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Mother Seton’s Successor: Mother Rose White

This is part of a yearlong series about the early days of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s commemorating the 200th anniversary of the death of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, foundress of the community.  In 1850, the Emmitsburg-based Sisters united with the international community of the French Daughters of Charity.

The Council knew the end was near for their Foundress and Superioress, Mother Seton, when they met on January 2, 1821.  The conclusion of the meeting contained the simple declaration:  “Sister Rose was elected.”

A sketch of Mother Rose White – no other known images of her have been found

Rose White (1784-1841), like Mother Seton, was a widow who a son.  Born Rosetta Landry, her husband, Captain Joseph White, disappeared at sea in 1804, and her young daughter passed away not long after.  Under the guidance of Father John B. David, P.S.S. – who later briefly became the Superior of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s – Rose turned more and more toward the Church and charity.  Her name appears as a member of the board of the Female Human Association, Charity School in Baltimore as early as 1807.

In 1809, Rose was one of the seven women to join Mother Seton at the her school on Paca Street in Baltimore.   She was part of the second wagon of women to travel northwest to Central Maryland the next month, along with the boarding pupils and Mother Seton’s two boys.  Appointed Assistant by Mother Seton, she was a member of the first band of sisters which formed the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s.

Front and side view of the first home of the Sisters and orphans on 6th Street in Philadelphia.  Date of photos unknown.

Despite Rose having a similar background to her Superioress, Mother Seton’s correspondence John Carroll, first Archbishop of Baltimore, shows a sense that Rose was better suited to the religious life than she was.  While Mother Seton wished for Father Pierre Babade, P.S.S. to be appointed as the community Superior, Rose and Sister Kitty Mullen preferred Father David or the more practically-minded Father John DuBois.  While clearly showing respect for her ability as an organizer, Mother Seton was prepared in the early days of the community for Sister Rose to be appointed Superioress in her place:  “Rose’s virtues are truly valued by me and by us all, but from the time she knew she was proposed as Mother of this house in my place and that every one in it should prepare themselves for the change (which I was directed myself to inform them by a special letter immediately after my return from Baltimore) her conduct has undergone an intire [sic] change and has been very unfavourable to her happiness and ours.” (March 16, 1811). 

In 1814, the community began its first ministry outside of Emmitsburg.  Father Michael Hurley, pastor at St. Augustine’s Church in Philadelphia and member of the board of trustees at Holy Trinity, which administered St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum, invited the Sisters of Charity to care for the orphans there.  Sister Rose was appointed local Superior of the three sisters.  They took possession of the Asylum on October 6, 1814 with a meager budget of $600 per year.  Through Sister Rose’s organizing ability and economic management, they were able to gather a cadre of donors and benefactors to extend that money as far as possible.  Her abilities at organizing child care and education for orphans led to an invitation to remedy a similar situation at the New York Orphan Asylum in 1817.

Mother Seton left this world on January 4, 1821.  In the first Council meeting after her death, it notes that “Sister Cecilia to replace Sr. Rose in N. York.”  Almost as if realizing that she had mistitled her new Superioress, the final note from that meeting reads, “the candidate Sally Powers petitions for admission to the Novitiate postponed till the arrival of Mother Rose‑‑‑‑‑­,” referring to her as “Mother” for the first time.

In her six years as Superioress, the community expanded to missions in Baltimore; Frederick MD; and Washington, DC.  After she had served the maximum two consecutive three-year terms, Mother Rose went on to lead another orphanage in Brooklyn to prosperity, before being re-elected to Superioress in 1833 for six more years.  In this term, the community founded 12 more missions in New York; Baltimore; New Orleans; Conewago, PA; Utica, NY; Richmond (2 missions); Pittsburgh; Philadelphia; Pottsville, PA; Norfolk, VA; Martinsburg, VA; and Vincennes, IN.  She also saw the cornerstone laid for the new Deluol Building at the prestigious St. Joseph’s Academy in Emmitsburg, which provided space for the students as its enrollment and curriculum expanded.

