Carrying Forward the Spirit: 200 years after Elizabeth Seton’s death, Cincinnati SCs follow in her spirit
By S. Judith Metz
Rare is the Sister of Charity of Cincinnati who has not ministered in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Just eight years after the diocese was established in 1821, the Sisters of Charity began their service. Since, they have been a permanent and pervasive presence in church ministries of education, health care and social outreach in many cities and small towns throughout the diocese. In doing so they were inspired by their founder, St. Elizabeth Seton, who expressed the spirit of the Community when she wrote of the joy she felt “at the prospect of being able to assist the poor, visit the sick, comfort the sorrowful, clothe little innocents, and teach them to love God.”
Elizabeth Seton had a deep desire to teach poor children but economic necessity determined that she open a pay school where students’ fees could support serving the poor. She also never lost her desire to provide care for the sick, visit the poor in their homes, and assist the needy in any way possible. The Cincinnati Sisters embraced this vision. In addition to opening a pay school, free school, and girls orphan asylum in 1829, they worked with the Martha and Mary Society to assist the poor, and nursed during periodic cholera epidemics.
Their ministries grew through the 1830s and 1840s as did the number of Sisters working in Cincinnati. However when superiors at their motherhouse decided to join the French Daughters of Charity, six of the Sisters in Cincinnati chose a different direction. Wishing to continue Elizabeth Seton’s original vision of serving the American church, they applied to Archbishop John Purcell who supported them in establishing a diocesan community under the leadership of S. Margaret George in 1852.
Opening a novitiate and accepting new members their numbers swelled, allowing the Sisters to expand their ministries. Within two months of their founding, St. Joseph’s Boys Orphan Asylum opened and in November Bishop John Purcell purchased property where the Sisters started St. John’s (later Good Samaritan) Hospital. Soon the Sisters opened new schools in Cincinnati, including Mount St. Vincent Academy in Price Hill (later Seton High School). By 1857 four Sisters took a canal boat to Dayton where they opened St. Mary’s Academy and free school, and two years later traveled to St. Patrick’s in Fayetteville to open a boarding school for boys and a free school for village children. With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 a majority of the Sisters served the sick and wounded soldiers in military hospitals from the east coast to the Mississippi River as well as at St. John’s Hospital.
Between the Civil War and the end of the 19th century the Sisters followed the roads, canals, and railroads north and east from Cincinnati to serve in schools from Glendale to Findlay; from Marion to Chillicothe to Portsmouth. Meanwhile the number of schools in Cincinnati multiplied to include Northside, Mount Adams, Madisonville, and Norwood. By the early 1900s the Sisters were educating well over 8,500 children per year in parish schools, orphanages, and academies throughout the archdiocese.
To serve the needs of the schools the Community continually worked to strengthen normal school training for Sister-teachers. Community supervisors and a school board oversaw their work and published courses of study. The Sisters attended six-week summer courses and continued their work during the school year studying to pass exams required to teach specific grades. As high schools began to proliferate, the Sisters received additional opportunities to attend summer and Saturday classes at local colleges and universities.
While many Sisters were involved in classroom education, others ministered in health care and social outreach. St. Joseph’s Infant and Maternity Home founded in 1873 provided a unique service in the archdiocese. Besides caring for young mothers and their newborns, St. Joseph served as a maternity hospital for neighboring communities. In addition, while many babies were adopted, others resided at the home until they were transferred to St. Joseph Orphanage. The Sisters conducted a preschool and kindergarten for these children, as well as providing prenatal instruction for the expectant mothers. In 1976 St. Joseph’s changed its focus to caring for individuals with complex disabilities, a service it continues to offer.
Other endeavors included The Santa Maria Educational and Industrial Home that has offered an array of services for immigrants and the needy since its beginning in 1897. This first Catholic settlement house in the United States pioneered modern methods of social service delivery and continues to do so. In 1915 the Sisters of Charity began their work in deaf education at St. Rita School for the Deaf. Sisters continued to staff the school into the 21st century adopting updated educational programs and methods as well as providing many enrichment activities for their students. When Springer School was designated a school for children with learning disabilities beginning in 1943, Sisters of Charity staffed it. By the 1960s the Sisters there developed an avant-garde program that has made the school a national leader in its field.
In addition to Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati, the Sisters also conducted Seton Hospital in Cincinnati (1897-1924), and Good Samaritan Hospital in Dayton (1932-2018). All three of these institutions sponsored schools of nursing beginning in 1896 when the Cincinnati hospital opened its school, now the Good Samaritan College of Nursing. The hospital also conducted a school for medical technologists, a dietetic internship, a school of practical nursing, and an X-Ray technicians training program.
After staffing numerous elementary schools and a growing number of high schools, the Sisters opened the College of Mount St. Joseph in 1920 as the first Catholic women’s college chartered in the state of Ohio. Through the years growing enrollment, the addition and expansion of programs, and the changing need of students led to the college becoming Mount St. Joseph University in 2014.
Through the decades from the 1920s through the 1960s the number of Sisters grew as did their ministries. By the end of 1960s, however, many changes in our society, the Church, and the Congregation dictated new approaches to their work. Fewer Sisters worked in classrooms, but new work as campus ministers, pastoral ministers, directors of religious education, and hospital chaplains became available. In addition, Sisters founded organizations such as The Literacy Network, Bethany House, Working in Neighborhoods, the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center, The Women’s Connection, Seton Family Center and EarthConnection. Sisters worked in the Archdiocesan Education Office and on boards of educational and social service organizations. In the 1980s the Community moved into ministry to the elderly with the founding of Eldermount, and a few years later opened Bayley, a retirement and wellness community serving senior citizens. DePaul Cristo Rey High School, distinguished by its uniquely affordable college prep curriculum and its innovative work program, opened in 2011.
Through their 192 years ministering in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, the Sisters of Charity have touched hundreds of thousands of lives through their educational, health care and social service endeavors. In doing so they have endeavored to follow in the spirit of their founder, Saint Elizabeth Seton, with the unrelenting goal “to assist the poor, visit the sick, comfort the sorrowful, clothe little innocents and teach them to love God.”