Sister Spotlight: Sister Joan McGinley

As March is quickly moving to completion and is ending in a time of trial, uncertainty, and challenge, we take the time to feature a Sister of Charity who would seek to find ways to meet the new normal in our country today. The writer began this article as we were beginning Catholic Sister’s Week but the daily changes in the world forced the writing to the back burner as other pressing matters took priority… 

Meet Joan McGinley, daughter of Elizabeth Zimber and Edward McGinley, born on August 26, 1930, the second daughter and youngest child in a family of six.  She attended Resurrection grade school in Brookline.  Joan’s mother died of cancer when Joan was ten years old and, for several months, the family was separated until Joan’s father could reorganize and unite the family.

Sister Joan McGinley

While completing eighth grade at Resurrection, Joan planned to attend public high school with several of her classmates. However, one day, Resurrection’s principal asked Joan to have her father stop to see her after Sunday Mass while assuring Joan that she was “not in trouble.”  During the meeting, the principal suggested that Mr. McGinley send Joan to Elizabeth Seton High School.  Remembering that Joan always wanted to take piano lessons her father announced, “You will attend Elizabeth Seton High School in the fall and you can enroll for piano lessons.”  The piano lessons were Mr. McGinley’s attempt to make the decision more palatable.  Joan admitted later that the piano lessons were less successful than the overall high school experience.

Although unhappy about the decision, Joan joined the Elizabeth Seton Class of 1949 and thrived.  In later years, she expressed thanks to her father and the principal.  She loved her time at Seton.

In October of her senior year, Joan petitioned to enter the Sisters of Charity, but she never shared the information with her friends.  To the surprise of many, Joan entered the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill on September 8, 1950.  She received the habit and the name Sister Elizabeth Marie on April 24, 1949.  She made her temporary profession on April 24, 1951 and perpetual profession on June 27, 1954.

She returned to her baptismal name during the changes following the Second Vatican Council.

Throughout her life, Sister Joan carried God’s word with zest and enthusiasm.  During 45 years of her ministry to children, she sought innovative ways to teach and to discipline.  She loved teaching in the primary grades, particularly first and second grade.  Joan ministered in the Sisters of Charity schools in the dioceses of Tucson, Phoenix, Greensburg, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC.  She was particularly attracted to teaching in areas where the children were poor and underserved. Along the way, Joan received a BA in Education from Seton Hill College (now University) and a Master’s in Reading and Language Arts from the University of Pittsburgh. 

Sister Joan hard at work.

Sister Joan served most of her ministerial years, from 1964 until 1991, as a principal.  Those who worked with her, as well as the many students whom she influenced, described her as a kind leader who challenged their imaginations and their creativity.  She hosted plays, projects, and outreach programs in the local communities.

Not one to shy away from a challenge, Joan found time to be involved in Jail ministry, outreach to the poor, and community committees, in addition to her daily demands as a school administrator.  Once, Joan wrote the following about her life:

                “My life has freed me to know myself in relation to others and to continue to integrate my  personal, spiritual, and ministerial roles in a way that brings peace, satisfaction, and          opportunities to new beginnings.”

After a sabbatical to ponder the best way to serve, Joan began to minister in social ministry.  From 1993 until 2004, Sister Joan served as the Social Minister at Saint Sebastian Parish in the North Hills.  She transferred many of the skills as principal to this new position.  She brought energy and life to the parish community.  Ministering in a parish where many of the parishioners had obtained “the American Dream,” Joan offered them the opportunity to learn about, and assist, the poor and needy. She helped to sponsor several refugee families and was always sorry not to be able to bring more to the area. She invited several parishioners to participate in AIDS ministry.  She wrote requests in the Sunday bulletin for everything from diapers and food to used cars.  One woman who attended the farewell party for Sister Joan at the parish said, “She could convince the devil himself to do what she thought was important.”  No one in the parish was off the hook for service.  If you were retired and could drive, you could run errands.  If you were in your 80’s and hard-of-hearing, you could repair bicycles.  If you had young children, you could invite the refugee children to come and play with your children.

Meanwhile, Joan had a reputation as a woman who also knew how to play and celebrate.  Her party organizing skills were famous.  She could make fun of the smallest occasion.  She was particularly famous for her Saint Patrick’s Day parties.  She loved the Irish Festival, but she was also present for Octoberfest.  At Saint Sebastian’s, she organized a baking crew to provide small fruit cakes for Christmas, Irish Soda Bread for Saint Patrick’s Day, and other treats for shut-in s during significant days of the year. As long as she was able, she never missed a Pittsburgh Saint Patrick Day Parade.

In 2004, Sister Joan resigned from her cherished position at Saint Sebastian’s. Parkinson’s disease had slowed her gait and weakened her balance. It took longer to complete many tasks.  Her final visit to the parish for a liturgy in her honor and an open lasted from eight in the morning until seven in the evening.   Family, friends, and parishioners came in a steady stream to say goodbye. Even one of her first grade students came to play and sing Irish songs in her honor.

Parkinson’s Disease took away Sister Joan’s ability to  walk, her voice became a mere whisper, her writing was barely legible,   She continued to reach out to those in need, tried to organize ways for her friends to help with projects, sent notes by e-mail, and cards to friends at Saint Sebastian.

Joan died suddenly during a short hospitalization on December 12, 2014.  To sum up a life well lived, one might think about it in a paraphrase of her own words:

                “Joan did indeed get to know herself in relation to others.  Even in her tears of joy and sadness, she was able reveal God’s love for His people through her courage and spiritual strength. “Joan made the work of charity visible with a joyful spirit and loving heart.  She never lost her zest for life, her interest in others, her Irish wit, or her ability to laugh.

One of the final things she wrote:  “I am not complaining.  I was diagnosed so long ago and I have been able to do a lot.  I know I ask a lot.  But know that I am grateful.”

A beautiful Christmas smile from Sr. Joan McGinley.

During this March 2020, and as we all face the trying dilemmas COVID-19 has brought on an international scale, let us take a moment to reflect on the lessons from that feisty Irish lady, Sister Joan McGinley. Reach out to your neighbor in need. Do what you can to help others. Enjoy life and revel in God’s gifts to the world. As Sister Joan would surely agree, our humanity is what unites us all.

Beyond ‘the Hill’: Sisters of Charity in the Catholic Schools of Greensburg

St. Benedict’s/Cathedral School

The Sisters of Charity’s history of educating young minds extends beyond “the Hill” in Greensburg. In fact, parochial school education in Greensburg pre-dates the establishment of the oldest schools at Seton Hill – St. Mary’s School for Boys, St. Joseph Academy, the Seton Hill Schools of Art & Music, and Seton Hill College. Let’s explore the history and impact of the Sisters of Charity’s parochial school pursuits within the confines of their hometown.

After the sisters took possession of the Jennings Farm on August 7, 1882, the Catholic parishioners of the Most Holy Sacrament Church in Greensburg were eager to meet the congregation. The following Sunday, August 13th, the Church Committee of the parish, along with the pastor, Reverend Athanasius Hintenach, O.S.B., visited the sisters on the newly-christened Seton Hill. The parochial school, St. Benedict’s, had been established in 1862 and, since that time, had been led by a lay teacher. The community asked the Sisters of Charity to take up charge of parochial school education in the city. Mother Aloysia agreed and, shortly thereafter, Sisters Raphael Kane and Mary Basil Breen opened the school in the church basement. At this time, Greensburg was a city with many first-generation German immigrants and most of the parish activities were conducted in German. The sisters, most of whom were of Irish descent, called it “their German School.”

