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Sister Alix Merceret and Le Commune de Paris

France went through four revolutions in 100 years.  This blog discusses the last of the four, known in history as the Franco-Prussian War, from July 19, 1870 to May 10, 1871.

In 1871, after going through several governments – republics, radical revolutionary assemblies, empires, and restored monarchies – the Empire of Napoleon III moved once again to restore France’s place in the European Balance of Power.  Their chief rival in this quest was the Empire of Prussia, led by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. 

In 1867, a few years before the war, Sister Alix Merceret, originally a native of Nantes, France who grew up in Baltimore, was missioned as corresponding secretary for the English-language world at the Motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity in Paris.  When the War began, she wrote back to the United States with updates of the War, the German siege of the city, and the Paris Commune of 1871, when the people of France, for the final time, deposed a monarch.

Colorized photo of Sister Alix Merceret, unknown date

The French military was on the retreat from the very start of the war.  Her first update on the movement of Prussian troops came on August 31, 1870; two days later, Napoleon III surrendered and was taken prisoner.  A new Government of National Defense was proclaimed in Paris under a republican system, and on September 19 they began to face their task of defending the city from the Prussian siege.  The bombardment that Paris faced was one of the largest in world history prior to World War I.  The French government sued for armistice on January 26, 1871, facing the threat of starvation.

On February 2,  Sister Alix wrote to Mother Euphemia Blenkinsop in the United States of their state:

We are all well, & though still living on coarse black bread and enduring many privations, we are quite happy.  Divine Providence watched over us with tenderest love during the fearful days when we were exposed to be crushed, at any moment, by the booms & shells that fell all around us, so that we cannot but bless His holy names for His mercies in our regard.”

Her next letter described how she had taken up a temporary position at the military hospital, as well as the state of the Daughters in Paris:

Image with cross-writing to conserve paper

“Two shells fell upon the Mother House; one over the old Sisters quarters, the other near the Sacristy.  I know not exactly when as I was not here at the time.  Six or 8 fell at the Incurables, one over my head, another a few steps from where I was standing, and day & night for three weeks, they were whistling over us & bursting, if not upon us, all around us.  What days!  What nights!  God only knows what we went through, but his eye was upon us, in the midst of the trials & his arm kept the bombs from touching us.”

She goes on to describe life under siege:

“During the siege how changed it was – not a carriage to be seen in the streets, not a dog or horses & dogs only to be seen in butchered shops, no happy children escorted .by their nurses, no fashionable promenaders, stores closed, even bakers’ shop, towards the last, no gas at night, you cannot imagine what Paris was in those sad days, nor is it much gayer now; it would amuse you to watch the crowds standing before meat and bread shops.  They look exactly like a set of hungry dogs, ready to spring upon their food.“

In the armistice agreements, the Prussians were allowed their brief days to parade in triumph through the city, beginning on March 1.  Writing on the 3rd:

“The Prussians are in the city since the 1st inst., the newspapers must have apprised you of it, great trouble was anticipated when they entered, now, it is hoped they will meet with no molestation from our citizens, and that they will leave us as peacefully as they came.  Meanwhile, Paris is looking more desolate every day, there is a great deal of sickness, 52000 soldiers have died within its walls, since the 17th of Sept. up to March1st & 47000 persons besides.  At the Incurables, there were 600 deaths from Jan. 1st to Feb. 28, of course, that is a hospital, but it is an unusual mortality.  At the Mother House, too, there have been a great many deaths, from consumption, typhoid fever, etc., both among the young and old.  There were eight funerals in one week towards the end of last month.”

On March 18, the Revolution of disgruntled soldiers and working-class Paris occurred and the Paris Commune declared, which would govern the city until its destruction by the regular army ten weeks later.  The memories of the martyred Daughters during the first French Revolution and the resurgence in anti-religious sentiment did not endear Sister Alix to their cause:

“The city is in the saddest state of disorder; it is truly the kingdom of Beelzebub, divided against staff, the cannon is fired now and then, at various hours of the day & night, men are shot down in the street at midday, like dogs, there is neither law nor police and God only knows what will become of this triumphant ‘Republique.’”

The final week of May 1871 is simply referred to in the French history books as “Bloody Week,” when the military fought with brutality, executions, and fires, and the revolutionaries fought with their own summary executions, including of the Archbishop of Paris himself.  Sister Alix on June 10:

“I was recalled from the invalids yesterday, and I avail myself of the first leisure moment to write you a few lines, in addition to the interesting document here with enclosed giving a correct account of most of the incidents committed with our deliverance from the fearful reign of the Commune.  Oh! what agony we went through, from May 20th to the 25th!   Words cannot describe such things.  God alone can understand them, as He alone, can give strength to endure them.  Paris is pretty quiet now, though, in a sad state yet as it must be until the government is solidly, permanently, organized, which cannot be done all of a sudden.  Indeed the whole country is in an awful state.”

In spite of all this, including the anti-religious sentiment, Sister Alix’s letter on July 10 also contains this telling line, pointing to a future for the French Daughters, just as there had been after three prior revolutions:

“In spite of the Red Republicans, there is a demand for Sisters in many places.”

The Treaty of Frankfurt, which ended the original Franco-Prussian War, was signed 150 years ago today on May 10, 1871.  One of the spoils of war for the new German Empire was the handing over of the states of Alsace and Lorraine, a key point in the leadup to two more wars between the nations.  On the final day of 1872, Sister Alix talks about her present view of the issue and seems to telegraph the future, always with an eye toward service to others:

“I have been so busy for the last two weeks, that I have not had a moment’s leisure, and things look as if my work were going to increase.  Here is the new task that fallen to my lot.  A charitable society of Ladies & Gentlemen has been gotten up for the relief of the Alsaciens, who have left their country, rather than submit to the Prussian yoke.  Many of these poor people don’t speak a work of French, nothing but German, yet they consider themselves French citizens, & hate the German nation.  Crowds of them have taken refuge in Paris, & are literally starving, as they cannot find work as means of subsistence.  Of course they excite great sympathy in the hearts of patriotic, persons, and large sums have been subscribed in their behalf.”

The archives contain nearly 100 surviving pieces of correspondence, plus extensive detail of her final visit to the United States in 1900.  Ten of the letters were written between 1870 and 1872.

Sister Alix Merceret with Sister Mathilde Comstock (American), 1900

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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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