contributions-sc-federation-facebookRecently .famvin began a series in conjunction with our 400th anniversary called “The Contributions of the Vincentian Charism to the Mission of the Church.” Along those lines, on the eve of the anniversary of the establishment of the Sisters of Charity Federation (October 27), I was seeking an answer to the question: what are the contributions of the Sisters of Charity and the American Daughters of Charity to history? Providentially, I stumbled upon some great sources that highlight the Sisters’ impact in child care, health care, education and a variety of social services.

One of my favorites was actually a master’s thesis by Katherine E. Coon called The Sisters of Charity in Nineteenth-Century America: Civil War Nurses and Philanthropic Pioneers. It is available online here.

Her thesis asserts that the Sisters of Charity (the term is used broadly to include the Daughters of Charity and Sisters of Charity) made a valuable contribution to history in that they were instrumental in the development of American philanthropy in general, and, more specifically, in the emergence of American Catholic philanthropy. Here are a few quotes:

We are beginning to recognize women‘s contributions in the Civil War, but Catholic Sister nurses are often relegated to a footnote or minor story line. This thesis demonstrates the legacy of the Sisters of Charity is vital to the understanding of the history of philanthropy, women‘s history, medicine and nursing.

The medical situation of the Civil War created a desperate need for the Sisters, which forced them out in public. Soldiers, administrators, surgeons and nurses observed their efficient yet tender nursing care, which allowed their philanthropic work to erode the prevailing suspicion and mistrust of the Catholic faith. They opened and managed institutions, and they were prototype professional nurses. The Sisters were ahead of their time; they were indeed philanthropic pioneers. […]

Nursing was traditionally women‘s work; the Sisters not only nursed, they seized unusual opportunities and challenges in administering their institutions, which was traditionally men‘s work. […] The Sisters’ story is important because of the religious and gender biases they overcame.

…the Sisters of Charity were agents of social change: they […] developed a prototype for a healthcare model that the secular world emulated. Women responded to the unprecedented suffering and cataclysmic conditions of the Civil War in a multitude of ways, and philanthropy was forever changed as a result. Female voluntarism shifted into the front and center of the public sphere. Charitable work moved along the continuum from individual to institutional, from volunteer to professional. Questions regarding the respective roles of payment to charitable workers developed. Nursing gained recognition as a profession, and formal training began. The Sisters of Charity were leaders in all these areas, and their orders served as models for the future of philanthropy.

…the Sisters of Charity created and implemented an antebellum philanthropic model […] Many historians agree the Civil War was pivotal in the evolution of American philanthropy. For the first time in American history, women helped establish [various benevolent organizations that provided templates for larger-scale organizations]. […] The Sisters of Charity are often absent from analyses of these organizations and trends, and this thesis delivers them to the discussion.

Contributions to Education

Another source I found useful was an article by Sr. Betty Ann McNeil, DC (2006): Historical Perspectives on Elizabeth Seton and Education: School is My Chief Business. Journal of Catholic Education, 9 (3). Here are some highlights:

Elizabeth [Seton] and her Sisters of Charity were among the pioneers in free Catholic education for girls predating the inauguration of the parochial school system in the second half of the 19th century. […] Saint Joseph’s Academy became known throughout the United States for its high standards and educational excellence. At a meeting of the hierarchy of the United States in 1852, Robert Seton (1839-1927) recalled the reputation of his grandmother. He quoted Francis Patrick Kenrick (1797-1863), Archbishop of Baltimore (1851-1863), as having said to his peers:

“Ladies and gentlemen, this boy’s grandmother, Elizabeth Seton, did more for the Church in America than all of us bishops together”

(R. Seton, 1923, p. 60). The Seton legacy of education testifies to her lasting contribution.”

As Saint Joseph’s Academy and Free School developed, the Sisters of Charity also responded to new requests elsewhere. The first two missions they established both cared for orphans but also offered educational programs for day students. This became the model followed by the Sisters of Charity in subsequent foundations.”

Elizabeth championed the cause of education, justice, and charity in the United States through her foundation at Emmitsburg. Her desire to provide a free education for poor children required both flexibility and resourcefulness to cover expenses. As an astute administrator, she had to adapt her initial plan and recruit tuition-paying boarders from wealthy families willing to pay “100 Dollars per annum and half in advance every six months” (E. Seton, 2002, p. 140). The tuition income educated children from impoverished circumstances and also provided for the care of orphans. Children did not have to be without both parents but the “parents should be poor, unable to pay for her education, and the child promising” (E. Seton, in press). Education for orphans focused on what was then considered to be the useful branches of learning: reading, writing, and arithmetic and basic life skills for 19th-century women. These skills included sewing, spinning, knitting, and the details of housekeeping. The talents of each girl were considered so that programs of instruction were individualized.”

United Nations NGO

The Sisters of Charity Federation NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) gives voice to those living in poverty and provides firsthand knowledge to decision makers in areas such as Sustainable Development, Poverty Eradication, Human Rights, Trafficking, Migration, Climate Change, Financing for Development, Education for Global Citizenship, and Women & Children. Teresa Kotturan, SCN is the NGO representative. –from sistersofcharityfederation.org. Follow .famvin’s series on the Vincentian Family at the UN (a new article every Thursday morning).

Of course this is an overview sketch of just a few of the contributions of the Sisters. Of course there are many more stories such as the foundation of the Santa Maria Institute in 1897 by Sisters of Charity Justina Segale and Blandina Segale, two Sisters who innovated cooperation with secular philanthropies, and other examples from the member congregations across the U.S. and Canada.

Finally, two YouTube videos from VinFormation that cover the history of the Federation, and a video story from Sr. Betty Ann McNeil, DC about the Sisters in the Civil War:


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