The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky
By: Michael Barga
Introduction: The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky (SCNs) are a religious order in the Catholic Church whose social concern and traditional spirituality stem from Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac. The pair were European Catholics, later canonized as saints, of the 17th century who started the Daughters of Charity. While not associated with the Daughters of Charity, the SCNs took the same vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and perseverance. Originally, the sisters wore a black bonnet and a white cap, although some changes have been made. Their initial local efforts in education, health care, and social service have expanded to the international level today.
Background: As more Indians were driven out and settlers began to occupy Kentucky, a number of small Catholic communities arose in the area. By the 1800’s, it was clear that their needs were not being met educationally, and Fr. David traveled around congregations in Kentucky, Maryland, and elsewhere seeking women who would be willing to become teaching sisters. Initially, six women answered the call, including Catherine Spalding who became the first mother superior and is considered the co-founder of the SCNs. The group arrived in 1812 near Bardstown, KY. While efforts were made to become associated with the Daughters of Charity in the United States and France, complications eventually led to the creation of a new order, a similar yet independent congregation whose rules fitted their particular surroundings.
Development and Activities: The six women who had decided to enter the uncertainty of the Kentucky wilderness initially sewed and made clothes for themselves, seminarians, and some of the needy in the area. In 1814, the Presentation school opened and quickly became registered with pupils of many backgrounds: Catholic, non-Catholic, locals, and boarders. By 1819, other schools had been opened in nearby towns around Kentucky, and more women joined the sisterhood and became available to teach. Sr. Catherine Spalding, one of the original six, led the congregation as mother superior many of these early years, and the group’s cohesiveness was especially evident when the re-location of the convent in 1822 became necessary due to legal issues.
While not serving as mother superior, Sr. Catherine was permitted to start a school in Louisville, KY, the most rapidly developing nearby city at that time. The school was opened with minimal cost to pupils and named Presentation Academy. After a family of travelers lost their parents, St. Vincent’s Orphanage was developed in the city. Starting with this initial family’s children, who were non-Catholic, the number of those taken in reached 40-50 by 1836, and a bigger facility was constructed. By the turn of the century, eight more orphanages or infant asylums would be established by the SCNs in Kentucky, Tennessee, Massachusetts, and Virginia. The pioneer spirit of the SCNs was also exhibited in their rural missions to small Ohio establishments.
Like many religious orders which emphasize social concern, the SCNs’ focus is on being responsive to the particular needs of their communities. When the cholera outbreak hit Louisville in 1832, the sisters nursed many to full recoveries. In addition, many of the children who lost their parents in the outbreak were placed in St. Vincent’s orphanage. Those who were teaching had dropped everything in lieu of the crisis, and three SCNs died during this episode of the infectious disease. After the epidemic subsided, the sisters opened St. Joseph Infirmary, which treated all classes of people according to medical records, including some slaves. In Nashville, TN, the SCNs had a similar experience with cholera. Classes were temporarily cancelled, and orphans who were under the guardianship of the sisters, some who likely lost their parents to cholera, became assistants to the sister-nurses.
As early as the mid-1830’s, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, KY were well-known in certain areas of the United States for their teaching abilities. As an institution for women, many notable southern families sent their daughters or wives there, and most of Presentation school’s pupils were non-Catholic in the early days. Spots continued to be reserved for orphans in addition to paying pupils. While a few students converted to Catholicism, it was made clear that a change of creed by those attending was not a part of the school’s mission. There is little to indicate families were concerned about coercion, and the school’s reputation was to train women to master the academic curriculum and become more virtuous. In fact, the SCNs’ Bethlehem Academy in Mississippi was established in 1868 at the request of a Protestant man, a veteran of the Confederate army whose daughter had previously attended school in Kentucky.
The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth gained great respect throughout the United States because of their service in the Civil War, even though they mostly served Confederate soldiers. The Bishop of the Kentucky area requested the sisters to work as nurses in three large manufacturing buildings-turned-hospitals, and the sisters stopped their work as teachers to answer the call. Twenty-three stayed in their posts through the duration of the war, including times when the Union took over some of the facilities.