In 1951, when Greensburg became a separate diocese, the parish and school were renamed Cathedral. More than 228 sisters (nearly 21% of all the sisters) have served at St. Benedict/Cathedral School over its lengthy history. They witnessed its growth from a school of 394 pupils in eight grades (1948) to more than 1,205 students (1962).

Images on Slideshow: Exterior of Cathedral School, Greensburg, as children run to the buses, c. 1960s; A Sister of Charity uses a projector to teach students at Cathedral School, Greensburg, c. 1960s; A Sister of Charity engages students in gym class at Cathedral School, Greensburg, c. 1960s; A Sister of Charity oversees students in a classroom at Cathedral School, Greensburg, c. 1960s; St. Elizabeth Ann Seton stained glass window at Cathedral, Greensburg; Two Sisters of Charity at Cathedral School, Greensburg, c. 1960s; A Sister of Charity at the altar at Cathedral, Greensburg, c. 1960s; Sister Rita Vincent Henderson reads to students at Cathedral School, Greensburg in 1973.


  • Sr. Raphael Kane
  • Sr. Ferdinand Love
  • Sr. Alicia Clarey
  • Sr. Juliana Trexler
  • Sr. Leo Vincent Ward
  • Sr. Victorine Ellsworth
  • Sr. Emily Miller
  • Sr. Genevieve Lauder
  • Sr. Sabina McGinley
  • Sr. Teresa Vincent Mahoney
  • Sr. Francis de Sales Joyce
  • Sr. Agnes Geraldine Euler
  • Sr. Teresina Bridges
  • Sr. Mary Victor Powers
  • Sr. Gracia Canon
  • Sr. Brenda Jumba

Sacred Heart/St. Paul’s School

As the Catholic community in the city grew and expanded to outlying areas, Father Edgar Zuercher, pastor of Most Holy Sacrament Church, recognized the hardship families in, for example, the Ludwick neighborhood of Greensburg, faced in sending their children to Catholic school. He opened Sacred Heart School at 300 South Hamilton Avenue in January of 1922 as a “mission” of Most Holy Sacrament parish. Sisters Paula Moran and Mary Samuel Klingensmith began the school with grades 1-4.

Big changes again occurred when the city became a diocese separate from Pittsburgh. Sacred Heart School and St. Anthony’s, a mission from Our Lady of Grace parish, were combined to create the new St. Paul’s School in 1955. The sisters wrote of opening day at St. Paul’s: “When the taxi drove up to the front entrance of the school on the morning of September 6, 240 pairs of eyes gave the emerging teachers a quick once-over.” Sister Editha Springer was the first principal of the new St. Paul’s School and the sisters served here until the school merged with several others to form Aquinas Academy in 1995.

Images on Slideshow: Cover of the St. Paul’s School Dedication Booklet, 1960; A group of Sisters of Charity outside St. Paul’s School, Greensburg, c. 1960s; Students outside St. Paul’s School, Greensburg, c. 1960s

Principals of Sacred Heart:

  • Sr. Mary Guido McMillan
  • Sr. Boniface Curren
  • Sr. Rita Catherine Cole
  • Sr. Genevieve Lauder

Principals of St. Paul’s:

  • Sr. Editha Springer
  • Sr. Rosina Highland
  • Sr. Mary Henry Hanse
  • Sr. Mary Arleen Squitieri
  • Sr. Pat Laffey
  • Sr. Andrew Mary Horvath

St. Bruno’s School

Founded in 1956 to fulfill the need for a school in South Greensburg, St. Bruno’s witnessed the leadership of Sr. Harold Ann Jones as first principal. The sisters stayed at St. Bruno’s until 1973, but returned with one sister on staff in 1977. Unfortunately, the Sisters of Charity were forced to withdraw from St. Bruno’s School again in 1993 and then the school merged to become one with Aquinas Academy (1995).

Images on Slideshow: Cover of the St. Bruno’s School Dedication Booklet, 1956; Sister Harold Ann Jones, principal of St. Bruno School in Greensburg, admires the gift of a television set from Davis’ Food Market in 1961; Sister Marie Martin Cain with students at First Holy Communion, 1958; Sister Harold Ann Jones with students at First Holy Communion, 1958; Sister Harold Ann Jones with students in a classroom at St. Bruno’s; Students in a classroom at St. Bruno’s; Students outside of St. Bruno’s School, Greensburg; Faculty of St. Bruno’s, 1956.


  • Sr. Harold Ann Jones
  • Sr. Harriet Omlor
  • Sr. Mary Gertrude McElhinny
  • Sr. Agnes Louise Green
  • Sr. Mary Nicholas Matro
  • Sr. Jon Frances Vallade
  • Sr. Mary Ann Corr
  • Sr. Kathleen McCauley

Greensburg Central Catholic High School

The growth of Catholic education throughout Greensburg and the deep interest in parents to continue their children’s parochial education prompted the development of Greensburg Central Catholic High School. Students from throughout the Diocese of Greensburg travelled a distance to attend the diocese’s crown jewel. Opened in 1959, GCC was unique in that multiple religious orders were represented on the staff. The Sisters of Charity were first responsible for the science and music departments, but their responsibilities grew and transformed over the years. In fact, the Sisters of Charity are the only women religious to hold the position of principal. From 1979 until 1982, Sr. Patrice Hughes served as principal of GCC. She was succeeded by Sr. Donna Marie Leiden. Further, Sisters Kay Palas (1992-93) and Brigid Marie Grandey (1994-2002) also moved into the leadership role. More than 43 Sisters of Charity have been missioned to GCC, including, most recently Sr. Maureen O’Brien’s long tenure as teacher and Director of Campus Ministry, and Sr. Mary Norbert Long’s stint as interim principal.

Images on Slideshow: Newspaper clipping, Blessing of Greensburg Central Catholic Faculty House, 1963; Exterior of Greensburg Central Catholic High School; Greensburg Central Catholic Faculty pose after the chapel dedication in 1963; Sr. Mary Helen Meyer supervises students in the laboratory at GCC while principal, Sr. Brigid Marie Grandey observes, late 1990s; Sr. Maureen O’Brien engages with students at Greensburg Central Catholic, late 1990s.

Greensburg Catholic Middle

In 1968, the upper grades of St. Bruno’s, St. Paul’s, and Holy Cross School (Youngwood) were merged to form Greensburg Catholic Middle. Sisters Mary Denise Dietrich, Marian Grace Brandt, Claudia Stehle, Pat Laffey, and Andrew Mary Horvath were assigned as principal at the school. It closed in 1992.


  • Sr. Mary Denise Dietrich
  • Sr. Marian Grace Brandt
  • Sr. Claudia Stehle
  • Sr. Pat Laffey
  • Sr. Andrew Mary Horvath
Newspaper clipping, Sr. Marian Grace Brandt, principal, with student Kathleen Curiale at Greensburg Catholic Middle School, 1973.

Aquinas Academy

As quickly as parochial education grew in the Diocese of Greensburg, so, too, did enrollment decline in the 1970s and 80s. By the mid-1990s, the diocese sought a solution to the differing needs of the community. Sponsored by the parishes of Blessed Sacrament Cathedral, St. Paul, St. Bruno, and Our Lady of Grace, Aquinas Academy was opened in 1995 as a unified Catholic school to serve the needs of Catholic elementary students. Sr. Brycelyn Eyler led the school as principal and Aquinas developed a stellar reputation for high-quality Catholic education.

Images on Slideshow: Cover of a brochure for Aquinas Academy, 1995; Statement by Bishop Bosco announcing the establishment of Aquinas Academy, Greensburg, 1995.


It’s clear that the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, from the moment they arrived in Greensburg, gracefully stepped into the role of dedicated and faithful educator for the Catholic children of the city. Not only did the sisters accept the challenge of teaching a growing population of young Catholic minds, they also spearheaded the response to the changing face of Catholic education, particularly in the decades post-Vatican II. We have the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill to thank for enriching the intellectual and spiritual lives of the young people of Greensburg for more than 135 years.

