The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul
By: Michael Barga
Background: Originally founded in France, a congregation of sisters was started in Emmitsburg, Maryland in 1809 by Elizabeth Ann Seton which would later become associated with the Daughters of Charity in 1850. The congregation, dedicated to work in social ministry and education, was the first sisterhood founded in the United States. They traditionally wear black clothing, have a white cap, and never wear a veil, the traditional sign of being cloistered or separated from society. The Daughters of Charity consider their work responsive to community needs in doing works of mercy. There are now five provinces of the Daughters of Charity across the United States which includes 12 congregations and 4,000 members.
Development and Activities: The first work of the Daughters of Charity was education, and pupils from many social classes and religions were accepted into a school in Emmitsburg, Maryland. As a new congregation, it was financially necessary to accept payment from some, but these collections left the sisters far from comfortable. The determined sisters expanded their work significantly under Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton, their founder. In 1814, the sisters opened an orphanage in Philadelphia, and their hospital work began about ten years later in nearby Baltimore. In 1817, the first Catholic orphanage in New York was opened. Mother Seton, canonized a saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 1975, passed away in 1821, but the work of the Daughters of Charity was far from complete.
The first Catholic health care institution in the United States, Mullanphy hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, was opened by the sisters in 1828 with an associated orphanage and school. This was quickly followed by another Catholic hospital opening in Cincinnati, Ohio the next year. Reportedly, a New Orleans administrator was given a good impression of their work at Mullanphy, and the sisters were requested to manage New Orleans’ charity hospital where neglect for the sick and “insane” was widespread. At about the same time, the University of Maryland asked the sisters to take charge of the “Maryland Hospital for the Insane” in 1833.
From 1832-1834, they were responsive to community needs for nursing in a variety of locations across the United states during the cholera and yellow fever outbreaks. Many nurses and others in charge of caring for the sick were fearful of catching the disease and left the job rather than risking infection. While anti-Catholic attitudes were strong in early America, the work of the sisters had a good reputation, and their vows, especially of celibacy, gave them clarity of purpose and intention in their roles.
The sisters’ response to outbreaks refocused the attention of many congregations from education to healthcare. Also, the sisters focused more on care of orphans, particularly those who had lost their parents to the diseases and fellow Catholics. Nationally, the Catholic immigrant population, mostly poor, was growing, and the Daughters of Charity responded by opening fifteen hospitals in cities throughout the country, in addition to accepting administration of twenty other existing ones, over the next twenty five years. In the early twentieth century, the sisters opened numerous settlement houses throughout cities in the United States in hopes to better the lives of immigrants, especially fellow Catholics. The services provided depended on the needs of each community, but most included day care for children and education, religious and otherwise.
The determination to fill the needs of communities is particularly well demonstrated by the opening of St. Mary’s Hospital of Rochester, NY in 1857. While in the present day, it is an institution that has about fifty distinct services and many campuses spread throughout the city’s surrounding area, the sisters had started originally with two old stables providing shelter for the poor and sick. A formal building was finally constructed in 1863, and the facility was declared a Government Hospital just in time to treat 5,000 Civil War soldiers.
The work of the Daughters of Charity in Rochester with those injured in the Civil War was not an exception, and many sisters were responsive to the national community’s need for nurses by southern and northern American armies. In 1861, Doctor Gibson, head of the Confederate Military Hospital, requested the help of the sisters in Richmond. They quickly developed a reputation for cleanliness and order, and the sisters’ nearby facility in Richmond, which had previously only been used as an emergency overflow facility, became a regular military hospital.
Roughly twenty-five hundred wounded were treated in this hospital throughout the war. When the battle came to Richmond, the sisters were trusted to travel across the lines of both armies since Rebel and Yank recognized the great service and charity performed by these women in caring for all.1 In fact, requests for more sisters sometimes became outlandish during the war. General McClellan made a request for fifty Daughters of Charity; Surgeon General Hammond, also of the Union, made an impossible appeal to a mother superior for a hundred or more sisters to help treat those injured.
Numerous reports from doctors, generals, and soldiers alike praised the work of the sisters, who were known for their order, cleanliness, efficiency, and ability to care for the men spiritually as well as physically. Dorothea Dix was officially in charge of the Union’s nursing efforts, but many requested help from the sisters directly since Protestants were given preference for nursing positions. In fact, Dix had urged sisters to withdraw from positions which they already held during the war, and there was much tension between her and generals, doctors, and soldiers. Such anti-Catholic attitudes were common at the time, and most acknowledge that the work of sisters like the Daughters of Charity in the Civil War helped dispel myths about Catholics and create greater respect among all Christians in the United States.
In some cases, hospitals changed sides, and the sisters simply remained to continue their work. In Frederick, MD, the sisters served Federals and Confederates together in the same quarters, and their ability to give care without concern for loyalty was widely acknowledged. General Lee allowed them to communicate freely with their superiors at Emmitsburg during their service at Frederick. By the end of the war, medals had been received by sisters from the Confederate and Union armies, and at least one sister-nurse who died during her service as a nurse was buried with the honors normally awarded to a military officer.
In total, 232 Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul were known to serve during the Civil War at seemingly every major battle, especially those in the Maryland area at Gettysburg and Antietam. With service and recognition came a distinguished reputation, and many sisters remained to work in hospitals around the country when the war ended. They were given the role of administration, a rarity for women at the time.