By the sisters’ request, President Lincoln had sent a letter asking that the SCN mother house and other buildings in Bardstown be spared; however, the North’s admiration was far from a formality. Various accounts acknowledge the Union’s esteem of the sisters, including truces between the two sides when the sisters were in the area or being transported for burial. One sister passed away after coming in contact with a contagious disease, and at the express desire of the men of both armies, Sister Lucy was given a full military burial accompanied by an honor guard of both blue and gray uniforms.1
The sisters in Paducah, KY were cut-off from the rest of their community and decided to close their schools to answer the emergency call for nurses at their own discretion. Some served on floating hospitals, medical boats that traveled along the banks in hopes of rescuing those who were injured and stranded. By the end of the war, many attributed their recoveries to the sisters, and one soldier reportedly wished to gain a pension for Sr. Patricia Grimes; he felt she had served the United States military honorably and deserved to be rewarded.
Sr. Patricia was actually far from done serving as sister-nurse, although she returned to teach in Bowling Green, KY after the war. In 1878, an outbreak of yellow fever pressed her into duty again, yet she lived through this dangerous environment also. Unfortunately, not all were so lucky; that same year, nine SCN-nurses lost their lives in Alabama and other nearby locations treating Yellow Fever. In Louisville, two outbreaks of small pox led to a mayoral request for Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, KY to administer the city hospital, and the sisters were willing to help as usual.
Some anti-Catholics were upset by the mayor’s openness to offer the sisters this significant post, but other groups had turned down the mayoral request and accusations were refuted by many who had received care from the SCNs. After the first episode subsided, the sisters withdrew from the hospital’s administration. After the second episode, they were forced to leave due to anti-Catholic sentiment of some in local government. This came as a surprise and outrage to prominent citizens, especially the many Protestants that had been convinced by the persevering and cheerful service the sister-nurses maintained in the face of danger.
When the Spanish-American war broke out in 1898, the SCNs at St. Vincent’s Hospital near Chattanooga, TN were willing to serve. Many soldiers had come down with pneumonia on the trip to the battle, and the sisters’ reputation for quality care continued to build. Their aptitude for order and obedience made for a speedy training into the medical setting, especially impressive for an order whose focus was primarily education. Still, their service in response to outbreaks and wars did not stunt their efforts to serve in the academic realm. By 1917, roughly twenty thousand students attended schools created or administered by the SCNs.
The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, KY continued along a similar path in the early twentieth century and maintained high standards of care and education. As the mid-point of the twentieth century neared, members of the Congregation were engaged in two colleges, more than 30 high schools, and over a 100 elementary schools, and their involvement also included six orphanages, ten hospitals, and six nursing schools.2 The pioneering spirit continued to be exemplified by individuals like Sr. Dorothy Peterson, who made significant efforts in the 70’s and 80’s to create a mobile health service that could reach even the most rural of households. The SCNs also expanded outside the U.S. borders starting in the 1940’s, creating communities and connections to the people of Nepal, Belize, and other areas of the world.
The most recent news of the SCNs is a reflection on their history. While their work involved some healthcare for slaves and eventually the education of blacks before it was considered acceptable, many of the early sisters of the congregation brought slaves with them to Kentucky. In July 2012, a special ceremony was held to acknowledge the contributions of those blacks who worked for the order while taking full responsibility for the sisters’ involvement in the grim institution of slavery. Since emancipation, it is important to also acknowledge the work of the SCNs as nurses to civil rights marchers in Selma, AL and elsewhere.
Conclusion: Today, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, KY continue their healthcare, education, and social service work in response to community needs. 2012 marked their 200th anniversary, and the log cabin school from the days of Sr. Catherine still remains. Their work now includes laypeople of varying roles, including volunteers and associates. The SCNs now frame their mission in terms of standing by the oppressed, particularly women and those with financial difficulties. The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, KY will continue their diverse ministry at all costs, a natural extension of their commitment to fearless service that began in the midst of civil war and contagious outbreaks.
1. “The Work of the Catholic Sister-Nurses in the Civil War.” University of Dayton Thesis by Betty Ann Perkins, 1967: 35.
2. SCN website: “History of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth,” paragraph 6, retrieved at http://www.scnfamily.org/archives/history/index.html
The Life of Bishop David by Sister Columba Fox. New York: The United States Catholic Historical Society, 1925.
Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky by Anna Blanche McGill. New York: The Encyclopedia Press, 1917.
SCNs Serving Since 1812 by Sister Agnes Geraldine McGann. Nazareth, KY: the author, 1985.
Pioneer Healers by Stepsis Liptak. New York: Crossroad, 1989.
“Sisters of Charity Pay Tribute to Slaves.” Courier-Journal, July 12, 2012 accessed at http://www.scnfamily.org/news/index.php?id=4430308412053900122
Spalding University – http://spalding.edu/campus-map/campus/
Former Slaves – http://scnfamily.org/news/