The Daughters of Charity and the Women’s Suffrage Movement: Part 1

The year 2020 marks 100 years since women in the United States won the right to vote.  This is the first of a three-part series on the Daughters and their relationship with the suffrage movement throughout the 1910s, leading up to the election of 1920.  Part 2 will run in October.  Part 3 will run in November.

One of the longest movements in American history was that of women’s suffrage, which reached its greatest triumph with the passage of the 19th Amendment.  Having received passage by Congress on June 4, 1919 and ratification by the states on August 18, 1920, women voted for the first time in every state in the November elections of that year.

Despite the movement’s status in American history, the Daughters’ archives remain largely silent on the rising women’s suffrage movement throughout the 1910s and 1920s.  After thoroughly searching, we have found no record of Daughters of Charity advocating for their own right to vote in any city, nor offering their support to the movement prior to 1918.

There is, however, an individual that makes repeated appearances before this time in the Annals of the Province, the record of day-to-day life at the Daughters of Charity Provincial House on the campus of St. Joseph College in Emmitsburg, Maryland – James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore.

Cardinal James Gibbons, 1917.[1]

Gibbons, with the benefit of hindsight and remembrance, has a mixed and complicated historical legacy.  He became Archbishop of Baltimore in 1877 and served in the position for 44 years.  Prior to this position, he had been Apostolic Vicar for North Carolina, a position he accepted at age 34, making him the youngest bishop in the United States and one of the youngest in the world.  His long service introduced him to many political and cultural figures, and he was a strong unofficial advisor on the Catholic community in the United States to (Protestant) President Teddy Roosevelt.  A statue of him stands outside the Shine of the Sacred Heart in Washington, D.C., erected by the Knights of Columbus in recognition of his service when the two cities were one Archdiocese.  The James Cardinal Gibbons Medal is still awarded by the Catholic University of America, of which Gibbons was the founder and first Chancellor.

Theodore Roosevelt and Cardinal James Gibbons in a friendly exchange.[2] 

As early as the 1880s, Gibbons made it a priority to support, collect, fund, and fundraise for African-American parishes in his archdiocese, as well as the parishes with new immigrant populations from Ireland and Germany, and Eastern Europe.  His support never extended to support for desegregation during his tenure, but he believed that allowing ethnic and racial communities their own traditions under the church would ensure their continued adherence to the faith, and, particularly as related to newly-arrived immigrant groups, a gradual Americanization.[3]  Even when newer immigrant groups began to arrive from Eastern Europe and Latin America – which faced even greater hostility from nativist groups stemming from the belief in their perpetual “otherness” – Gibbons considered them merely a new phase of American immigration deserving of respect just like those from the earlier phase.[4] 

On the issue of race, however, he believed a certain level of African-American education was required before talk of rights could begin; when pressed by black Catholics on this matter throughout his career, he continued to kick this can down the road.[5]  Nevertheless, after 1909, Gibbons opposed any measures in the state of Maryland to bar African-Americans from the ballot box, and throughout his time as Archbishop, he could be seen walking the streets with individuals of all races.[6]

Gibbons was most outspoken on the rights of labor.  While he decried the violence of anarchist groups and of the Haymarket Square Bombing in 1887, he came to the defense of the Knights of Labor, and of the necessity of unions to secure a decent living for its members in the face of uncaring industrial business.  This particularly extended to the immigrant communities that worked under poor conditions in the late 19th century.[7]

From his position in America, he advocated for the righteousness of the separation of church and state long before Vatican II endorsed his beliefs.[8]  He stood against the war hawks calling for American involvement in World War I but navigated the political debate without losing friends.  At the same time, Gibbons catastrophically – even with the level of public knowledge of the events at the time – underestimated the destruction of King Leopold and defended his atrocities in the Belgian Congo.[9]

Cardinal Gibbons was a frequent guest and speaker on the campus of St. Joseph College and Academy, the Daughters-run institution founded by Mother Seton.  Gibbons served as a commencement speaker in 1911, 1913, 1916, and 1917.[10]  In the accounts of his talk in 1911, the annals describe him making the arguments that were common at the time that women already had the vote – through their husbands, fathers, and sons.[11] 

In his 1916 address, he called it “strange that women who were so deservedly honored under the influence of Christian civilization and who have been deservedly honored down to our present day should become suffragettes and thereby soil their garments.”[12]

Gibbons was influential in both the American and global Church, but his beliefs on the subject were not solely his.  During the 1912 graduation, Archbishop Corrigan of Buffalo, who decried that “Women are making a great stir in Chicago,” calling for society to “Let her be pure and chaste in family life, true to instincts of Christian womanhood.  Her most natural place is at the head of her family; let her not desert it.”  At the same time as he acknowledge that the Church had not made a decision on the matter, he also stated that “If she had this privilege she would not be happier, nor would she enjoy more peach than she does now.”[13] 

