Originally from Maryland, Mary Catherine Spalding immigrated to Kentucky at the age of four and lived in the Catholic enclave of what is now Nelson County. Raised primarily by her aunt and uncle, Catherine was a highly religious young woman whose experiences of losing her mother at a young age and her father’s desertion due to heavy debts had instilled a passion for caring for orphaned children. At the age of 19, Catherine was the third woman to respond to Father John Baptiste Marie David’s call for volunteers to for a new religious group. The other women were Teresa Carrico, a 24-year-old who lacked formal education but whose domestic skills enabled the community to thrive, and Elizabeth Wells, a 36-year-old who left just two years after Catherine was elected Mother Superior. Together, they formed the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in what is now Nelson County.
The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth was Catherine’s means of fulfilling her faith and accomplishing good works. This was demonstrated in writings of her contemporaries, summarized by M. E. Doyle, who wrote, “What she had come to do was to give herself to a new religious enterprise, to be the third woman forming a convent, a much-desired goal of the bishop of the new diocese of Bardstown. Almost everything, perhaps, was new to her that day….. Not new to her were the winter cold and hard physical work, nor the warmth of personal affection and white heat of purpose with which she would give herself to this new community and its mission.”
In 1814, Catherine and three of the Sisters – under the guidance of Sister Ellen O’Connell, a trained teacher, established Nazareth Academy which sought to serve children of all social classes with primary and secondary education and was entirely free. As Professor Mary Angela Shaughnessy recounted in her evaluation of Catherine’s life, “The sisters never viewed education as something available only to those who were able to pay for it.” In fact, surviving letters indicate that Catherine never gave extra attention or luxuries to girls whose families did pay, which angered some parents. This was a rarity of the time – before 1840, public schools as we know them did not exist. Though children had been sent to community, dame, and other types of schools, the Nazareth Academy was a rarity in that it was a school that offered education to females of all social classes at a time when females could not attend schools with males and education was limited to those whose parents could pay tuition.
Eventually, it was realized that the land of the Sisters’ home and school could not be sold to them, so the Sisters purchased land a few miles north of Bardstown and moved to what is the site of their present motherhouse. The purchase was funded by Sister Scholastica O’Connor, a wealthy widow who entered the congregation and was responsible for funding the land and furnishing the school and convent. Yet her greater achievement was the establishment of the school’s music education and art programs, developing a curriculum and offering private lessons to students. The school became one of the best-known schools for young women in the South outside of New Orleans, offering girls an education in reading, writing, arithmetic, spelling, plain sewing, grammar, composition, history, geography, logic, rhetoric, natural philosophy, ornamental needlework, embroidery, tapestry, drawing, painting, French, Latin, music, and politeness. Quite a list of studies – both those traditionally desired for girls but also building into more modern educational standards.
Catherine’s work extended beyond the Nazareth Academy and education. While the academy’s graduates went on to establish 85 schools across the country, Catherine also spread her mission throughout the Commonwealth. She established Presentation Academy in Louisville, which is still located at the corner of Fourth and Breckinridge Streets. When a cholera epidemic struck, the Academy also helped nurse the sick and care for twenty-five orphans. Their resolve was demonstrated in Catherine’s own letter of February 10, 1831, after the epidemic, in which she stated,
“Gentlemen, be please to understand that we are not hirelings. – & if we are in practice the Servants of the poor, the sick, and the orphan, – we are voluntarily so. But we look for our reward in another and better World.”
Within three years, the orphanage grew to require its own governance and building – established as St. Vincent’s Orphanage, which merged in the 1950s with St. Thomas Orphanage and closed in 1983.
Yet within Catherine’s story also lies a darker part of Kentucky history – slavery. The Sisters of Charity did own slaves, some of whom accompanied women who entered the order and others as part of dowries of candidates. Enslaved labor was crucial to building of the Sisters’ motherhouse, as an extract from their history states that in 1822, two orphans and two Blacks belonging to the Sisters helped establish the new location’s crops and gardens. This was not unusual – many of the first Catholic convents relied on enslaved people for labor, and donations of enslaved persons were common. As Rachel L. Swarns of the New York Times wrote in 2019,
“Some nuns expressed distaste for slavery while others described their reluctance to sell the people they owned, and records document some efforts to keep families together.”
Those enslaved at Nazareth lived in log cabin, which stood where the present church is now – at least six, eventually relocated when the church itself was erected. Council minutes also document the building of a social hall for the enslaved, and that some were musicians. Many formed families on the property, and some records indicate that the Sisters tried to keep families together. Catholic priests performed marriage rites and, after Emancipation, issued declarations of marriage to those that had been married while enslaved.
In December 2000, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth recognized the history of enslaved peoples in their own past, joining with other religious congregations to ask for forgiveness for their participation in slavery. They later erected a monument at a cemetery where many of the enslaved were buried and created a permanent exhibit on their campus to highlight the contributions of Blacks to their congregation. They have also continued to research the enslaved owned by the Sisters, compiling their names, tracing descendants, and attempting to fully tell their stories.
Despite this dark history, evidence suggests that Catherine held as kind a view as we might expect from a slaveholder: she sought the physical and spiritual well-being of the enslaved and tried to keep families together. Her slaves seem to have been well provided for, but that does not excuse their participation in this dark chapter of American history – rather, it illuminates how deeply ingrained slavery was into the American way of life and its social, economic, and even religious institutions.
But rather than this, Catherine is remembered for her impacts – not only in establishing the Sisters, but in the care they provided throughout the Commonwealth and particularly to orphans. Catherine herself was vital in welcoming new immigrant children – primarily from Ireland and Germany, whom she met at the wharfs and escorted to the orphanage. During her later years, after 1848, Catherine likely welcomed hundreds if not thousands of immigrant children fleeing the Great Famine of Ireland and revolutions occurring in the German states. While German immigration to Kentucky had started in the 1770s, the 1850s saw an increase in anti-German sentiment, primarily by Roman Catholics since Germans were largely Lutheran. These were compounded by increased numbers of Catholic Irish immigrants to the same areas, with Louisville’s population soaring to become nearly one-third Irish and German immigrants. Such sentiments sparked efforts to take away German Americans’ rights as well as sparked the Bloody Monday riots in Louisville. Despite all this violence, Catherine continued to welcome the immigrants – especially the children, who formed a majority of those coming to America to seek a better life.
Catherine also welcomed children who needed what we consider today as “special education.” Polly Bullitt was one such student, and was sent by her parents – along with a great deal of money – to the Sisters. Though little is known of Polly’s life, when Polly died, Catherine was a star witness at the contestation of Polly’s will – relatives thought Polly was not of sound enough mind to make one, yet Catherine argued that she had been sound. Polly’s wishes were upheld. At her orphanages, Catherine welcomed and nurtured hundreds of children, utilizing collaborations with local women and fundraisers to establish the annual Louisville Orphans’ Fair as a means of generating community support.
By late in her life, Catherine was said to be claimed by every orphan in the city as their mother – a fact seen frequently in the familiar sight of her walking the streets of Louisville with several orphans in tow, attending to every family crisis she became aware of, and bringing home countless children. She died in 1858, having contracted pneumonia after serving a destitute family.