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.”
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.
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.