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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
To establish general policies for the
congregations and to determine priorities for apostolic works.
To amend the Constitutions,
if necessary, for presentation to the Holy See for approval.
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.
To evaluate the implementation of enactments
from previous general chapters.
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.
St. Columba’s School, Cambria City, Johnstown, Pennsylvania. May 31, 1889. 9:30 a.m.
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
riddled with worry as water flowed down the street, announced, “Everyone is
Rita, and Aloysius hurried the students out of St. Columba’s School into the
wet spring morning, accompanying a few on their way home.
back,” Sister Raphael said, as she anxiously stared out the hazy school window.
St. John Gualbert’s, Clinton Street, downtown Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
May 31, 1889 11:00 a.m.
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.
mind the rain,” Sister Ignatia assured the sisters and girls, “Usual prayers at
St. Columba’s, 11:00
“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.
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
St. Columba’s, approximately 3:00 p.m.
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).
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.
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.
Davin and Sister Raphael led the group in prayer, “Almighty God and his Blessed
Mother, spare us…”
rising!” exclaimed Sister Rita.
for the attic,” Father Davin said.
as they reached refuge, the water gathered on all sides of the rectory.
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,
St. John Gualbert’s, approximately 3:00 p.m.
Sisters Augustine and Perpetua went to the school to prepare the classrooms for
the following day. The other sisters went about their convent duties.
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,”
“I fear it is time
to ring the bell. Gather the sisters and assemble in the chapel,” Sister
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…”
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
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
“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
“Pray for them. It’s in God’s hands now,” Father
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
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
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.
“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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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)”
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
Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com, 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.
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.
As the activities of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill begin to pick up the pace toward the annual Sounds of Charity fundraising event on March 30th, the author began to ponder the historic fundraising activities sponsored to support the ministries and other needs of the Congregation.
This was inspired by a recent Archives Facebook post of a raffle ticket from 1885 to raise money for Saint Joseph Chapel at Seton Hill. Interestingly, it seemed to have many valuable prizes and the cost was only twenty-five cents.
The Sisters of
Charity have created a number of clever ways to fund their work in education,
healthcare, and social service. Following in the footsteps of Saint Elizabeth
Ann Seton, who never hesitated to ask friends for assistance to expand her
reach to the poor, the Sisters of Charity continue this practice.
Lowe stands as a model for current fundraisers. She held garden party teas on
the grounds of Seton Hill and welcomed the members of the Greensburg community.
She and Mother Anne Regina Ennis, and later Sister Francesca Brownlee,
collected books and furniture as well
as monetary donations from friends who were willing to support their efforts.
The Sisters have
employed many of the typical nonprofit development methods. These include, but
are not limited to, letters of solicitation, collections, and raffles. The
author will describe a few extraordinary efforts which stand out in the history
of the organization.
In 1952, as Mother Claudia Glenn approved plans and broke ground for a new retirement residence for the sisters (Assumption Hall), she began to search for ways to raise the large amount of money needed to complete the project and provide for ongoing maintenance. She decided to host a yearly summer festival to bring friends and family to the campus to celebrate with food and games. A committee was formed, plans made, and the first Summer Festival was held on July 12 and 13, 1952.
This festival was
a magnificent success. Formal seated dinners were served at lunch and dinner
hours. The dinners were served on white table cloths and each table had an
The only problem
was that no one expected the huge crowd who came for each day. Bakers were
enlisted to bake more rolls, more cakes and pies, and the novices could barely
turn out enough clean dishes from the dishwasher in time for the next serving.
Parking was a challenge and meadows were converted into new parking areas. Booths filled with handmade aprons, quilts, and baby sets were popular. There were pony rides for children as well as outside food booths, homemade candy, and baked goods. This was a truly “grassroots” effort
A very tired, but grateful community of women retired on Sunday night with thanks to God for good weather and the tremendous response of friends and benefactors that first summer. Mother Claudia, recognizing the weariness of the sisters, made an announcement which was welcomed by all. “Sisters, you may sleep in until 6:00 AM.”
The festival became an annual event. As soon as one festival ended, the sisters began to plan for the next. The entire community began saying the Magnificat prayer March 25th until the end of each festival that God would grant good weather for the days. Booths multiplied. Some of the convents where sisters resided took responsibility for particular activities.
The Magnificat prayer proved very successful. From 1952 until 1972 the weather for every festival was beautiful. Many of the families and benefactors who attended each year remarked that if one was planning a wedding or large outdoor event that year, they should do it on the days of the Summer Festival. However, the good fortune ended with a hurricane. The winds and rain the night before the opening blew many of the booths apart and the lawn was filled with debris. The campus was devastated. However, the younger sisters and loyal workers began to rebuild immediately and the festival went on for seven days. By the end of the soggy week, the proceeds were the same. God was good.