First page of Mother Rose White’s journal

One of the most vital records of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s is Mother Rose White’s journal, considered one of the most informative documents about life in the early community.  Among the many vivid depictions of the community’s hardship, perhaps the event below illustrates their experiences best:

“We became so crowded that it was thought necessary that some of  us  should  come up  to  the new house, [St. Joseph’s House, today the Emmitsburg White House],  to  sleep. Accordingly, Sister Sally [Thompson], Sister Kitty [Mullen] and Sister Rose [White] were named and for several weeks we slept in one of the unfurnished rooms, and would rise often at two, three and four o’clock and go down to the farm [to the Stone House] thinking it was time for morning prayers, and the ground was rough plowed and often very muddy. Sometimes we would be forced to stay all day at the new house, the rain would be so heavy; one [sister] would go down and bring up something to eat.  We had spinning wheels and would keep ourselves employed.    While sleeping at the stone house, the snow would drift in; one morning Sister Sally [Thompson]  and Sister Rose [White] shoveled out nearly two cart loads of snow in the garret where two of the Sisters were sleeping, and did not discover that their beds were partly covered also with snow until day began to dawn through the cracks of the boards, which were the only fastening for the windows, but happily the Sisters took no cold.”

The journal goes on to describe her time in Philadelphia organizing the community for care of some of the neediest.  In addition to the journal, surviving documents of Mother Rose in the archives in Emmitsburg include 104 letters addressed to her, 11 from her, 1 copied transcription in her handwriting, and four additional notes, including a simple prayer for Lent.

Mother Rose passed away at St. John’s Asylum in Frederick MD, only two years after her final term as Superioress ended.

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Capturing COVID

It has been a year since the lockdowns, quarantines, and stay-at-home orders began.  At the time of writing, the number of deaths in the United States from COVID-19 stands at 525,000, with many others suffering from extended illness or increased financial insecurity.

The Daughters of Charity Archives has been asked a number of times what we have been doing to capture the Daughters’ work during this crisis.  Sisters and close friends of the Daughters are often aware of their ministry during pandemics in the past, including the Spanish flu of a century ago.

While there is little physical work in the field (such as tending to patients), the Daughters remain committed to a great many missions and continue to touch lives. From food distribution to teaching online classes, from assisting immigrants at the border to raising awareness of the dangers of human trafficking, from creating podcasts and virtual tours of a mission’s programs to providing services that ease burdens and offer hope, the Daughters have ensured their ministries alive and thriving in spite of limitations. Any documents, photos, or papers which show their work are still active and are not yet ready to be transferred to the archives.  They will arrive one day; however, not just yet.

This does not mean that COVID is completely absent from the collections.  We collect the newsletters and magazines of our sponsored works – those operations directly run by the Daughters of Charity organization – along with our own Daughters’ newsletter and as many newspaper clippings and local news reports as we can find.

It is even dificult writing an article like this at this time.  Those captured local news stories provide an important glimpse into the Daughters’ work, but they are created and owned by the news station.  They can be used on-site at the archives, but we do not own the copyright to share them widely on a space like this blog.  Other images show Daughters working with patients, and to share them would directly violate their patients’ privacy.  The community newsletters created by the Daughters every week for its members contain important depictions of their work, but they contain personal information that is not allowed to be shared and is restricted to researchers by the archives for 25 years.

We can, however, share materials that were owned or created directly by the Daughters and their subsidiary organizations.  For example:

  1. Sisters Elizabeth Greim and Liz Sjoberg host the official podcast of the Province of St. Louise, where they discuss spirituality, the Church today, and past and present works of the Daughters.  COVID has played a role in many of their episodes, but the episode below directly addresses the changes in ministry over the last year.  Although it appears these types of new digital media will be available online forever, they can be taken down by their creators at any time, and unless someone takes steps to keep the files safe, they are at high risk of being lost. 

