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Sisters of Charity celebrate 200 years of faith and ministry

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

By Eileen Connelly, OSU

ARCHDIOCESE — The celebration recognizing 200 years of faith and ministry came to a close on Oct. 25 as nearly 800 Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, associates, family members and friends came together for a special liturgy at the Cathedral of Peter in Chains. Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk presided.

It was the culmination of nearly a year of special events marking the founding of the American Sisters of Charity by St. Elizabeth Seton in Emmitsburg, Md., in 1809. When the widowed St. Elizabeth, a recent convert to Catholicism, moved to Maryland with her five small children, her original intention was to find a way to support them that was in accordance with her beliefs. She opened a school for girls in Baltimore and was quickly joined by young women recommended to her by area clergy. After a period of discernment and with the support of Bishop John Carroll, they formed a religious community modeled after the French Daughters of Charity.

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Sisters Judith Metz and Alice Ann O’Neill pose by a stone that sits in the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati area of the Seton Legacy Garden in Emmitsburg, Md. (Courtesy photo)

The Sisters’ original ministry was a free school and boarding academy at their motherhouse, but they soon began to provide for orphans, as well as visiting the sick and poor in their neighborhood. As the community grew, the Sisters received requests to staff orphanages and schools in other areas. By the time of St. Elizabeth’s death in 1821, they had missions in Philadelphia, New York and at Mount St. Mary’s boy’s school in Emmitsburg.

On Oct. 28, 1829, four Sisters of Charity arrived in Cincinnati at the request of Bishop Edward Fenwick, soon opening St. Peter’s Orphanage and School for girls. By 1850 the community’s superiors in Emmitsburg had arranged for the Sisters to become members of the French congregation.

Some of the Cincinnati Sisters, under the leadership of Sister Margaret George, chose not to participate in the change and, with the support of Archbishop John Baptist Purcell, they formed a diocesan congregation on March 25, 1852.

The Sisters’ work quickly expanded to include a boys’ orphanage and the first Catholic Hospital in Cincinnati. They established a novitiate and, as their membership grew, so did their ministry.

Their first mission outside of Cincinnati was established in Dayton in 1857. When the Civil War started, many of the Sisters volunteered as nurses. Following the war, four Sisters were sent to Santa Fe to establish the first hospital in New Mexico Territory. Other western missions soon followed.

Meanwhile, the Sisters broadened their ministry in the Midwest. Many new parish schools were established in Cincinnati and throughout Ohio. A group of Sisters sent to Michigan began a long commitment to serving the needs of the people there. In the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, the hospital grew and became known as Good Samaritan, and what began as a ministry to unwed mothers and their babies grew to become St. Joseph Infant and Maternity Home.

In the 1880s, the community purchased property west of the city where the present motherhouse was constructed over a period of 15 years. Known as Mount St. Joseph, the complex now serves as the administrative, education and retirement center for the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati.

By the end of the 19th century, the Sisters had become involved in work with Italian immigrants, resulting in the establishment of the Santa Maria Italian Education and Institutional Home, which became the foundation for an archdiocesan social service program. In addition, the Sisters responded to growing healthcare needs by starting schools of nursing at hospitals sponsored by the community.

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Sister Patricia Cruise receives communion from Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk. (CT/Tony Tribble)

The 20th century brought the responsibility of running a boarding school for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, along with the founding of parish, diocesan and Sister of Charity sponsored high schools. In 1920 the College of Mount St. Joseph was founded in response to the increasing demand for higher education for women. Also in the 1920s, the congregation decided to become a papal community and initiated its first foreign mission sending six Sisters to serve in China. Other missions outside the United States have included Rome, Africa and, more recently, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Armenia and Peru. A Sister of Charity currently directs a clinic in Guatemala.