What began as a dream of a few became the undertaking of the entire community. When visitors came to the motherhouse, they told their favorite memories of the festival. They described their favorite booths. Many remembered the candy booth. A special benefactor of the Community was Daniel Trumbetta of Greensburg, owner of Laura Lee Candy Stores. He offered the use of his Jeannette candy factory to the sisters who were able to make bon-bons, caramels, and mint wafers for sale. Meanwhile, Sister Rose Angela Cunningham and her assistants made mouth- watering fudge (chocolate, with and without nuts, white, and peanut butter.)
The festival grew and filled the campus every July for thirty years. At the end of the festival in 1981, the committee made the decision to have one last event the following summer. The decision was difficult, but it became evident that the laborers were less able to continue the massive endeavor. It seemed important to discontinue the festival while the sisters could make it a lively and interesting event.
1982 was the hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the Sisters of Charity at Seton Hill. Each of the missions of the sisters created a special banner for display. These banners hung from the windows of Sullivan Hall. The banners waved in the breeze of the final festival days on June 26 and 27, 1982. The weather was glorious and the crowd was overflowing. The history of the Sisters of Charity summer festivals closed that night following the last auction. The committee went to work to think up new and interesting projects for fundraising.
One of the booths at the festival, the flea market, became an annual event following the demise of the festival. Several sisters worked to gather, price, and separate items for a two day sale, which moved to various venues for the next several years. Sister Janice Grindle, with help from her brother, was a guiding force. Sister Mary Agnes Kirsch also assisted with the flea market until it was discontinued.
efforts were not broad-based and many focused on particular needs. At
Pittsburgh Hospital during the 1960s, the sisters and staff united together to
raise the much- needed funds to replace an old and broken broiler. One of the
ideas generated by Sister Rosemary Donley was a homemade donut sale conducted
every Friday morning on the first floor of
the hospital. As the scent of donuts in broiling oil wafted through the
hospital, employees, staff, and visitors eagerly awaited their favorite donut.
One wonders today if that was actually a bad health practice carried out in the
hospital. However, it did assist in procuring a new broiler.
When the Sisters of Charity opened their first foreign mission in South Korea, the need to support the missionaries became evident. Early attempts were begun by relatives of the sisters who began to sponsor card parties in their homes. These grew quickly into larger affairs held in some of the hotels in Oakland and in downtown Pittsburgh. A few were held with a luncheon in the William Penn Hotel. When Monsignor Joseph Knorr was named pastor of Saint Mary of the Mount Church in Mount Washington, he offered the parish hall, free of charge, for the card party. The event was named the Korean Harvest. A large committee planned the food, the servers, the prizes, and the baskets.
Harvest was held in Mount Washington for many years. When food preparation and
parking became more difficult, the event moved again to the Old Three Rivers
Stadium. When the stadium was razed to make way for Heinz Field, the card party
moved to a hotel. When Caritas Christi was completed, the card party found its
final home. When the third Korean Harvest in Greensburg ended, the committee
met to reinvigorate the party.
As people and interests change, fundraising efforts continue to challenge those who try to keep relevant with the changing world. There is no longer a Korean Harvest for the Sisters of Charity because the Korean Province now hosts a wonderful event each year entitled “Planting Love.” The Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill in the Korean Province are now well able to support their own missions and ministries.
In 2008, the sisters initiated Sounds of Charity, a night of music, dancing, appetizers, and raffles, to raise money for the ongoing ministries of the sisters. Once again, as in the times of Elizabeth, Aloysia, Francesca, we ask our friends and those who walk with us in ministry and service to help the work of charity move forward.
Support the 11th annual Sounds of Charity and buy your tickets here before March 30th!
“My philosophy of life has always been to the service of all mankind. My call has been not to create but to draw the beauty and talent out of each individual I have touched.” – Sr. Francis Assisi Gorham
The opening notes of what would
become a group of talented, young, black musicians known as the Ozanam Strings
first rang out two decades earlier when a Sister of Charity began walking the
streets of Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
It was 1942 and Sister Cyril Aaron
had just heard a talk given by Father Norbert Georges, O.P., on ministry to people
of color—an unfortunately still radical message in a time before desegregation
of the armed services, before Brown v. the Board of Education, and before the
Civil Rights Act.
When Mother Claudia Glenn asked for
volunteers to start a new ministry in to people of color in Pittsburgh, Sister
Cyril immediately resigned her role as Dean of Seton Hill College and set out.
“I had no idea what I was going to
do,” Sister Cyril later wrote, “but I knew something needed to be done, and I
wanted to help do it.”
