In early 19th century America, the country that had been founded on high ideals such as freedom, justice, and pursuit of happiness for all seemed to have left behind a significant number of its citizens –especially women of all races. Although life in the 1800‘s was generally difficult, historical accounts portray the lives of 19th century women as especially harsh:
“The underprivileged white women, mostly poor farmers‘ daughters, often worked to support themselves, as their husbands or fathers were not making enough money to support the family. Their jobs included working for higher class families, doing household duties such as cleaning, cooking or even field work. In addition to their other jobs, these women also had all the responsibilities of their household: cleaning, cooking, taking care of the children, making clothes … A lot was expected from these women, and they were often tired and sickly. The life expectancy of women in the 19th century was in the late forties, very low compared to the late seventies life expectancy today…”
If the lives of underprivileged white women were dismal, the lives of many other 19th century women living in America were much worse:
“The African American women of this time were mostly enslaved. The women did housework of all kinds including serving as nannies for their masters‘ children, and were also used to work in the fields. Most slaves could not read or write, and had little to no education. When women were done working for their masters they often went back to their slave quarters and homes and did housework there. Few were lucky enough to have a family that stayed together. Normally, women were separated from their husbands and children due to the slave trade. The lives of Irish and Native American women were in many ways as difficult and uncertain than their African sisters because they were considered at the very bottom of the social class. In addition to hard work and other hardships, women generally were expected to bear large numbers of children which was very hazardous …”
“… In general, the 19th century woman had no or very few political rights. She was unable to vote, or have any political views. She also had a very limited career selection, as women were excluded from most professions. A factor in this exclusion could have been a lack of education, since women were not often very educated …”
How did the early SCNs respond to the social and political obstacles for women in the 1800‘s and beyond? It seems that many of these barriers were conquered through the SCN commitment to education, which opened many doors for women. In 1814, when most of Kentucky was still considered a wilderness, the pioneer SCNs began their first school. In an historical account presented by Anna Blanche McGill in her book, ―The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth (1917)‖, McGill states:
“In August, 1814, Nazareth’s first school was begun, with Sisters Ellen O‘Connell and Harriet Gardiner as faculty, assisted when possible by Mother Catherine. All three were women of excellent mentality, industry, and power of imparting instruction. The first pupil received was Cecilia O‘Brien, daughter of a neighboring farmer. This little girl entered as a day pupil and she eventually became a member of the community as Sister Cecily … Owing to the distances between the farm houses and Nazareth there were few day pupils in the school‘s early days. The majority were boarders from the surrounding country. By the first of December there were nine little girls … a year later the enrollment was thirty-four students from Nelson County and adjoining regions. This was considered a large school, considering the sparsely settled country, the difficulties of going to and fro, and other general conditions of pioneer days.”
By 1818 the SCNs were asked to expand their mission of education by opening a day school in Bardstown which was called “Bethlehem,” and the great legacy of SCN educators continued to grow from there. McGill describes the daily life of these early SCN educators:
“… In the morning, after a little cornbread and a cup of rye coffee without sugar and often without milk, they went to their labors in the schoolroom, the fields, the kitchen, the laundry. And when, after the usual prayers, they assembled for dinner, hunger rendered palatable a piece of cornbread, bacon or middling,‘ as it was called, with greens or some other plain vegetable cooked on the fire made of branches which they themselves had brought from the woods. This humble meal partaken of, toil was resumed. The evening meal consisted of a morsel of cornbread and a cup of sage tea, seasoned like the morning‘s coffee. …”
A number of SCNs are credited with the early success of the congregation as respected educators, including Sisters Ellen O‘Connell, Frances Gardiner, Columba Carroll, Marie Menard, and countless others. Of Ellen O‘Connell, the first SCN Directress of the Academy, it was said:
“In addition to the possession of a mind of rare intelligence, she had received an excellent education and was gifted with a facility for imparting her own knowledge to others. With so much spirit did she enter into the views of Father David that within a few years she had succeeded, with the valuable assistance which he himself was enabled to render, in forming a body of teachers at that day unequalled in the State … After her weary school hours she taught the Sisters with indefatigable care, so that there was not one teaching at all who was not her pupil – not one who equaled her in intellectual powers or in extent and variety of knowledge.”
Frances Gardiner, a life-long educator for the congregation, while serving as Mother of the congregation continued to encourage Sisters in their own education when writing to them:
“… You must not neglect to improve yourself all you can. Write every day, but with care. Your letter was well done. Review and study and never think you have reached the point beyond which you need not aim. Go ahead, ever.” To another she wrote: “… I wrote to Sister G. and told her she must take her leisure time to improve herself and that I would ask you to let her have the time – although I know you have tried to get her to study. I hope you will insist upon her doing so in future, by my request.”
In Sister Agnes Geraldine‘s writings about Mother Columba, she states: “… Sister Marie Menard wrote of Sister Columba that during her thirty years as directress of studies she built up a reputation for Nazareth of worldwide fame.”
The SCNs reputation as exceptional educators was enough to draw students from some of Kentucky‘s most distinguished families of that time, including the daughters of Ben Hardin, Zachary Taylor, and Colonel Jefferson Davis, who received the same excellent instruction as the daughters of local farmers and laborers. Perhaps it was just a coincidence that in 1838, Kentucky was the first state to permit suffrage of any kind when property-owning widows and single women were given the right to vote in school board elections; or, perhaps the fact that the SCNs and other religious orders of the day made education such a priority in Kentucky that lawmakers realized before much of the rest of the country that women deserved to have a voice in important matters such as education. Regardless, there is no question that the education provided by the outstanding teachers of the SCN congregation throughout Kentucky and beyond had an enormous impact on the people of an entire region in the 1800’s.
The long struggle for women‘s rights was finally launched when the first official American Women‘s Rights convention took place in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848 – the same year that a group of SCNs was nursing Asiatic cholera victims in Nashville, Tennessee. It is truly remarkable that long before the beginning of women‘s rights in this country, a group of women religious had purchased their own land, erected buildings, established seven schools and an orphanage, had received a business charter from the State of Kentucky, and had risked their lives numerous times serving as nurses during deadly outbreaks of disease … and they were only just beginning!