Written by Casey Bowser, Archivist

Sister Spotlight: Sister Baptista Madden

On January 25th, the Sisters of Charity remembered in prayer the death anniversary of Sister Baptista Madden.  This seems an appropriate time to recall the life of this special Sister of Charity.

Mary Helen Madden entered the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill on September 8, 1944 and spent sixty-one her eighty-six years of life faithful to the community and the God she served so faithfully. 

Sister M. Baptista Madden

It is difficult to capture the life of this most faithful servant of Christ in a few words. Monsignor Larry Kiniry described her energy, her willingness to go out at any time of the day or night to serve the people of Apollo.  He also made note of her ability to minister to men.  During Monsignor’s homily at her funeral, he told of a young man who brought a huge bouquet of white roses in thanksgiving for the way Sister Baptista had assisted him.

Father also alluded to her sense of humor, her hearty laugh, and her willingness to take risks, such as taking the low ropes course at Jumonville Camp & Retreat Center.  There she swung on a fifty foot rope over a stream and climbed a ten foot wall with the help of a team and then walked a log over another stream.  Certainly a side of Sr. Baptista many never knew. 

As the writer reviewed her very full file, the eulogy written by Sister Gertrude Foley seemed to capture Sister best. It seems most appropriate to share it once again. Perhaps those remembering Sister Baptista, or those meeting her for the first time, can recommit themselves to serve the Lord in all the places in which we are living. 


June 17, 1919 – January 25, 2005

Mary Helen Madden entered the Sisters of Charity on September 8, 1944. Seven months to the day, April 8, 1945, she received, along with the habit, her new name, Baptista. Her name changed, but not the continuity of her Christ-centered life-theme expressed in faith, commitment, and loving, joyful service. Like her patron saint, John the Baptist, she spent her life helping make a pathway for the Lord in the lives of others.

Many, many years after entering the community, Sister Baptista, whom the community chose as its major superior in 1977, addressed us gathered at a community day in 1979. Reflecting on Psalm 139 in that day’s prayer, she said:

The fact that He knows me through and through: what I have been, what I am, might not give me confidence, if His knowledge were as the rest of humankind’s-simply knowing a number of facts about me. But God’ s knowledge is one with His love; it’s the creative power that brought me into being. Because He knows me, because He loves me, I am. Were He to stop knowing and loving me, I would no longer be.

The facts of Baptista’s life-even just the ones we can know-witness to the creative power of God’s love and knowing. Mary Helen Madden was born in Youngstown, Ohio on June 17, 1919, and was baptized two weeks later. She was the third of eight children-4 boys and 4 girls-born to her parents Joseph and Helen. At age 25, Mary Helen entered the community from Assumption Parish in Bellevue. Her sister Margaret, known to us as Sister Mary Ronald, had entered the community ten years before Mary Helen. Two years later, her younger sister, Joan, known to us as Sister Joan Marie, followed their example.

They say that coming events cast their shadows before. Long before she entered the Sisters of Charity, the way Mary Helen Madden spent her time foreshadowed how she would spend her life as Sister M. Baptista. After graduating from Annunciation High School on the North Side, she worked as a clerk stenographer for four and a half years in the Pennsylvania Department of Public Assistance, and spent the next three years as a secretary with the National Labor Relations Board. The history of the Missionary Confraternity of Christian Doctrine authored in 1985 by Mary Downey James adds information, however, that Sister Baptista didn’t think to note on her resume. Ms. James writes:

Sister Baptista Madden, former major superior of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, was an MCCD catechist from 1939 until she entered the community in 1944. Traveling downtown by streetcar to make connections with the 12:50 p.m. train out of Penn Station, Sister boarded the car reserved for MCCD workers. The car was filled with catechists and fishers going to various missions along the route. They sang and prayed the rosary during the journey. Sister was assigned to Cherry Valley. When she and her teammates arrived at SS Peter and Paul Church, the priest came for a congregational Mass , and afterward, the catechists taught for an hour in the body of the church. As they waited for the train home, the group usually enjoyed sundaes at the ice cream parlor located near the railroad station. The day which had started in the morning did not end until after six-thirty-a lot of traveling for an hour’s teaching!

During the 1940′ s the Confraternity chartered buses to transport the catechists to the missions. Sister Baptista was sent to a different place each year. She taught at St. Veronica’ s in Ambridge and Holy Souls in Carnegie. At Oakdale, Sunday school was held in the public school. In the small mining-company town of Montour , she and the other catechists taught in the cellar of one of the houses.

Sister Baptista recalled that during the five years she was involved, the volunteers engaged tirelessly in their ministry, sustained by their faith. In the midst of darkness , in some cases, Sister felt this ” moment ” each Sunday was a ray of light for all. The pleasure and happiness she experienced as an MCCD worker were so evident in her tone of voice. Any hardships she may have encountered faded from her memory.

Isn’t this the Sister Baptista we all know and love?

After entering the Sisters of Charity, Sister Baptista spent three years as an elementary school teacher. From there, she began a sixteen-year assignment at Seton Hill University (then College)-ten years as Dean of Residence followed by six years as Dean of Freshmen. Honoring Sister Baptista at the 1982 College commencement, President Eileen Farrell noted:

Some of her duties may surprise us now. She checked to make sure that every student was in the dormitory by ten p.m. On weekends, when seniors were permitted to stay out till midnight, Sister Baptista was at the door to welcome each of them home. She checked room1 every morning to make sure beds were made and everything was in order. But she did more than check in and check up. She was afriend to the students. They confided in her, talked to her about their plans and their dreams. Alumnae today remember her with affection as “strict but always kind and always understanding.”

Isn’t this the Sister Baptista we all know and love?

In 1964, Mother Victoria Brown appointed Sister Baptista Director of Initial Formation for our community. In 1969, Sister Baptista took up her next appointment as General Secretary of the Congregation. After she had served eight years in that position, the community elected Sister Baptista major superior in 1977, a position to which she was re-elected in 1981. Leading the community through endless transition and transformation must have challenged her spirit of obedience to God’s will during those eight years. Still, she frequently called us to a renewed and hope-filled commitment to our mission as Sisters of Charity. She was the first of our major superiors to retain the title “Sister” rather than “Mother.” Those of us who worked and lived with her then knew her as a genuine “servant leader.” And the close of her term of office, after 40 years of service to the College and internal ministry to the community, Sister Baptista took up the work of pastoral associate at St. James Church, Apollo, a position she held for 12 years. Reflecting on the years in which Sister Baptista served with him at St. James, Father Larry Kiniry wrote:

In thinking of Sister Baptista, I think of a wise person of Scripture. . .the individual who through wisdom understands the art of living. . . one who is always cool, calm, and patient . one who is knowledgeable yet has a great deal of common sense. . . one who is reflective an1 never ceases to scrutinize one’ s destiny. She is insighiful in matters religious and pious in th profound sense . . . always aware that God rules the world and her life.

Isn’t this the Sister Baptista we all know and love?

If you told Sister Baptista she was a “charismatic leader,” she would give you that wry smile of hers and staunchly deny it. But dear Baptista, we know that you had many charisms-gifts given to build up the Body of Christ. We know this because you claimed your gifts and you gave them to us freely, as they had been given to you. And through these gifts, you led us-quietly and with faith, steadfastly, lovingly, with conviction and integrity. These gifts of yours, so freely and generously given, enriched our lives and strengthened us to walk with you in making a pathway for the Lord.

