Women’s History – Catherine Spalding, Educational Pioneer
HerKentucky writes in celebration of Kentucky women during Women’s History Month… ” You may guess that Spalding University is named after Catherine Spalding, but did you know just how influential Spalding was over the care and education women and orphans? She gave a voice to women with no voice, believing that they were worthy of serious education in a time when only young women from wealthy families were educated, and then by tutor as they were not permitted to attend school with males. She gave a home to children with no home, whether due to parental death or desertion, believing that they were deserving of love and stability.
Catherine Spalding moved as a toddler from Maryland to Kentucky, where her mother died and her father then deserted Catherine and her four siblings. Catherine was then raised by her mother’s sister and her husband (along with their – gulp! – 10 children) and, as a teen, lived with her cousins. Her extended family provided Catherine with a solid, Catholic home, but her early life experiences also drove her passion for caring for orphaned and deserted children.
At only 19, Catherine Spalding joined and soon thereafter presided over the newly formed Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. The Sisters first serviced the educational needs of the many Catholic families who moved to central Kentucky after the Revolutionary War. Under Sister Catherine’s leadership, numerous Kentucky schools, orphanages, and hospitals were founded, including Nazareth Academy (1814, then located near Bardstown), Presentation Academy (1831, now located on 5th Street in downtown Louisville), and St. Vincent’s Orphanage (1832).
Nazareth Academy became one of the most popular girls’ school in the South and was no mere finishing school but offered, at Sister Catherine’s insistence, serious academics in arts and sciences, which was practically unheard of at the time in the Commonwealth or, indeed, the region. It later became Nazareth College and moved to Louisville in 1920; in 1984 it was renamed Spalding University in honor of Mother Spalding. Presentation Academy is the oldest school in Louisville and welcomes today, at it did at its inception, children from both ends of the wealth spectrum, as its focus is on young ladies with the drive and ambition to succeed. A cholera epidemic in Louisville left so many orphans that Catherine and her sisters started St. Vincent’s. As Louisville became more urban and disease and immigrants flooded the city, St. Vincent’s grew and Catherine, who was Mother Superior there, considered the orphanage “the only place on earth to which [my] heart clings.”