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The Daughters’ History in Frederick, MD

Historic Frederick, the seat of Frederick County, Maryland, is just a short trip down US-15 from the archives in Emmitsburg. The second largest city in the state, this year marks the 275th anniversary of Frederick’s founding in 1745, and its proximity to the Sisters’ community in Emmitsburg has proven significant to the many contributions of the Sisters throughout the years to this beautiful city.

The history of the community in Frederick dates to the first trip that Elizabeth Ann Seton made to Emmitsburg in 1809, when she and the first band of Sisters passed through the town on their three-week wagon trip to the Stone House on the banks of Tom’s Creek. 

The first and only formal mission operated by the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s in Frederick was at St. John’s School and Asylum, attached to St. John’s Church on 2nd Street.  At the invitation of the Jesuit pastor of St. John’s Church, Rev. John McElroy, S.J., the sisters were invited to open a much-needed school for girls.  The mission in Frederick began when Sister Margaret George and Sister Rosalia Green left Emmitsburg on Christmas Eve 1824; a week later, on January 3, 1925, Frederick’s first school opened with 47 students.

The free school would grow, eventually opening a pay school in 1830 that included boarders and offering classes on religion for the children of enslaved persons in the area. All students, regardless of status, would freely interact with one another under the tutelage of the Sisters.

The document that the Daughters’ archivists call “The Frederick Diary” contains the account of Sister Margaret George from the night the two Sisters left Emmitsburg in 1824 through April of 1832. She writes of their Christmas Eve departure, arriving late on Christmas Eve, being received by Father McElroy, and attending midnight Mass, before taking the next week to prepare for their first classes.

Like St. Joseph’s Academy in Emmitsburg, Sister Margaret noted that the school would not be just a school for Catholics. On the school’s first day, Sister Margaret wrote that one-third of the children were Protestants; by 1826, it was two-thirds Protestant.  Amongst Frederick’s “Clustered Spires” skyline – where the tallest structures are the steeples and bell towers of the churches – St. John’s still stands out as the lone Catholic tower.  However, the Sisters didn’t see their duties as being exclusive to any religion; for them, the children were simply those who “could not make a figure or work a sum” (Sister Margaret George, “The Frederick Diary,” 2-3). Their historical accounts note that, by running a free school, they encountered hostility from other churches and Ladies’ societies at the new competition.

The school’s opening was announced in the newspaper with the following:

This school will be opened on Monday next, the 3rd of January under the direction of two Sisters of Charity from Emmitsburg. Female children of every Religious Denomination will be admitted free of expenses and will be taught Reading, Arithmetic, English grammar and plain Needlework. For admittance apply to John McElroy Rector of St. John’s Church.  (“Historical Account, December 23, 1824, 11-6-20(2) #2)

In March of 1825, construction on a school structure of their own began by a team of Irish laborers, which they moved into in September 1825.  In 1826, they started the orphan asylum in the same building.

In 1830, a pay school opened; one with a lower tuition and more convenient, less rural location than St. Joseph’s up in Emmitsburg.  The Sisters would continue to rely on donations to fund the school for the free students but could now provide a quality education at an affordable rate to a whole new set of students. The Frederick-St. John’s collection also contains original correspondence that further tracks day to day events of the school, along with original pupil lists and finance books throughout the 1830s and early 1840s.

Back structure of the Vistation Academy on Church Street

Late on the night of June 8th, 1845, the wooden structure of the School caught fire.  Firefighters rushed to the scene, but a long drought meant that there was little water to put out the fire; there was only enough to contain it from engulfing the rest of the block.  There was significant anti-Catholicism in the City at that time, and it remains unknown whether the fire was accidental or purposefully set, although a Sister’s account says that she “will not permit myself to believe it. If there be a bare possibility of ‘accident’ in the matter, I should incline to believe it, rather than admit our city was disgraced by the presence of such a monster” (“Historical Sketch,” 11-6-20(2) #30).  Thankfully, the wooden structure was empty in the middle of the night; students and Sisters were safely asleep in the stronger, more modern brick structure that housed them.  The structure survived, but with damage to the roof and cupola.