As you noted at that Community Day in 1979, God knows you better than any of us could. But you really couldn’t hide from us the work He was doing in you. Your words that day illumine what was hidden, perhaps, by your simple, steady, presence in our lives. You said:

Because we have [God’s revelation in Christ], this assurance of God’s love and mercy, we don’t hesitate to approach Him, to call to Him, to seek Him for whom, as Augustine says, ou hearts yearn. Then when we have found Him, and because we have found Him , we seek Him still more.

We seek Him in prayer: liturgical and ritual, communal and personal. We seek Him in the prayer which is making ourselves available to Him , holding ourselves at His disposal ; learning His will and reaching out to embrace it; opening ourselves and our lives totally to Him, so that our permanent disposition is one of pledging all we are for all time.

You also quoted St. Augustine that day because you said, “I certainly can say nothing which would equal Augustine.” But I think you only chose words from Augustine’s long tract on “The Singing of Alleluia” to say what was deepest within you:

Let us therefore sing “alleluia” now as often as possible, that we may one day sing it forever. In heaven our food will be “alleluia,” our drink “alleluia,” our act of contemplation “alleluia,” our total joy will be “alleluia,” that is to say, “Glory to God.”

We know how you loved to sing, Sister Baptista. May you raise your voice now in an eternal “alleluia” until all of us can join you one day in that heavenly choir.

Thank you, dear Baptista, for all you have been among us, for all you have done for us and for all God’ s people.

Introduction written by Sr. Louise Grundish and Eulogy written by Sr. Gertrude Foley

Angels of Christmas Past

As Christmas draws near at Caritas Christi, the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, you might notice a number of beautiful renditions of the story of the birth of Christ. As I wandered through the halls, I thought it might be important to remember where these many gifts originated.

Sister Anselm McKenna poses with a Christmas creche at Assumption Hall in the early 1950s.

On the historic mantle in the Heritage Room, Mary holds Infant Jesus as Joseph stands in attention and the shepherds and animals kneel in adoration. This terra cotta rendition was a Christmas gift to the Sisters of Charity at DePaul Institute (now DePaul School for Hearing and Speech) from the late Father Richard Conboy, who was administrator at DePaul at the time. He brought the gift from the Holy Land. When the convent closed as the school moved to East Liberty, it came to the archives.

Christmas Crib set from Father Richard Conboy on display in the Heritage Room on the original Stokes mansion mantle.

The archivists are happy to display a sample of the Christmas series of plates from the Vatican Collection. These treasures were donated by the late Monsignor Edward McCullough. He gifted the set when we retired as pastor of Saint Aloysius parish in Dunbar.

The second historic mantle in the Theodosia Parlor displays an Oberammergau wood-carved crib set which was a gift of Sister Mary Kieran Beyer for the sisters at Providence Hospital in Beaver Falls. She purchased it during a tour of Germany in the summer of 1962. When the sisters withdrew from Providence Hospital in 1963, the nativity scene came to Assumption Hall. It now brings Christmas joy to all at Caritas Christi.

Oberammergau Nativity from Sister Mary Kieran Beyer.

As you enter Caritas, a lovely Christmas display greets our friends. The Annals for Assumption Hall, written in December 1954 by Sister Dominica O’Connor, describe the first Christmas at Assumption:

“The crib on the chapel floor was level with the large double kneeler before it, and the figures were almost the replica of the crib that had been used at the college for almost half a century. This was at Mother Eveline’s request. Mr. Poli, from whom we purchased the crib, even painted some of the figures to be nearly like the original set as possibly, so solicitous were Mother Claudia and the Council that the sisters not feel away from home on this first Christmas across the hill.”

This crib was carefully stored during the razing of Assumption Hall in the 1990s. Since Christmas 1999, the crib has had a place of honor in the entrance solarium of Caritas Christi.

Stories of Christmas treasures abound in the nooks and crannies of the motherhouse. Perhaps you could share your story? Archivists are always anxious to hear the “rest of the story.”

Written by Sr. Louise Grundish

Sister Spotlight: Mother Eveline Fisher

Mother M. Eveline Fisher

In June 1896, the following letter arrived for Mother Josephine Doran from Mary Fisher who lived on Carson Street on the South Side of Pittsburg (before the h was added back to the city name).

                “Dear Mother,

                      I fear you may think me slow in answering, but I have been busy getting ready all the while, and I feel I can answer these questions.

                     My age — I will be sixteen in January.  My mother still lives.  No insanity in our family.

                     My education —- well I passed for High School last year; and then was obliged to work in       order to help my mother.

                    Father Devlin was kind enough to give me employment in his school.  I saw Father Devlin and he told me he would attend to getting my baptismal record, and that he thought I had a religious vocation.

                    I shall see the doctor soon, and I feel that will be all right as I have always been most healthy.

                    My Mother has been getting me ready, and I shall go on the 2nd of July unless I hear from you to the contrary.

                    Now dear Mother I trust this little note will be satisfactory as I am most anxious to enter, and be a very good and useful sister.

                                                                                                Yours very sincerely,

                                                                                                                Mary Fisher.

                3469 Carson Street

                S.S. Pitts. Pa.

That day would be the beginning of a long and very productive life for Mary Alice Fisher, daughter of James and Alice Noel Fisher, who was born in Brady’s Bend, Pennsylvania on January 21, 1881.

Mother M. Eveline Fisher in the 1930s.

Mary’s father died following an accident in the oil fields and her mother, aged 28, was left with four small children.  The family moved to Beaver Falls, where her father was buried, and, later, to the South Side of Pittsburgh where her mother found work. 

After entering the Sisters of Charity in 1896, this good and useful sister assumed the name Sister Mary Eveline and ministered as a teacher in primary grades and high school.  Sister Eveline was elected Mother Superior of the Sisters of Charity in 1930 at the age of 49. 

Mother Eveline Fisher with her Council, 1930-36.

As Mother Eveline assumed her new role as leader of the community, the nation began experiencing a deep economic depression. The sisters felt the downturn keenly. In fact, the sisters only accepted one new mission between 1926 and 1940.

Buildings at Seton Hill began to show their age.  Saint Joseph Chapel, completed in 1896, needed to be plastered, repainted, and the windows secured.  The dining room in the same wing needed freshening.  The sisters were forced to take a loan right as the Great Depression hit. Mother Eveline reached out to the sisters for help.  However, she cautioned sisters not to sacrifice their health or ability to teach by overdoing sacrifice.

In 1933, economic strain continued as Bishop Boyle sent Mother Eveline a letter informing her that all teacher and principal salaries were decreased by 20%, effective immediately.  Each sister’s annual salary was cut to $280, the equivalent of $5,500 in today’s dollars.

Meanwhile, Father Leo Gattes, formerly an insurance director for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, now stationed at Saints Peter and Paul parish in Tucson, Arizona wrote requesting sisters to staff his parish school.  He saw great promise for a future for the community in the Southwest.  Just months before, two of sisters had been in a very bad train accident in Arizona and their plight was very fresh in the minds of all sisters.  The great distance of this new endeavor and monetary worries plagued Mother Eveline as she considered the offer from Father Gattes. What are the possibilities, she wondered?

This would be the sole mission accepted in the Great Depression years. Mother Eveline accompanied the first sisters sent to Arizona as far as Tumacacori for support and comfort to those who were traveling so far from home to the new venture.

1933, The first cohort of sisters outside of SS. Peter and Paul convent in Tucson, Arizona.

When Mother Eveline left office in 1936, she joined the sisters in Arizona to solidify the educational efforts in the Southwest.  She labored in this area until failing health necessitated her return to the East.

