Impelled by the Love of Christ:
Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky 1912-1924
by Frances Krumpelman, SCN
In 1792, Kentucky entered the Union as the fifteenth state, the first Western star in the American flag. Only twenty years later, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth were established, and the commonwealth and community have been integrally related ever since. One of the oldest women’s religious communities in this country, the Sisters of Charity will observe their bicentennial next year, 2012.
As part of their celebration of that historic event, the Sisters of Charity have undertaken a daunting publishing venture: a multi -book series of historical narratives, planned to appear in volumes that cover twelve-year periods. This time-frame is dictated by the usual term in office of respective Mothers General. Since a centennial history covering the first one hundred years was written by Anna Blanche McGill nearly a century ago, the present venture begins on the eve of the First World War, in 1912.
The first volume of this series has now just appeared, and it is a very good beginning indeed. The author is a seasoned researcher and writer, Sister Frances Krumpelman, who in 1998 produced a carefully wrought and extensive volume detailing the history of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lexington.
Those who are researching and writing this series face quite a methodological challenge. The apostolic works of the Sisters of Charity — especially in the fields of education, healthcare, childcare and social service — are diverse and expansive. They have founded, operated and staffed colleges, hospitals, orphanages, and academies. They have taught in dozens of parochial schools. From their Motherhouse in Nelson County, the Sisters have gone forth in service in locations ranging from Massachusetts to Oregon. Today they not only continue to serve in the United States, but they are a considerable presence in India as well. How to tell such a wide-ranging story?
If the first installment proves to be representative of the series, then the answer comes out something like this: Research carefully. Organize thoughtfully. Write clearly. Balance institutional facts with the biographical richness of selected individual lives. And finally, come up with clean design and an abundance of well-printed photographs.
This first volume begins with a dramatic flourish. In the Nazareth centennial year of 1912, Mother General Eutropia McMahon falls suddenly ill on Easter Sunday. Within a day, she has died, and the reader is quickly introduced to the impressive Mother Rose Meagher who will be the abiding presence throughout. In addition to the work of the centennial celebration and the presentation of a new set of community constitutions, Mother Rose helped to oversee the founding of three colleges, two hospitals and three schools of nursing. And all of this was accomplished while she was ultimately responsible for over 1,000 Sisters, the members of her community. Any who might be searching for early twentieth century examples of female corporate leadership need not look much farther.
Not the least engaging facets of Impelled by the Love of Christ (a title derived from the community motto: Caritas Christi Urget Nos — The love of Christ impels us) is its reportage of small details that help to define an era. Sister Mary Ida Walsh procures a projector and shows the first film, The Last of the Mohicans, at Nazareth (p. 34). At Bardstown, the pastor forbids students to date until they graduate from high school (p. 42). The Sisters lived lives of genuine sacrifice, earning at one point the astounding sum of about 12 cents a day in salary for their work in orphanages (p. 128). Some pastors were stingy with financial resources and in paying the teachers (p. 14).
The Sisters at times faced anti-Catholic feeling in their labors, and not only in the South (p. 160). And there are lighter moments. When the new Bishop John A. Floersh of Louisville first visits St. Thomas Orphanage, the Sisters bring him a glass of milk. “Is this the strongest you have in Kentucky?” he asks (p. 133). Louisvillians in particular may be interested to learn that in the 1920s, the Sisters purchased land at Bardstown Road and Tyler Lane, hoping — unavailingly — to move Nazareth College (later Spalding University) from Fourth Street to the suburbs.
The book concludes with a particularly moving chapter of the Sisters of Charity volunteering to nurse soldiers and others during the influenza epidemics of the years 1918-1920. There follows a thorough index and very helpful appendix items such as chronologies, institutional listings and a glossary.
This book and the entire series will be an important component of any book collection that seeks to tell the in-depth story of the history of Catholicism not only regionally, but in American life-at-large.
Rev. Clyde F. Crews, Ph.D.
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