The cost of the fire and rebuilding made the Frederick mission unsustainable for the Sisters of Charity.  In 1846, the institution was transferred to the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary, better known as the Visitation Sisters.  To this day, the site is known as the Visitation Academy, down the street from the modern St. John’s church, which is virtually across the street from its original location.

The Frederick-St. John’s is valuable to researchers interested in the history of Frederick, the history of education in the early Republic, and to genealogists of the Frederick County area, as the collection contains many of the local children and families.  Sister Margaret George went on to become the foundress of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati.

The history of the community in Frederick City picks up during the Civil War.  Now known as the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul (following the merger of the Sisters of Charity of Joseph’s with the Paris, France, community in 1850), the Daughters had become known for their nursing abilities, and had specifically been requested by the head Medical Authority of the “United States General Hospital” – then and now known informally as the Hessian Barracks, after the German mercenaries who had occupied the structure during the American Revolution – in 1862.

The City of Frederick was often noted as “One vast hospital,” and changed hands between the Union and Confederate troops multiple times.  While many Protestant soldiers went into the hospital with either some lingering or overt anti-Catholic sentiment, the Daughters’ compassion, ability, and concern for their well-being often won soldiers over.  Accounts also noted that doctors were usually accepting and happy to see the Daughters from day 1.

On September 5, 1862, the Union army left the city and evacuated their patients.  The Daughters serving there met Confederate commanders as they walked in the door. Seeing the men in need of assistance and regardless of whose side they had served on during the war, the Daughters continued with their duties.  This caused a conflict, as the Daughters were on the Union payroll as nurses.  The chief Union doctor on duty made an arrangement – when the Union army returned to the city (which he expected to be soon), the same quality of care would be kept up.  On September 12, the entire ritual repeated itself, and the city was back in Union hands.

The Daughters personally met General McClellan at the Hospital in the days before Antietam.  The Unions soldiers wounded here on the bloodiest day in American history, were evacuated to nearby Frederick, just 30 miles away. The soldiers came under the Daughters care at the “old” Visitation Academy, now a makeshift field hospital.

The Hessian Barracks remain standing, today on the grounds of the Maryland School for the Deaf in the South End of Frederick.  The Daughters’ work at the site is appropriately commemorated with historical markers and guides. 

The Visitation Academy remains standing; the school was staffed by the Visitation Sisters until 2005, and the school only closed completely in 2016.  The backyard and convent portion of the structure – the Visitation Sisters are cloistered – remains virtually unchanged since its rebuilding after the fire.  There are many debates and discussions in the City of what will become of the historic structure, although vast portions of it remain protected from destruction or too many structural changes as part of the Frederick Town Historic District.

Visitation Academy behind the locked, wrought-iron gate
The gate and wall of the Visitation convent, with the tower of St. John’s Church nearby

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Joining a Meeting of Historians

This is a guest blog post by Nathaniel Lee Rush Bentz, a graduating Senior at Mount St. Mary’s University, class of 2020. He has been an intern with the Daughters of Charity Provincial Archives for the last year.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic caused lockdowns and major distancing between everyone, there was one activity that I was honored to be a part of at the Seton Shrine Provincial Archives. I was invited to attend the Frederick Historic Sites Consortium Meeting of March 11, 2020. The attendees were historians who helped run historical organizations across Frederick County, Maryland.  These organizations included historical societies, churches, heritage organizations, and museums. They were all incredibly nice and welcoming to everyone in the meeting and tried to keep things positive during the troubling times.

The meeting itself went smoothly with avid participation from everybody. There were discussions about how to handle COVID-19 concerns. One important fact that I took away that dealt with the pandemic was allowing artifacts and documents used by researchers to stay out “to allow virus to dissipate.” To the tiniest detail, these historians worked together so they can still care for both the artifacts and its researchers due to a global pandemic, which made me realize how important these meetings are in general. Moreover, from this meeting of historical institution leaders, I learned that they truly act as a team. A family. They make sure everything is okay with each other’s events and exhibits, want to gain insight on what the exhibits and events are about, and offer their constructive criticism and positive feedback about the events they were able to visit.