In 1941, she underwent surgery and after a short recovery, Mother Eveline went to serve at DePaul Institute (now DePaul School for Hearing and Speech). At DePaul, she contributed quietly to the needs of the sisters and the children by helping with small but important tasks.  Mother Eveline moved from DePaul in 1954 to accept the Sister Servant position at the newly constructed Assumption Hall Retirement Home for the sisters.  She held this post until her death in 1960.

During her days at Assumption Hall, she continued in spite of her poor health to provide a home for her sisters. She visited the sisters regularly and continued to make aprons and other items for the Annual Summer Festival.  Just as she found donors to provide colorful plants to add to the shrines at Seton Hill during the depth of the Depression, she worked to purchase a Christmas Crib similar to the one the sisters had at Seton Hill to add to Christmas joy. She planned a Fatima Shrine for the grounds of Assumption Hall. The statues arrived two days after Mother Eveline’s funeral. 

Mother Eveline guided the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill through some of the darkest days, the Great Depression, the serious flood of 1936; the days when salaries were drastically reduced and active sisters were unable to send funds needed to support those who were ill or retired.

Sister Mary Agnes Schildkamp wrote about Mother Eveline in 1995:

                “Looking back from 1995 we see that Mother Eveline is recognized as a courageous, calm, and loving administrator, a business woman, faithful in visiting the sick and senior members of Assumption Hall.  Through her Community Newsletters, especially, we discern a “Personal Touch” which was unmistakably hers: for example, on September 8, 1934, she wrote: “During this week I have again experienced happiness in hearing of the zest with which the sisters have begun the new school year.  It came to my mind that earnestness in doing any work is so universal in the community that an admonition for carelessness or indifference is almost unknown.  I tell you this for your encouragement.  Such zeal is surely a sign of God’s special grace.”

Mother Eveline died on January 19, 1960 following emergency surgery at Pittsburgh Hospital.  After two days of viewing at Assumption Hall, Mother Eveline’s body was transferred to Seton Hill where she lay in state.  Monsignor Cyril Vogel, Administrator of the Greensburg Diocese after the death of Bishop Hugh Lamb and a former student of Mother Eveline at Sacred Heart School, was the main celebrant of the solemn funeral liturgy in Saint Joseph Chapel at Seton Hill.  Burial followed in the Sisters of Charity cemetery at Seton Hill.

Written by Sr. Louise Grundish, S.C.

Adventures in the Archives: An Intern’s Perspective

Hello! You may have seen me around the Archives from time to time, or read one of my blog posts on the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill Archives site. I’m Bridget Malley, an archival student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (in an online program, otherwise that’d be quite a commute from where I live in Trafford, Pennsylvania). I began my internship at the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill Archive last autumn and have been here for over a year.

Bridget Malley, intern, searching the records of the early Mother Superiors of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill in the Records Room at Caritas Christi.

So what does an archival intern do? This, that, and several other things, too. You may have read my previous blog posts on the Ozanam Strings and on the 1918 Spanish Influenza, but those are just the tip of the iceberg.

The Archives has been very busy during the time I’ve been here. However, it’s always busy in the Archives! Casey and Sister Louise work hard—they keep on top of new materials coming in, care for existing materials, answer research requests, and work on plenty of projects in the archives.

One of the first projects I helped out with was the effort to digitize nearly two hundred oral history tapes. The SCSH Archives had recently been awarded a CLIR (Council on Library and Information Resources) grant, which provided funds to repair tapes in poor condition as well as create digital files, making it possible to provide online access to a vital part of the Sisters’ history.

My task was to sort through the tapes selected for digitization, noting condition issues (were they spliced? was there a vinegary smell? a vinegar smell is never good). I recorded this information in a large spreadsheet, which was sent to the digitizing company along with the tapes themselves. Though most of the oral histories are on cassette tapes, some are on open reel tapes. I’m young enough that this was my first time encountering these types of tapes!

I also got to stop by my alma mater a few times, venturing back over the Hill to help out with the Journey with Elizabeth exhibit and the annual Lunch with Liz event. The former has been turned into an ongoing exhibit, housed in the Seton Hill University parlors and featuring historic items from both the SHU and the SCSH Archives—definitely worth seeing! At the latter (Lunch with Liz), I joined Casey, Sister Louise, Sister Rosemary Donley, and others as we explored the Sisters’ history in education and welcomed the start of SHU’s new nursing program.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people sitting and indoor
Bridget Malley presents on her experience as a former student of DePaul School for Hearing and Speech at the 2019 Lunch with Liz program at Seton Hill University.

Back in the archives, I put what I’ve been learning in my MLIS program to good use and created finding aids for the House of Mary—later the Ozanam Center—and Pittsburgh Hospital. Put simply, a finding aid is a guide to what an archival collection contains. It helps those who visit the archives navigate the collection; when available online, it helps those who haven’t yet visited determine whether a collection contains what they’re looking for.

However, I suspect what I’ve enjoyed most over this past year has been lunches with the resident archivists and whichever Sisters decide to join us that day. The opportunity to work hands-on with documents and photographs, the physical history of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill—that’s a treat. To hear stories of the early years, a past that I’ve never visited populated with trolley rides and visits to Kaufmann’s; hearing of Sisters who have long since returned home but live on in the memories of the community; meeting those who use their time and talent in works of charity—that’s a real treasure.

In short, it’s been wonderful working here. If you or someone you know is interested in volunteering your time and gaining experience in an archive, please don’t hesitate to reach out to the SCSH Archives! There’s always more to do and always an adventure to be had.

Dearest Seton Hill… Swings

St. Joseph Academy. St. Mary’s School for Boys. Seton Hill University. Assumption Hall. Caritas Christi. Doran Hall. Ennis Hall. Sisters. Students. Friends. Guests.

All who have come to Seton Hill remember the swings. The swings have served as instruments for conversation, study, merriment, contemplation, rest, and relaxation. Although we cannot say for sure when the swings arrived on the hill, we do know several facts.

The “face-to-face” swings became popular during the Victorian era. As public parks and gardens were designed, so too were fashionable and functional pieces of garden furniture. With sisters at the motherhouse, students of St. Joseph’s Academy and St. Mary’s School for Boys roaming the property, and plans for a college developing in the 1910s, there arose a greater need for outdoor seating and recreational areas.

The Seton Hill swings pre-date the formal establishment of Seton Hill College by at least two years (1916). The swings were mass produced and, as is evidenced by the photo gallery, were lovingly cared for throughout the years. It’s apparent from the early photographs that the swings have received upgrades over time, but have certainly maintained their charm. We must thank the dedication and ingenuity of the maintenance teams at Caritas Christi and Seton Hill University for keeping these relics of Seton Hill history.

Interested in building a swing of your own? Check out these building plans from the LSU AgCenter Research Department.

Enjoy this photo gallery of our dear, old Seton Hill swings.

What is a “Chapter” in the Story of Women Religious?

July 2019 has arrived with some hot, humid weather, lots of rain and some long-awaited sunshine.  Those familiar with the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill have noticed that many of the sisters who have been invited to activities and events from July 20th to the 30th have declined saying, “Sorry, I cannot attend.  I will be in Chapter.”  Perhaps you wonder what the word and event Chapter means.

The Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill ordinarily hold a General Chapter every five years.  This is an assembly of elected and ex-officio members who consider the life and mission of the congregation to protect the purpose and mission for which the Congregation was founded in August 1870.  All Congregations hold regular Chapter meetings as prescribed in the Constitutions of each religious community.  Chapters are a significant milestone in women religious communities.  During the time set aside for these serious meetings the delegates spend time clarifying expectations of each other as they discern the state of the community mission and life at this particular time in the history of the world and of the Church.