It is available at https://subsplash.com/daughtersofcharity/media/mi/+6hv5mk

  1. The Daughters operate St. Joseph Services in Chicago, which puts out a quarterly newsletter (in both English and Spanish). They discuss the changes that occurred to their programming due to the pandemic and how they continue to serve the city.
  1. Sister Catherine Marie Lowe discusses working with those experiencing homelessness and providing outreach to those in isolation at St. Patrick’s Center in Wilmington, DE.  This video was created by New Castle County Television, and while it is legal for the archives to preserve a captured version of it, we can only make it available onsite.  It is, however, legal to embed a Youtube video, so you can view it here for as long as long as the link remains active: 
  1. Seton Center here in Emmitsburg has a virtual prayer wall.  The archives began to collect Seton Center’s web presence in June 2020, not aware that the prayer wall was going to be part of the collection.  It captures the thoughts and feelings of patrons of Seton Center who are navigating a frightening new time.
Captured on July 22, 2020

When this pandemic has passed, we will be able to answer the question “What did the Daughters do in 2020-21?”  For now, archives is collecting COVID-19 mission materials that ensures the Daughters of Charity and their partner organizations will be remembered for what they did for those in need and for those whom they feel blessed to serve.

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The First Mission of Charity

This is part of a yearlong series about the early days of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s commemorating the 200th anniversary of the death of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, foundress of the community.  In 1850, Emmitsburg-based Sisters united with the global community of the French Daughters of Charity.

After Mother Seton and her companions left Baltimore in June 1809, the small group formed the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s in the village of Emmitsburg in northern Frederick County on July 31, 1809.  They began to enact their mission of service to those living in poverty and began with their nearby neighbors. 

Dated February 5 and addressed to Mrs. Seton, two women, simply named “Cecilia and Catherine” wrote “an account of the first Mission of Charity.”

This mission was in the tradition of Saints Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac, whose rules for community life the Sisters adapted for the American situation.  When visiting the poor, sisters provided nursing care and resources to those in difficult situations.  Catherine and Cecilia evidently travelled to a home in the vicinity of Emmitsburg “after some difficulty on the road about eggs.” 

The family they ministered to on this day was sick, likely from one of the waterborne disease that routinely swept through Western Maryland in the early 19th century.  This brief letter described what the sisters observed about the family’s situation.  The spellings and grammar are kept as written (if you can imagine where the periods go in modern standardized English, it becomes easier to understand):

We found enough to do at first & even now but all the sick are much better 2 of them are now setting up it was yesterday the oldest girl is about though not well she eat but once since her Mothers death until we came.  She has eat a tolerable breakfast & was going to wash the bed cloathes in truth they are very dirty.  I think it would be much to the comfort of the one who is obliged to stay in bed if we could put something clean on her.  She is also getting better & better ever since we came, however we forbid the young girls to wash there is also 2 young men their brothers in & out all the time & perhaps you will not think it necessary to send Sisters for the night as they do not set up now at all.

They note that a doctor has not had the chance to visit yet, but they seem aware that they have done what they could to improve health and comfort for the family going through a difficult time.

The Catherine of the report may be either Sister Catherine Mullan or Catherine Seton, Mother Seton’s nine-year old daughter who travelled with her from New York and lived with the community.  After her mother’s death, Catherine lived with her brother William and travelled around Europe before joining the Sisters of Mercy of New York in 1846.

Cecilia could refer to either Sister Cecilia Seton, Mother Seton’s sister-in-law who was one of the first to join the community, or Sister Cecilia O’Conway.  However, other correspondence of Cecilia Seton shows a very different handwriting.  It shows far more similarity to Cecilia O’Conway’s handwriting, although not definitively so.  

The authors recognized this event as the First Mission of Charity undertaken by the new community!    

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