Rooted in the past but always looking forward with a progressive vision for making the world a better place, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth have tremendously impacted the development of local Catholic culture and local culture overall, while at the same time making their compassionate mark globally.
Throughout its history, the SCN were always ready to respond to what was needed at the time, answering the Lord’s call to go out into the world and do good deeds.
The order first began in 1812, not long after the settlement of Nelson County by Catholic families migrating west from Maryland. In the early frontier days of Kentucky, Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget saw there was a need for religious education for those pioneering families into his new Diocese of Bardstown. Flaget put out the call to young women, imploring them to consider a life in service of the Church. Six women answered that call, including 19-year-old Catherine Spalding, who eventually was elected Nazareth’s first mother superior and served in that post for 45 years.
Mother Catherine joined with Bishop John Baptist David to found SCN, and the order quickly outgrew their original home at St. Thomas Parish. That led to the sisters moving in 1822 to their current campus north of Bardstown, following the generous purchase and donation of the property by a sympathetic Presbyterian minister at the time.
SCN’s educational efforts were already well underway at this point. After building a church and a motherhouse on the new site, the sisters set about to expand their original mission, starting a high school for girls — Nazareth Academy, one of the oldest educational institutions west of the Appalachian Mountains, as well as a college that would grow into what is now Spalding University in honor of Mother Catherine. This was all at a time when education for girls was not widespread in the U.S. And they’ve been participating in the education of local students ever since.
SCN branched out into social work in 1832, when Mother Catherine decided to take in a pair of orphans from Louisville, and expanded from there into health care in 1833, when the sisters helped care for those afflicted by a cholera outbreak.
The order, and its mission has grown ever since, responding wherever needed. Now, SCN’s ministries number 121 and stretch into five countries, including the U.S., Belize, India, Nepal and Botswana. Helping the poor and disenfranchised, especially women, has remained a key focus of the sisters’ efforts around the world, combating poverty and injustice.
As times changed, SCN changed with them, expanding their mission into many areas. The sisters fight for grand ideas on the ground level, working for world peace, human rights, and values. The sisters have long advanced the cause of racial equality, and take a strong stance toward defending the environment.
As the world has changed in two centuries, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth have evolved as well, sometimes drawing the sisters into the political battles of the day.
SCN’s stance as an ally for women is evident today in its work to stem the tide of human trafficking in the world. The sisters work to raise awareness of the practice and help reintegrate girls caught up in the scourge back into society.
Climate change and protecting the environment — locally and globally — has taken on greater prominence in the order in modern times as well. SCN was an early advocate of recycling and attempts to make the Nazareth campus as sustainable as possible. The sisters were also active in opposing the controversial Bluegrass Pipeline, which would have passed through Nelson County. And on a global scale, they expressed their opposition to our country’s recent pull-out from the Paris climate accord.
Times will change, and new challenges will be presented to the order as it enters its third century. The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth have shown their progressive streak and willingness to fight the tough battles for justice for nearly 200 years, and that pioneering spirit that has been with the order since its founding will continue to be a welcome guiding light for the future of Bardstown and Nelson County, Kentucky, the United States and the world. We are truly blessed to have them in our midst.