/wvxunews_article.asp?ID=10076