Mother Margaret Farrell George, S.C.

by | Dec 15, 2018 | Formation, Sisters of Charity

In the Vincentian Family there are a number of religious communities who share the spirit of St. Vincent as well as that of St. Elizabeth Seton. One of those is the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. Their foundress was a woman who knew St. Elizabeth Seton very well and learned from her the Vincentian charism and a love for those who are poor.

“ A heart filled with charity is a sanctuary in which God loves to dwell.”  – Mother Margaret Farrell George

Margaret Farrell George was a founding member of the Sisters of Charity in the United States and a woman intimately involved in the growth of Catholicism in the United States. She directed schools and orphanages in six US cities before becoming the founding mother of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati.

She was born in Sligo, Ireland in 1787. Her family immigrated to the United States where her father and her siblings died, probably during the yellow fever epidemic. Soon Margaret and her mother, Bridget Farrell, moved to Baltimore, Maryland.

When she was nearly 20 she married Lucas George, a professor at St. Mary’s College. Within six months of the young couple’s wedding Lucas was injured in an accident and died. Throughout this ordeal Margaret was with child and gave birth to a daughter, but the baby succumbed to whooping cough.

During this time Elizabeth Seton arrived in Baltimore to open a school. The two became acquainted through their connection with the Sulpician priests at St. Mary’s. These two women came to know one another and developed a life-long friendship.

Elizabeth Seton, with her family and several women who became the nucleus of the American Sisters of Charity,  moved to Emmitsburg, a small village west of Baltimore. The new religious congregation had its beginnings in 1809 and Elizabeth also continued her school. Margaret retained close ties with Elizabeth Seton with whom she corresponded and, at least on one occasion, visited in Emmitsburg.

In 1812 she and her mother traveled to St. Joseph’s in Emmitsburg and Margaret joined the Sisters of Charity. Her mother, a widow of forty-seven, boarded at the Motherhouse and later, she also joined the community.

Since the community’s constitutions had recently been approved by Archbishop John Carroll, the first novitiate was about to begin, thus Margaret was among the first group of seventeen to make vows as Sisters of Charity July 19, 1813, after completing a 17-month period of living the rule and discerning her vocation.

Margaret’s skills as a leader and an administrator were immediately recognized and utilized both in the community as Treasurer and in the school where she was requested to teach history, bookkeeping, French, and penmanship.

The Sisters of Charity had opened missions in Philadelphia and New York, and in 1819 Margaret was named director of the New York Orphan Asylum. This was the beginning of more than four decades of educational and social work in various cities along the Atlantic coast and in the midwest.

When Margaret left Emmitsburg for New York she said good-bye to Elizabeth Seton for the last time. The future saint had been in declining health for several years and finally succumbed to tuberculosis on January 4, 1821. After Elizabeth’s death Margaret returned to Emmitsburg to take charge of St. Joseph’s Academy.

Her next assignment was to open a school in nearby Frederick, Maryland. Margaret directed this endeavor for nine years. This institution grew and eventually encompassed a large free school, an orphanage, and a boarding academy. From Frederick, Margaret was sent to Richmond, Virginia where she was again asked to open a school. In Richmond, as in Frederick, she and her companions experienced anti-Catholic bigotry which Margaret noted in her journal with this entry: “Never in any period of my life, have I felt so completely isolated and a stranger far from friends and home.”

In 1837 Margaret was again elected Treasurer of the community and she returned to Emmitsburg to take up her duties. During her four-year stay at the Motherhouse she compiled The Treasurer’s Book, “a list of all persons who have entered our Community from the time of our beginning in Baltimore. . .,” and the Diary of St. Joseph’s, a charming journal filled with her personal observations as well as an account of everyday life at the motherhouse and school.

She then was assigned to head the school and the orphan asylum operated by the Sisters in Boston. This mission had been started a decade earlier and by then served nearly four hundred children. Each year this institution saw its numbers increase as a result  the large number of immigrants that swelled the population of the city.

Margaret’s next assignment, in February 1845, took her to Cincinnati, Ohio, a hub of the movement westward in the United States. Here Margaret took charge of St. Peter’s Orphan Asylum and School, a mission the Sisters of Charity opened in 1829.

Several years later, the American Sisters of Charity became members of the French Daughters of Charity. Margaret and some of the other sisters on the Cincinnati mission felt strongly that in order to remain true to the vision of Elizabeth Seton they needed to leave the community rather than become Daughters of Charity. The Archbishop offered to support the establishment of a diocesan community of Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati. Thus, on March 25, 1852, the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati was established. The new community immediately began accepting new members. The Sisters continued to operate the school and an orphanage and St. John’s, the first Catholic hospital in Cincinnati as well.

When the first elections were held in February 1853, Margaret George was elected Mother. Despite her sixty-five years, her wisdom, experience, enthusiasm, and drive attracted others and the community grew rapidly. Additional schools were opened in 1853 and 1854 and property was purchased for the first Motherhouse. Margaret oversaw much growth and change in the six years she served as mother.

It was here on February 2, 1862 that Margaret celebrated her Golden Jubilee as a Sister of Charity. In November she returned to Mount St. Vincent (the Motherhouse), where, as the result of a stroke, she was confined for the next six years . However, students from the academy, seminarians, priests and, of course, the sisters visited her often and received her counsel. Margaret died quietly in November of 1868.

Adapted from the website of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, by Judith Metz, S.C.