The Sisters’ mission was located in
the Hill District, then home to the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Teenie Harris and the
Pittsburgh Courier, and a lively jazz scene. Initially without a permanent
place to stay, the Sisters were eventually gifted a house on Webster Avenue,
bought by the St. Vincent De Paul Society. The Society helped the newly
official organization—called the House of Mary—find its footing.
The Sisters of Charity then continued their work of providing food, fuel, and medical care to those in need whenever and however possible. This work expanded in 1962 with the opening of the Frederic Ozanam School and Cultural Center.
Shortly after the Ozanam Center opened, Sister Cecilia Ward received funding for a music program and managed to obtain six violins. The Ozanam Center only taught grades one and two at this time; one of the teachers was Sister Francis Assisi Gorham.
In an oral history interview, Sister
Francis Assisi talks about the early beginnings of the Ozanam Strings. She
herself was an accomplished violinist at this point, having studied music as
part of her undergraduate degree. This music background made her the Sister of
choice to implement the program. However, she had no experience in teaching
Nevertheless, she gave it her best
effort. She read the books on teaching music that Sister Cecilia gifted her.
She then selected six second graders to teach, and was given six violins, sheet
music, and stands. As she describes it, each of those things would not stop
falling over—stands, chairs, children and all. There had to be a better way.
So she referred back to the books Sister
Cecilia Ward had given her. One was a book on the Suzuki method, complete with
an accompanying 45 record. The music she listened to and the ideas she read
“You take away the music stands,
you take away the chairs, you put them on the seats, you demonstrate, they
listen, and they play,” she said. “That’s easy.”
The Suzuki method of teaching treats music as a language. Each of us learns to speak by listening to those around us speak; it’s only after years of speech that we learn to read. Thus, under the Suzuki method, musicians are encouraged to listen and play by ear and to memorize the pieces they’ve learned. For the very young this is a more natural way of learning music than dealing with written notes and complicated music theory. (Such stuff is eventually introduced but not until much later.)
the program grew rapidly. More violins were obtained; students from nearby
schools began to trickle in. Within a year and a half, forty students were
learning how to play the violin after school at the Ozanam Center.
learned about this program, those who played other instruments wanted to join.
By the late sixties, the Ozanam Strings (as the group was now known) had
uniforms and were performing concerts for local groups. By the early seventies,
they began to tour.
Strings visited New York, New Orleans, Canada, and Chicago. They recorded two
albums and made regular appearances at Heinz Hall and Carnegie Music Hall, as
well as at The Three Rivers Art Festival in Pittsburgh. In 1975, they appeared
on episode 1401 of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. In 1979, they played at the
Pittsburgh Man of the Year celebration for Willie Stargell of the Pittsburgh
time the Sisters of Charity had left the Hill District. Sister Francis Assisi remained
to work with her orchestra. She firmly believed that music education provided
lifelong benefits and was a way to develop the whole person, a belief reflected
in the introduction to ‘Ozanam Strings Live at Carnegie Music Hall,’ an album released
in the mid-seventies:
“One of the primary goals of the
Ozanam Strings is to develop a strong positive self-image within each member
along with a spirit of support and cooperation among the entire group. Through
their musical experiences, the members are seeking to grow and achieve their
full potential both as individuals and as members of their communities.”
Elsewhere, Sister Francis Assisi
said of her students that “[n]o matter what they do in school, be they fast or
slow learners, here in this string program they have a sense of accomplishment,
responsibility. And by finding they can accomplish something here, they can go
on and accomplish things in other fields as well.”
A great many of her students have
indeed gone on to accomplish great things. Several attended Julliard; many
continued to play as professional musicians.
Francis left the Ozanam Strings in the late seventies after a decade and a half
of music. She continued to teach in a number of schools throughout the area;
even so, her heart belonged to the work she’d done with the Strings.
She died in February of 2003 at 63
years old. Just two months earlier, the tiny musician had set aside her oxygen
tank for a brief time to stand before an audience of her students, ready to
conduct one last show.
(Though the Ozanam Cultural Center and the Ozanam Strings are no longer formally in existence, their influence is still felt. Pittsburgh local and Ozanam alum Darelle Porter directs Ozanam, Inc., which offers a number of youth programs including academic support programs, education in black history, and boy’s and girl’s basketball leagues. You can find more information about Ozanam, Inc. here.)
Written by Bridget Malley, archival intern for the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill
2019 marks 50 years
since 1969, a year that witnessed the Apollo Moon Landing, the Charles Manson
murders, Woodstock, Anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, the installation of
Richard Nixon as President of the United States, the foundation of PBS, and the
invasion of bell bottoms and miniskirts.
territory, legendary coach Chuck Noll and defensive lineman “Mean Joe” Greene
began their first season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Fort Duquesne
Bridge, the former “bridge to nowhere,” opened in October of 1969. Mr. Fred
Roger’s voice singing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” was heard nationwide.