In this same year, Father Patrick McHale Provincial of the Eastern Province of the Vincentians, seemed to try and split the difference, praising an accomplished woman as a mathematician and chairholder at a university, while also praising in the same sentence “the true woman [who] fulfills her mission and returns home.”  Ultimately, his assessment of the cause seems to land on “The tendency today is to take woman from her position; “Woman Suffrage” for example.  A word here will suffice.  If there is need to vote, let woman cast the ballot and then return where she belongs.”[14]

Commencement of 1917 was the last time Cardinal Gibbons gave the commencement at St. Joseph’s College.  Beginning in 1918, however, the Provincial Annals begin to show a more positive turn towards the idea of women’s suffrage, along with a turn the Cardinal himself made on the issue.  Stay tuned for part 2 of this story in October! 


[1] Cardinal James Gibbons, -1921. , ca. 1917. Oct. 18. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2004670749/.

[2] Theodore Roosevelt and Cardinal James Gibbons in a friendly exchange. ca. 1921. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2009633765/.

[3] John Tracy Ellis, The Life of James Cardinal Gibbons, ed. Francis L. Broderick, Popular ed. (Milwaukee:  The Bruce Publishing Company, 1963), 63; Thomas W. Spalding, The Premier See:  A History of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, 1789-1989 (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 252.

[4] Spalding, 269-271.

[5] Spalding, 288.

[6] Thomas J. Shelly, “Biography and Autobiography:  James Cardinal Gibbons and John Tracy Ellis,”  U.S. Catholic Historian 21 (2), Spring 2003, 41.

[7] Ellis, Life of James Cardinal Gibbons, 80-90.

[8] John Tracy Ellis, “James Gibbons of Baltimore,” in Patterns of Episcopal Leadership, ed. Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J. (New York:  Macmillan Publishing Company, 1989), 137.

[9] Ellis, Life of James Cardinal Gibbons, 294-295.

[10] Provincial Annals, 1911, 60; 1913, 39-40; 1916, 102; 1917, 87, Emmitsburg, MD – St. Joseph’s Provincial House [Hereafter “Prov. House”], Boxes 241 and 243, Daughters of Charity Archives, Province of St. Louise, Emmitsburg, MD [Hereafter APSL].

[11] Provincial Annals, 1911, 60.

[12] Provincial Annals, 1916, 102.

[13] Provincial Annals, 1912, Prov. House, Box 241, APSL, 102-103.

[14] Provincial Annals, 1912, 105.

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Recollections of the Greensboro Sit-ins

Sister Edwina Whittington was on mission to Our Lady of Miraculous Medal School in Greensboro, North Carolina as teacher and principal from 1961 to 1965. Later in life, she recalled the Daughters’ solidarity with protesters participating in the Greensboro sit-ins to desegregate the city:

“One evening the parents of our school children had planned a meeting to prepare for the celebration of our graduates of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal School. At that time the school children were all black.

I went over at the appointed time, but no one showed up. I waited awhile because this was so unusual. There were always quite a number of them present for any activity of the Church or School. They were always so cooperative!

After half an hour, I decided to go back to the convent to listen to the radio. As soon as I entered the convent, I saw the other three Sisters avidly listening to the news. The news station stated that now Greensboro was on the map because the first sit-down strike was in progress at the downtown square.

Now I knew why the parents had not attended the meeting. All of the black fathers and their oldest sons (our graduating class of boys were sitting in the square. Eventually, they were all arrested and marched off to an old empty warehouse because there were too many to put in jail.

The next day, Saturday, Father McCormick, C.M., came to see me and told me that he had seen them and they had been packed into the room and they had nothing that they needed.

I said, ‘Please go back and tell the guards that these men always went to Mass on Saturday at 9:00 A.M.’ That gave us, the Sisters, time to tell the wives of these men to pack the things that they would need and to bring them to Church for the 9:00 Mass on Sunday morning.

True to their word, the guards came with the men in two large busses, in time for the 9:00 Mass. We all celebrated Mass together and after it, one woman started the Rosary out loud. Then, the guard in charge came to me to say, ‘That’s enough; no more prayers can be said. I have to get these men back to the warehouse.’ When the Rosary was finished, the women went out of the Church and formed two lines with their bags of supplies. They left a large space in the center of the two lines for the men and their guards to march through. When the mean and their guards came out in formation, the women rushed up to their husbands and sons, gave them the prepared bags, and then went back to form their lines. The civil authorities kept the men for four days and then let them go to their homes.”

Citation: Daughters of Charity Archives, Province of St. Louise, “Recollections by Sr. Edwina Whittington,” RG 11-1-2, Greensboro, NC – Our Lady of Miraculous Medal School Collection, Box 1, Folder 7

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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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