1973 Chapter, Mother Richard Ann Watson at podium in the Visual Education Room at Seton Hill College. Other delegates included Srs. Maurice McManama, M. Rose Knorr, Ellenita O’Connor, M. Henry Hanse, Teresa Clare Kernan, Marie Colette Hanlon, Francis de Sales Joyce, Diana Taufer, Mary Schmidt, Marion McKelvey, Geraldine Miller, and Jean Augustine (seen at far right).

The Chapter is a gathering of elected delegates, but the election procedures assure appropriate representation of all members of the Congregation.  In order to be eligible to serve as a delegate, a sister must have made her perpetual profession.  However, all sisters, whether in temporary or perpetual vows, have the right to vote for delegates and to submit her recommendations, concerns, and suggestions to the chapter members.

All delegates to the chapter are obliged to be present for all meetings. During the deliberations of the chapter, the information is confidential until the chapter members arrive at decisions.  During the time that the Chapter is in session, the Communications Committee sends approved updates of the chapter at the end of each day for sisters who are unable to attend the sessions.

1997 Chapter Meeting, St. Joseph Hall, Seton Hill. Sisters Joyce Serratore, Jean Augustine, Rosemary Donley, Marlene Mondalek, and Gertrude Foley make remarks.

The General Chapter has authority to determine its agenda and procedures in accord with church law and the Constitutions.  The chapter has the following responsibilities:

  1. To assure protection of the patrimony of the community. (Patrimony in this sense refers to the mission, spirit, and charism as well as stewardship of temporal goods.) Review of these may lead to appropriate renewal.
  2. To establish general policies for the congregations and to determine priorities for apostolic works.
  3. To amend the Constitutions, if necessary, for presentation to the Holy See for approval.
  4. To hear and act on the reports from the general superior, the general treasurer, provincial superiors, provincial treasurers, and others as designated by the general superior.
  5. To evaluate the implementation of enactments from previous general chapters.
2002 General Chapter at Nam Son Retreat House in Korea. Pictured are the new General Council with leaders of both the Korean and American Provinces of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill.

Every Chapter examines the life and mission of the Congregation in relation to the special time in history and elects the Leadership of the Congregation to serve until the next general chapter.  Not every chapter deals with amendments to the Constitutions or directives, unless a particular need arises.  The chapter may also establish or suppress provinces.

Months before the chapter convenes, all the sisters offer prayers to the Holy Spirit for guidance during the chapter.  They also spend time offering support and suggestions to those elected to this serious and sacred gathering.  For those who follow the Sisters of Charity blogs on a regular basis, please join with the community in prayer that the results will strengthen the life and spirit of the members of the community.  May they continue to draw on the spirit and charism of Saint Elizabeth Seton to recognize God’s existing presence in the world and to serve the needs of the church and the world, especially those who are poor and needy.

Written by Sister Louise Grundish, S.C.

Miracle of The Great Flood: How the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill Survived the Johnstown Flood of 1889

St. Columba’s School, Cambria City, Johnstown, Pennsylvania. May 31, 1889. 9:30 a.m.

“Rain. A never-ending torrent of rain,” muttered Sister Raphael Kane. Although it wasn’t unusual for water to fill the valley on days of heavy rain, this was a different kind of rain. A relentless and powerful show – Mother Nature’s daughters dripping an impressive and imposing dance from the heavens for nearly a week.

Sister Raphael, riddled with worry as water flowed down the street, announced, “Everyone is dismissed.”

Sisters Flavia, Rita, and Aloysius hurried the students out of St. Columba’s School into the wet spring morning, accompanying a few on their way home.

“Hurry back,” Sister Raphael said, as she anxiously stared out the hazy school window.

Vow Card of Sr. Elizabeth McGurgan, discovered in Morrellvile, 3 miles from the convent, after the Johnstown Flood

St. John Gualbert’s, Clinton Street, downtown Johnstown, Pennsylvania. May 31, 1889 11:00 a.m.

Stonycreek River, already overflowing, was steadily rising. The sisters at St. John Gualbert’s School had already dismissed the children for the day. Sister Ignatia Flinn worried they wouldn’t get home.

Two little girls, Nelly Ryan and Mary Regan, were temporarily boarding with Sister Ignatia and her eight compatriots, Sisters Genevieve O’Connor, Marie Flanagan, Elizabeth McGurgan, Perpetua Behe, Augustine Wharton, Agatha Kaney, Marie Louise O’Connor, and Ursula Gorman. Nearly 600 other students were on their way home.

“Don’t mind the rain,” Sister Ignatia assured the sisters and girls, “Usual prayers at 2 p.m.”

Remain of the Sisters of Charity’s convent at St. John’s in Johnstown, after the flood.

St. Columba’s, 11:00 a.m.

“The rising waters took Toll Bridge,” Sister Aloysius Blakely told Sister Raphael when she returned to the convent. “It swept down the river and destroyed Tenacre Bridge, too. We saw it from the school.”

“The cellar has a good foot of water. I fear the foundation of the convent will give way soon. Gather your things and pray to God,” Sister Ignatia said.

The sisters, already soaked and deafened by the volley of rain and the rush of street water, clung to the yard fence and trudged to the neighboring home for safety.

St. Columba’s, approximately 3:00 p.m.

Although the sisters thought they had managed to get to safety, the waters continued to rise throughout the afternoon. Two men, running along the hill, shouted, “The dam has burst! Get to the brick house, if you wish to save your lives!” (Sr. Electa Boyle’s Mother Seton’s Daughters in Western Pennsylvania).

The South Fork dam, a pleasure to the wealthy vacationers from Pittsburgh, had been a thorn in the side of Johnstowners. One mile long by three miles wide, the dam had deepened to 70 feet and contained more than 700 acres of water. Faulty management and repairs to the dam, in addition to the amount of rain, compromised the manmade structure. The dam would spell doom for Johnstown.

Father Davin, who lived in the brick rectory next door, bellowed through the rain, “I will send the men to fetch you!” As the men carried the sisters from the home to the rectory, the water began rising to their waists. By the time they reached Father Davin, all were forced to retreat to the second floor.

Father Davin and Sister Raphael led the group in prayer, “Almighty God and his Blessed Mother, spare us…”

“It’s rising!” exclaimed Sister Rita.

“Head for the attic,” Father Davin said.

Just as they reached refuge, the water gathered on all sides of the rectory.

Newspaper clipping, from the scrapbook of Sr. Ann Regina Ennis, shows the flood as it hits the Cambria Iron Works

“Houses with their terror-stricken inmates were being tossed about like mere playthings on the bosom of those merciless waters. Roofs, rafts, every piece of household furniture, or anything else one could imagine, floated quickly past, with human beings clinging with a death grip to whatever they could grasp; their wild, despairing shrieks and cries for aid were all one could hear above the terrible roar of those mighty waters…” (Letter, Sister Aloysius Blakely to her mother, 1889).

St. John Gualbert’s, approximately 3:00 p.m.

After prayers, Sisters Augustine and Perpetua went to the school to prepare the classrooms for the following day. The other sisters went about their convent duties.

Suddenly, the quivering voice of Sister Marie Flanagan interrupted the din of rain on the roof. “Sister Ignatia, there are men outside navigating the streets on boats,” she said.

“I fear it is time to ring the bell. Gather the sisters and assemble in the chapel,” Sister Ignatia urged.

Sister Augustine’s sister was staying in the convent to study for her teacher’s examination. The convent housemaid had been working in an adjoining room. Both women and the two schoolgirls joined the sisters in the chapel.