The sisters’ ability to organize and clarity of direction partly came from preparations before the war. By the early 1840’s, many sister-nurses carried a pocket version of “Instructions for the Care of the Sick” written by Mother Superior Xavier Clark. More importantly, the obedience of inexperienced sisters to those with greater training was natural to them, because hierarchy was part of their community living. Despite the mostly positive feedback, anti-Catholic bias was still very present at the end of the war. The Daughters of Charity were put on trial for fraud, misleading the public, in the Mount Hope case; however, charges of misrepresenting the amount of cures and holding patients against their will were eventually dropped.
The sisters made an effort to reach the ever-developing Western United States after the war. In Michigan, Daughters of Charity reached out to forest workers on the frontier and were able to open St. Mary’s hospital using the idea of hospital insurance. Individuals would pay a small fee for assured admission to their hospital over an agreed upon amount of time; the idea was both innovative and successful. Saint Mary’s School and Asylum became the sisters’ first mission in Nevada not long after. The Los Angeles Infirmary opened, administered by the sisters, in 1869.
While the Daughters of Charity had a presence in the South, reconstruction difficulties and the aftermath of the war inhibited expansion of activities greatly. Congregation resources were stretched to the limit; for example, Sister Mathilde Comstock taught all week and offered job training and basic education to blacks on weekends. The Daughters of Charity’s work for blacks was severely limited by segregation in other cases. A school for blacks opened in Natchez, Mississippi lasted less than a year. Their social concern for blacks stood out, but the sisters were generally not willing to be defiant, which would likely have risked their ability to serve.
In 1878, the slow-recovering South was hit by another wave of infectious disease outbreaks, and nine sisters located in New Orleans and nearby areas lost their lives as nurses. At that time, males held an overwhelming level of power and authoritative roles in the United States, but sacrificial service of this sort led to great respect for the Daughters of Charity. They became the first women to own a corporation, a hospital system in the California area. Still, the sisters never hid behind a management position or lost their sense of responsiveness to community needs. Fifty sisters served in the Spanish-American war which began in 1898.
After the Supreme Court ruled it was constitutional for the government to fund religiously sponsored human service agencies at the end of the 19th century, Sister Chrysostom Moynahan established a school of nursing at St. Vincent’s, the first hospital established in Birmingham, Alabama. Moynahan would later become the first licensed nurse in Alabama and led ten nurses in caring for WWI soldiers in Europe. Similar to their work with 19th century infectious outbreaks, the sisters placed themselves in harm’s way serving returning soldiers from WWI who brought back the deadly Spanish influenza virus to the United States.
Sr. Moynahan’s nursing school marked a significant step in the professionalization of Catholic health care services, with the first class of three nurses graduating in 1902. By 1910, there were 27 schools of nursing operated in hospitals run by the sisters. As administrators, the sisters were always open to innovation. The opening of special education and daycare centers in the west, a burn treatment facility in the mid-west, the Marillac Social Center in the southwest, and the first Cobalt-50 treatment machine for treating humans are a few of the advances that occurred in their hospitals.
One of the more memorable contributions to social welfare by the Daughters of Charity was their involvement in the civil rights movement in Chicago. Six sisters, whose work in a nearby settlement house included social service to blacks, marched for civil rights in June 1965 and were among the 150 arrested and jailed for their actions. Unfortunately, this assertive attitude was a long-awaited exception rather than the rule. Only two of twenty-five Catholic hospitals in Chicago accepted blacks during the 1940’s. In other areas, including Washington, D.C. and St. Louis, the Daughters of Charity were ahead of the curve in desegregation; many schools included an interracial student body eight years before the Supreme Court mandated it in 1954.
As healthcare continued to become more professionalized towards the end of the 20th century, the Daughters of Charity continued their involvement in administration. Sr. Irene Kraus became the first woman to chair the American Hospital Association in 1980 and remained involved throughout her lifetime. Increasingly, hospitals and other facilities banded together into larger systems of care, and the sisters responded accordingly. Some partnerships were more uneasy than others based on the conflicting Catholic and secular viewpoints on medical ethics, and the alleviation of value tensions became a more prominent responsibility.
Conclusion: Today, there is still a Daughters of Charity province based in Emmitsburg, MD which continues to serve the community according to its needs. In addition to senior services which already exist for the Emmitsburg area, like St. Catherine’s Nursing Home, a plan is underway to make one of the administration buildings an affordable senior housing complex. The Daughters of Charity in this province continue to teach in some schools, mostly in Maryland, but also in Georgia and West Virginia.
Especially as Civil War nuns and founders of hospitals across the United States, the Daughters of Charity have left a pronounced mark on the social welfare of the United States, and their spiritually-based service will continue as long as new women are willing to make vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and the service of the poor.
1. “The Work of the Catholic Sister-Nurses in the Civil War.” University of Dayton Thesis by Betty Ann Perkins, 1967: 8.
Daughters of the Church by Sister Daniel Hannefin, D.C. Brooklyn, NY: New City Press, 1989.
Pioneer Healers by Stepsis Liptak. New York: Crossroad, 1989.
Emmitsburg Area Historical Society website: http://emmitsburg.net/setonshrine/ “Who we are”
Daughters of Charity Emmitsburg Province website: http://www.thedaughtersofcharity.org/who/how.htm
“Vibrant, Vital, and Growing” brochure of Unity St. Mary’s Hospital: https://www.rochesterregional.org/about/history/st-marys/
Catholic Nursing Sisters and Brothers and Racial Justice in Mid-20th-Century America by Barbara Mann Wall, accessed at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2743075/
Mother Seton – https://scsh.org/about-us/history/founders/
Federation Logo – http://sistersofcharityfederation.org/