The community experienced steady growth in coming decades and expanded their ministerial efforts to include healthcare and social services. An associate program started in the early 1970s enabled friends and co-workers to share in their mission. All celebrated in 1975 with the canonization of St. Elizabeth Seton as the first American-born saint. In 1979 the community’s sponsored healthcare institutions were brought together as the Sisters of Charity Health Care Systems. It became one of the largest Catholic healthcare systems in Ohio before it was dissolved in the late 1990s to join Catholic Health Initiatives.

Today the community has some 440 members who, besides continuing in the traditional ministries of education, healthcare and social services, are also active in parish ministry, administrative position, hospital chaplaincy and work with the poor and senior citizens throughout the United States and beyond. In addition, the community sponsors the Seton Endowment Fund, awarding low-interest loans to organizations unable to secure them through traditional means, and the SC Ministry Foundation, which makes grants to financially assist community development and social justice projects and organizations.

In 2003 the community unanimously approved a resolution to merge with the Vincentian Sisters of Charity of Bedford, Ohio. The union, approved by Rome, proved to be joyful and enriching for both congregations.

The Cincinnati Sisters of Charity held a full slate of events to commemorate the anniversary, including a special lecture series, days of reflection focused on the spirituality of St. Elizabeth, Catholic Schools Week events for students in Sister of Charity-related schools, special liturgies for relatives, associates, former members and partners in ministry and participation in a celebratory weekend at Emmitsburg with other Sisters and Daughters of Charity.

During her call to worship at the Oct. 25 Mass, Sister Barbara Hagedorn, president of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, said, “For the past 180 years, our community has been part of the fabric of the life of the church, this city, our country and beyond. It is truly an occasion to celebrate.”

“Today we thank God for the life and ministries of our congregation and for the Sisters of other communities who are part of Elizabeth Seton’s legacy,” she continued. “In keep with our motto, the charity of Christ has urged us on and has been our motivating force as we ministered and remained faithful to God’s call.”

In his homily, Archbishop Pilarczyk said, “The spectrum of good that the Sisters of Charity have engaged in is practically limitless. They have been outstanding in Catholic health care, ranging from battlefield nursing during the Civil War to dealing with the demands of the contemporary corporate hospital world. Sisters of Charity have distinguished themselves in Catholic education at every level, from kindergarten through graduate level work. Sisters of Charity have been conspicuous in the promotion of justice and in instructing the faithful about Catholic social teaching.”

From my perspective as Archbishop of Cincinnati, I would venture the observation that there are few in this local church of ours who have not benefited in some way by the ministries of the Sisters of Charity,” he continued. “Thank you, Sisters of Charity, for all you are and have been and will be.”

The members of the Sisters of Charity found the anniversary celebration to be a meaningful opportunity to reconnect with the spirit and charism of their foundress and reflect on decades of faith and service.

“It’s been a very energizing and positive experience,” said Sister Judith Metz,  the community’s archivist. “It’s a continuation of the whole spirit on which the community was founded — the charity of Christ that urges us, the whole idea of doing what needs to be done. It’s an affirmation of the Sisters’ lives and work and a reminder to me that I’ve been bringing the Gospel to people. That’s what it’s all about.”

“All of the celebrations were so meaningful,” added Sister Benedicta Mahoney, a retired educator who currently volunteers in the archives. “They brought up so many memories. To trace it all back to Elizabeth Seton who was told by a priest that she would be the mother of many daughters, I think of the many daughters and it makes me feel closer to every Sister. I also can’t help but think of all the lives we’ve touched through the years.”

“For the community, it has been a great sense of getting in touch with our roots as we pray and live out our lives as Sisters of Charity today,” said Sister Barbara. “We’ve been able to look more closely at Elizabeth’s challenges and struggles and how she overcame those to meet new opportunities. Personally, it makes me so proud to be a Sister of Charity with all these women and our associates who are part of this mission with us.”

As her community looks to the future, Sister Barbara said, they would do so “with a spirit of hope and commitment to serving the needs of others as we’re called to by God. We’ll continue to live out the Gospel as Jesus calls us to do.”

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