The commitment to education of the American Daughters of Charity and Sisters of Charity dates to Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton’s initiative for female education, begun in Baltimore in July 1808. It took two years, however, for female education to become a primary mission of the Sisters of Charity in the form of St. Joseph’s School in Emmitsburg, MD.
Invited by Rev. Louis William DuBourg, P.S.S., President of St. Mary’s College, the Widow Seton began a small boarding school for Catholic girls on Paca Street with the support of the Sulpician priests at St. Mary’s Seminary. There she met Samuel Sutherland Cooper, a seminarian who was divesting himself of accumulated wealth in order to pursue his vocation to the priesthood. He encouraged the widow to agree to direct an educational program on a property that he would purchase.
Located beyond the town limits of Emmitsburg, Cooper and the Sulpicians believed the setting to be ideal for an institution to educate girls, with nearby Mount St. Mary’s College providing education for boys.
On June 22, 1809, Mother Seton arrived at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg with one of her daughters and a few of her companions; the rest of her children, early community members, and two pupils arrived a little more than a month later when the Stone House was ready for occupancy. On July 31, 1809, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s officially began, and St. Joseph’s School became one of the first free Catholic schools for girls staffed by sisters in the United States.
As it became increasingly clear that funding was required, the school began admitting boarding students who paid tuition in May 1810. These students came from the surrounding Frederick County and became the first boarding students.
The school curriculum included grammar, spelling, reading, writing, geography, parsing, arithmetic, French, music, and fine sewing, etc. All pupils received religious education and faith formation, according to their grade level. Mother Seton wrote to her friend, Julia Scott, how her daughter Annina “studies French, Spanish and Italian with [the day students] under a mistress who is sweetness and modesty itself”
After St. Joseph’s School became St. Joseph’s Academy in 1828, the school continued to teach “day scholars” from the surrounding area for free up until 1870. When operating costs began to hinder this practice, the Sisters still offered discounts and worked to find ways for students to afford tuition when they needed it.
St. Joseph’s School and, later, St. Joseph’s Academy, were not parochial schools but Catholic schools sponsored and funded by the Sisters of Charity. Saint John Neumann, CSsR, 4th bishop of Philadelphia, initiated Catholic parochial education when he established the first diocesan parochial school system in the United States in 1852.