The first American Lady of Charity was a twenty-three year old wife and mother named Catherine Harkins.
Born in Ireland, Catherine was brought to New York by her parents.
The family soon moved to Pottsville, Pennsylvania, where Catherine received her education. (At this time the Sisters of Charity from Emmitsburg were conducting St. Ann's School in Pottsville.)
The family moved again to Paris, Kentucky, where, at the age of 19, Catherine married Captain Hugh Harkins, a Mississippi steamboat owner whom she had met in St. Louis. The couple took up residence in St. Louis in 1857,settling in St. Vincent de Paul Parish.
Shortly after their move to St. Louis, Mrs. Harkins had a vivid dream of St. Vincent walking through snow-covered streets and gathering neglected children under his cloak. He spoke to the dreamer and directed her to assist the poor too. When the dream had been repeated three times, she decided to mention it in confession.
The priest told her it was more than a dream; it was more like a vision. He directed her to return home and pray for enlightenment, and to come back to the same confessional the next day. She did as directed, but found a different priest in the confessional. Fr. Urban Gagnepain, CM. He encouraged her to repeat her story, listened with interest, and promised to offer the Holy Sacrifice for guidance, while directing her to continue her prayers. He later directed her to gather some assistants to form a society for the care of the poor, adding that, if the inspiration was not from God, the work would not progress.
The association was formed December 8, 1857 and called the Ladies of Charity.