Sister Agatha lit the candles on the altar of Our Lady, beginning the May devotions early. All in attendance recited the Litany and began singing, “Hail, bright star of ocean, God’s own Mother blest, Ever sinless Virgin, Gate of heavenly rest…”

Letter, June 4, 1889, Mary C. Murphy to Sister Mary Joseph Havey, detailing the loss of Ms. Murphy’s family

Several sisters continued praying in the chapel, but Sister Elizabeth McGurgan went downstairs to view the progress of the flooding at Stonycreek River. No sooner than she had arrived, she “was horrified to see a two-story house floating rapidly down the middle of the street.” (Sr. Electa Boyle, Mother Seton’s Daughters in Western Pennsylvania).

Behind the house was a “huge black wall of water.” The South Fork dam had collapsed! Stunned, Sister Elizabeth rushed up the stairs, calling for the sisters and guests to brace themselves.

The wall of water descended on the Clinton Street convent, bringing with it a darkness beyond hue.

The sisters watched, and prayed, as the water rose to the chapel windows on the second floor. The raging water swept homes, trees, horses still attached to wagons, and even people, past as the sisters gazed in horror.

“We need to get to the third floor,” Sister Ignatia insisted.

“Sister Marie,” said Sister Ursula, “take the Blessed Sacrament from the Tabernacle,” as she grabbed candles from the May altar.

The convent was located on the second floor ell of the structure. Nine other rooms comprised the main part of the home, jutting out from the ell.

Just as the sisters made it up the stairs to the third floor, the wall of water hit the main structure. It one bleak moment, a home was torn to shreds. The brick school was gone, too. Only the ell, with Mother Seton’s daughters, remained. 

St. Columba’s, approximately 7-10 p.m.

“Look! The water is falling,” one of the men said. It was true. The mercilessly raging water had died down. Cambria City began to emerge from the assault badly beaten. Much of the little town was decimated.

As night fell, the sky brightened in the valley. The sisters could see, amidst the flood waters in the city of Johnstown, massive, intense fires.

“What about our sisters at St. John’s?” Sister Aloysius asked.

“Pray for them. It’s in God’s hands now,” Father Davin whispered.

St. John Gualbert’s , 10 p.m.- 3 a.m.

“The school boys gathered on Prospect Hill, high above the town, watched the faint glow of candles in the window of [St. John’s] convent. So long as they could see the glimmer of light they knew that the Sisters were still safe.” (Sr. Electa Boyle’s Mother Seton’s Sisters of Charity in Western Pennsylvania).

Neighbors, seeking shelter on the tops of their home’s rooftops, called out to the sisters when the ell was in the path of large trees or homes drifting down the street. By God’s providence, the remaining convent was spared.

The water within the city was still high. Meanwhile, the stone bridge over the Conemaugh, which had held during the torrent, caught fire. St. John Gualbert’s Catholic Church burned when the hot oven of a neighboring home, which had been lifted fully off the ground and right into the church, caught the upper half on fire. It was a sight for the sisters to witness St. John’s succumb to both fire and water, those sources of both life and death.

Around 3 a.m., Sister Marie Louise noted, “Praise God! The waters are falling.”

St. John Gualbert’s, June 1, 1889, 10 a.m.

After twelve hours of horror, Father Tehaney, the parish pastor, with Father Sheehan, Judge O’Connor, and several other surviving men of St. John’s parish, rescued the sisters and their guests. Using a remaining trellis as a makeshift ladder, the sisters climbed down the side of the convent. The water and mud, deep and sticky, prevented the sisters from walking, so the men carried them to higher ground.

Finally, to reach complete safety, the sisters needed to cross the engorged Stonycreek River. Using foot-wide boards and a strong cable, all were able to shimmy across the still-powerful and chaotic force.

Altoona Times, June 4, 1889, Miracle rescue of the Sisters of Charity

All Sisters of Charity are safe!

The sisters at St. John Gualbert’s were taken in by Mrs. Nolan, a local Catholic woman, who let them stay in her home to rest and recover from the event that would make international history.

The sisters of St. Columba’s made their way to nearby Morrellville, in the countryside, to rest and await word of the fate of their friends and family members in Johnstown.

­What happens next?

When Mother Aloysia, who was in nearby Altoona, heard the devastating news of the tragedy in Johnstown, she knew she had to find her sisters, alive or dead. With transportation infrastructure destroyed, there was almost no way into the city. But with Mother Aloysia, if she had the will, she got her way.

Mother Aloysia first took the train from Altoona to Ebensburg. There, she met a farmer.

Sister Aloysius Blakely’s return ticket from Ebensburg to Altoona, PA that accounts for the sisters who returned to Altoona after the Johnstown Flood

“I must ask you to take me as close to Johnstown as possible. My sisters are there and they need me,” she beseeched the man.

“No, I couldn’t possibly -,” he began to reply.

“Only God can help them now and may his judgement abide you, too.”

He agreed to take her, over rough, country roads, on the back of a wagon, through to Sang Hollow.

There, the Pennsylvania Railroad had constructed a temporary trestle to carry supplies and workmen into the wreckage. Just as Mr. Frank Adams, engineer, was about to test the trestle with a trial run, Mother Aloysia implored, “Let me ride.”

Of course, he couldn’t let her, but Mother Aloysia was the sole woman, among the men and work supplies, on the second caboose into Johnstown.

Mother Aloysia did find her sisters and was able to eventually send word to the motherhouse in Greensburg.

Two ill sisters were sent to the motherhouse and Sisters Aloysius and Rita, who were both a mere 18 years old, were also sent back home.

The other sisters stayed in the city to help salvage what they could and to nurse the wounded.

Over the course of the weeks following the Johnstown Flood, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company gave free rides to the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill riding to and from the city. They were an integral part of the community in Johnstown before the flood and would play an important role in the recovery efforts. The survival of the Sisters at St. John Gualbert’s was considered one of few miracles during the event.

Telegram, June 5, 1889, to Mr. George Huff giving approval for free rides for the Sisters of Charity between Greensburg and Johnstown on the Pennsylvania Railroad. This request was put forth by Mr. Huff and Mr. Donohoe.

The sisters would not return to St. John Gualbert’s parish, but they did continue their work at St. Columba’s until 1905.

More on The Great Flood

By 1889, over 15% of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill had entered from Johnstown, so the Great Flood devastated the community. Sr. Mary Grace Ryan lost her mother, father, two sisters, and her grandmother. The sisters missioned in Johnstown, who had grown close to the community, lost many of the same children they had bade farewell to that same day. They lost friends and family members. The life and the place they once knew vanished.

Memorial Card, Family of Sr. Mary Grace Ryan, who perished in the Johnstown Flood

Students from St. John’s School in Altoona and St. Joseph Academy in Greensburg lost parents, relatives, and friends. Nearly ¼ of students at St. Joseph’s were directly affected. The Academy girls sacrificed their graduation awards to donate the funds to the victims of the flood. Students from St. John’s, and other schools in the diocese, gathered donations of clothing, food, and supplies.

Altoona Times, June 21, 1889, Acknowledgement of St. John’s parish donations to flood victims

The Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill took in dozens of permanently and temporarily orphaned children from Johnstown. They housed and cared for them at Seton Hill during the summer of 1889.

Over 2,200 people died in the Johnstown Flood, which is now considered the worst flood in U.S. history and ranks among the deadliest days in U.S. history. For context, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 saw 1,500 victims.

Pittsburgh Dispatch, June 15, 1889, Acknowledgement of the St. Joseph’s Academy students’ work on behalf of Johnstown flood victims

Author’s Note

The above historic dramatization is based off of primary source material in the archives of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, as well as Sr. Electa Boyle’s Mother Seton’s Daughters in Western Pennsylvania. All events are true. Only the dialogue has been inserted.

Below are clippings from Sister Ann Regina Ennis’ personal scrapbook. Nearly half of the scrapbook relates to the Johnstown Flood.