What I was surprised at was how many different factors were involved in running successful exhibits and hosting events around the site of their historical organizations. Some of the fascinating events I heard about include: the Frederick City 275 Anniversary events, where there was going to be a decade-by-decade showcasing about the development and history of Frederick City, and there would have been a presentation to go along with the program; there was also the event known as, History Day, and there was going to be a theme “Breaking Barriers” on March 14, 2020. To handle this, there were discussions on safety, staff, gathering applicable materials to showcase for the exhibit, and even how the other organizations can contribute to help improve the exhibit or event. This made a fellow history scholar like myself excited, because I got to see what kinds of collaborative environments and friendships I hope to gain as I continue my pathway in the archive and history fields.

What happened after the meeting was an amazing learning experience. I was able to join a long tour of the Seton Shrine’s historical sites, this incorporated historic houses where St. Elizabeth Ann Seton resided and began her school, as well as the Courtyard of the old Provincial House, and, lastly, the beautiful Basilica. The tour was conducted by guides from the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton; everyone was nice and teaching me how great it is to have these meetings in the sites where other members work. Members can learn more about what their peers are preserving for the benefit of others. Another reason why the tour was grand was that I got to explore a wider scope of the historical sites on campus beyond the Archives. Learning more history about the person which the Seton Shrine is revolved around is enlightening. Overall, I gained insight on how well-organized historical societies are and how much they support one another by choosing to get together through these meetings about any updates with their organizations and societies. The people were fun to talk to and listen to when they discussed pertinent matters. Also, I gained another opportunity to be with people who have the same history-based interests as myself. This meeting and tour were rare opportunities that I am grateful to have been invited to before the COVID-19 pandemic became too strenuous for everyone.

Courtyard of the Emmitsburg campus, the former St. Joseph’s Provincial House
Basilica of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton
Daughters of Charity Archives Entrance

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An Update from the Archives during the COVID-19 Pandemic

For the safety of our staff and visitors, the Archives is currently closed to the public. And although a reopening date remains unknown, we look forward to welcoming visitors and researchers to our campus soon.

Meanwhile, Archives has been keeping busy! Requests have continued to come in from researchers, and while lay staff has been working remotely, the Sisters who live on campus have served as wonderful facilitators with the ability to scan a file or a folder in response to a request. Materials already digitized are easily accessible, and we can quickly forward on this material. For the more complicated request, we have compiled a running list that we will address and answer once back on campus. You may send requests to archives@doc.org

Under normal circumstances, archivists need access to the physical materials to do their work, which are safely kept in our lower level repository. Without access to these documents, we are somewhat hampered in addressing all needs. But Sisters still working in Archives on campus are adding materials to the digital collections, which in turn have become usable to researchers. Lay staff have also made the rare decision to allow a few materials, in good condition, to travel home with them, with the promise that they be kept safe from archival scourges such as wandering cats or open mugs of coffee that are prone to spill.

Other special projects currently underway include, 1) a staff member is creating an index for the newsletters and literary journals taken from Marillac College in St. Louis, the former college run by the Daughters of Charity exclusively for members of women’s religious communities. These newsletters serve as both campus newspaper and a place for commentary on the events of the world in the 1960s and 1970s as related by the women religious at the time.

2) Staff members have been transcribing valuable historical materials, such as Sister Mary Raphael Smith’s scrapbook; a book that contains the writings of sisters and students of St. Joseph’s Academy and information on 50 years of community and school life during the 1800s.

3) We have also been busy creating indexes and transcriptions of some of our legacy oral history collections; the fascinating stories of the lives of Sisters and the times in which they lived and served.  Many of these histories were recorded on cassette tapes, and we have been working diligently in digitizing them to ensure their preservation. These stories provide a fuller picture of both the ministries of the Sisters and the society in which they lived.

We remain available and committed to assisting you and fulfilling requests as best as we can for now, and we are looking forward to serving you and seeing you in the near future on Emmitsburg campus!

Be safe and well.

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