“The Game is Afoot”: Recovery of a Prized Portrait in the Sisters of Charity Archives

Is a mystery yet a mystery when no one has discovered that it needs to be solved? Last week, the archives witnessed the end of a decades-long mystery. A mystery no one knew about. A story hidden on a slip of paper in the archives and a carefully crafted visage, familiar and essential to the history of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, concealed by time and fading memory.

According to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “the world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes” (The Hound of the Baskervilles). The archivist’s work is sometimes like that of Sherlock Holmes. Most of the time, we know exactly where to look for clues and find answers, but sometimes, the most revelatory answers await in the most obvious places.

But our story begins with a rather providential discovery at Seton Hill University. Bill Black, University archivist, received a phone call that many archivists relish – “We’re moving an office and there is a closet full of ‘old stuff.’ What do we do?” Ah, here is, perhaps, where the mystery is given life. Among the effects of this closet was a portrait of an unidentified priest. Bill and his intern managed to freshen up the painting with a new backing and leave the cataloging for another day…

Nearly one month later, Casey Bowser, archivist for the Sisters of Charity, was in the midst of researching Sister Angelica Rooney’s connections to prominent American musicians. She was looking into a manuscript that was gifted by Adolph Foerster, a noted Pittsburgh composer and Sr. Angelica’s friend and teacher, to St. Joseph Academy in 1913. The manuscript is a copy of a rare autograph manuscript from German composer Richard Wagner (we are still solving this mystery!).

 While searching for clues, Casey was inexplicably drawn to an office cabinet she hadn’t been through since her first week in the archives, nearly two years ago. You know the type…the drawer of the unknown. An accumulation of random material and files. The newly-minted archivist quickly balked at the material and left it alone, but perhaps, now, with more knowledge and expertise, the drawer of the unknown would become the gold mine.

Sr. Fides Glass

A cursory review of the files did not produce the much-anticipated clue about the rare music manuscript, but something did catch Casey’s eye. A scrap of yellowed paper with the unique scrawl of a “famous” Sister of Charity, Sister Fides Glass. Sister Fides Glass, a talented and prolific artist, was also a real historian. Her handwriting can be seen throughout the archives on important community documents and in honor of commemorative events. Her calligraphy is instantly recognizable and she often presents valuable insights into the community’s early history.

Sister Fides’ note detailed the commission of a portrait of Father John Tuigg, the first priest-superior of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill at St. John’s, Altoona in 1870. Father Tuigg was the sisters’ first real friend and advocate. Although Bishop Michael Domenec asked the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati to establish a new community for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, it was Father Tuigg who requested the black caps, specifically. His own sister, Sister Beata Tuigg, and his niece, Sister Guillaume, were Sisters of Charity of New York. Father Tuigg would go on to become the 3rd bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh and he died only three weeks before Mother Aloysia Lowe.

The note reads, “This portrait of Bishop Tuigg was painted by Baron Benjamin Thomas Von Lutze at the request of Sr. Mary Inez Cronin. Baron Von Lutze was a German nobleman, a Catholic, who came to the U.S. by way of England after World War I. While staying in Altoona, Pa, he painted this portrait as well as a beautiful one of Prince-priest Gallitzin, which is now in the Chapel-house in Loretto. He also made an enlarge oil painting of the Gallitzin Coat-of-Arms. Sr. Mary Inez sent him to Seton Hill for a visit during which Sr. M. Fides Glass painted a landscape with him. He was better as a portrait painter. He later joined a Religious Order in the middle West, being known as Brother Thomas. The Sisters of Charity have lost trace of him. Mr. Christian J. Walter, President and founder of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, and noted artist, declared this portrait of Bishop Tuigg a splendid work of art.

Sr. M. Fides Glass (First hand information)”

Note written by Sr. Fides and discovered in the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill archives, from the back of a painting.

Questions and curiosities raced through Casey’s head. What happened to this portrait of Bishop Tuigg? Where is it now? Who was Baron Von Lutze and what was his connection to the sisters? Sister Louise had always spoken of how she felt we ought to have a painting of Bishop Tuigg next to the portrait of Bishop Domenec in the Bishop’s Room at Caritas Christi. There was no portrait in the collection. We should have it back.

Sister Louise suggested that we check with the Cathedral in Altoona. Perhaps the painting was in the parish where Bishop Tuigg and the sisters worked together. On the phone, the parish secretary politely agreed to look into the matter, but her tone did not sound promising. Where else could it be? The Sisters of Charity archives and the Seton Hill College archives were once one and the same. What is it that Sr. Arthur Conan Doyle tells us? “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” (The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes). Maybe…just maybe. Casey thought to send Bill a quick e-mail to make sure he had never seen or heard of a portrait. Surely we would have known…

The next morning, Bill Black, with his smiling eyes and clever grin, walked through the archives door with a “surprise guest” – Bishop Tuigg! The portrait, unseen and unknown for decades, can finally be given its rightful place. All it took were a few folks taking note of the obvious, tracing the clues, and reconciling the answers.


But! The archivist’s work is never done. What else have we learned about this portrait of Bishop Tuigg? The artist, Baron Benjamin Thomas Von Lutze, has an interesting, albeit controversial history. Utilizing and, Casey was able to fill in the details on this history-mystery. Baron Benjamin Thomas Von Lutze was born in 1878 and immigrated to America in 1912 from Germany. Although he listed his occupation as a farmer, his family estate neighbored that of the Von Hindenburg family, a socially and politically powerful family with ties to the German Imperial Army, the Weimar Republic, and Adolf Hitler.

Upon arrival in New York, Von Lutze made his way to St. Joseph, Missouri where he worked as a clerk while attending Catholic Mass and participating in church choir at the Cathedral of St. Joseph. In 1917, Benjamin Von Lutze became a naturalized citizen. Two years, later, however, Benjamin found himself in a different social and political climate. Anti-German sentiment in the United States had grown steadily. Benjamin Von Lutze was accused of making disloyal remarks during the war and had refused to march in the Armistice Day parade in St. Joseph. A lengthy trial ensued and his citizenship was revoked. In January of 1920, the St. Joseph Observer recorded, “the young German who during his seven years residence in St. Joseph has not learned enough to become a real American, is now a man who is not a citizen of the United States.”

This German immigrant, stripped of his newly earned American citizenship, left Missouri shortly thereafter, but where would he go? A March 29, 1921 issue of the Altoona Tribune continues the story. “Benjamin Thomas von Lutze, a painter of considerable renown…has established a temporary studio [in Altoona],” the newspaper reported. It appears that Von Lutze, truly a talented painter, decided to make his way around the country making and selling his art. His stop in Altoona, of course, is the connection to the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill. We can now confirm that the painting was likely painted circa 1921.

Advertisment, March 29, 1921 issue of the Altoona Tribune

Benjamin Von Lutze’s story, of course, doesn’t end there. He re-earned his citizenship in 1927 and he continued his artistic pursuits in Chicago, Illinois, where he settled. His World War II registration card indicates that he later worked in the Maps office of the Engineering Department in Chicago. As to his connection to a religious order, as noted by Sister Fides Glass, it appears that Von Lutze may have been connected with a Redemptorist Order sometime between 1921 and 1945, but the truth is unclear. Von Lutze died in Illinois in 1973.

Many questions remain.  Did the Sisters of Charity know about Von Lutze’s encounters with German prejudice during WWI? Why has the portrait remained hidden from history for so long? However, we close the tale of the missing portrait. Perhaps a new day will bring a new mystery…and then, “the game is afoot” (Doyle, Adventure of the Abbey Grange).

Look for the Portrait of Bishop Tuigg, 1921, by Baron Benjamin Thomas Von Lutze to be installed in the Private Dining Room at Caritas Christi, the motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill.

Written by Casey Bowser, archivist