In 1969, the Sisters
of Charity of Seton Hill in Korea dedicated their time to 800 young women at
St. Joseph’s School in Kang-Tjin. Meanwhile, poverty and lack of food plagued
South Korea as the Korean DMZ Conflict came to a close.
In the Catholic Church, Pope Paul VI, now saint, issued Mysterii Paschalis, an apostolic letter which reorganized the liturgical Roman calendar. The worldwide church, as a result of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), began embracing (or rejecting) spiritual renewal and progress, but not all transformations were foreseen by the council fathers.
These were tumultuous
and changing times. We might say the same about 2019.
But what were the
Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill doing in 1969?
Here are the facts:
728 Sisters in the community
15 High Schools
45 Elementary Schools
1 Middle School
47 Sisters at Seton Hill College
61 Sisters working in healthcare
The Sisters said
goodbye to Mother M. Victoria Brown as Mother Superior and installed Mother
Richard Ann Watson in February 1969.
With the nation still
reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968, the
Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of the Holy Family from New Orleans
continued their faculty exchange program, which attempted to integrate Catholic
schools of the North and South at the faculty level.
On May 21, 1969, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to the House of Representatives, gave a rousing speech on “Equal Rights for Women” to the Congressional floor. She said, “As a black person, I am no stranger to race prejudice. But the truth is that in the political world I have been far oftener discriminated against because I am a woman than because I am black.” The sisters at the schools and Seton Hill University contended with how to fit men and women for a world in need of critical transformation at the core.
It was the year of an
important General Chapter, a months-long “meeting of the minds” where ideas are
presented and decisions made for the future of the congregation. As a result of
Vatican II, Mother Richard Ann and her council realized that the General
Chapter of 1969 needed to address the process of spiritual renewal and grapple
with issues of community life and identity. Preliminary meetings began at the Special
Chapter of Affairs in 1967.
As discussion ensued,
the sisters were very much aware of the changing world and what it meant for
“Apollo 11 and its epic journey to
the moon captivated the free world during the past week; so, too the Chapter
which worked around, in, and through it. As one Sister would remark to another,
“Who would have thought this possible?” the implications of the question fully
emphasized the reality of the changing world about us. The implications for us,
as a religious Congregation, will reveal themselves to us in each succeeding
day….Providence in all things has manifested to us in bold figures the
magnificence of God’s creation, the genius of man’s inventiveness, and the
prediction of more fascinating and amazing feats to come…. Just what the
remainder of the century holds for mankind and for the Sisters of Charity can
only be imagined, but Apollo 11 has challenged our imaginations into infinity.”
(Chapter Bulletin #5, July 26,
As a result of the
General Chapter meetings, flexible prayer and Mass schedules were implemented. The
sisters engaged in a period of experimental community living and began to
redefine “community” and local governance. They implemented an Affiliate
Program, a pre-entrance experience, to introduce and attract young women to
The greatest and most
significant outward transformation, however, had to do with the habit. In 1967,
the community entered into a phase of experimentation in regards to the habit,
so the General Chapter became the opportunity to evaluate the formal dress of
the Sisters of Charity. This year, the administration allowed sisters to wear a
white blouse with a jacket, solid grey and solid blue habit colors, and they
determined that the cap could be retained.
Of course, as a measure of the redefined community, sisters were given the option of a traditional or modified habit. Chapter Bulletin #6 stated “three basic principles should govern the choice of clothing in experiments toward adaption of religious habits, namely, Christian modesty, responsible attitudes toward religious poverty, and a keen sense of professional propriety” (August 1, 1969). The Council had formally recognized “the need for acceptance of pluralism in patterns of religious life as…essential to unite in community” (January 1, 1970).
1969 became a monumental year in the shaping of the relationship between the Sisters of Charity and Seton Hill College. In September, the by-laws and charter of the college were amended to reflect ownership of the land by the Sisters of Charity and to properly establish the governance of the college versus the congregation. Since the establishment of St. Joseph Academy and motherhouse by Mother Aloysia Lowe, the life and finances of the sisters and, later, the college, were intertwined. With fewer sisters and less resources to dedicate to a growing college, the institutions needed to make a formal separation while retaining a mutually beneficial relationship. At this time, Seton Hill College and the Sisters of Charity entered into a lease agreement by which the college would pay $1 per year for the next 99 years for use of the land and buildings. The sisters would also comprise 50% of the Board of Directors of the college.
The Sisters of 1969
were teachers, nurses, professors, students, and leaders. They were innovators.
Some movers and shakers. They observed changes in society and in the church.
They reacted. They worried. They resisted. They were women coming into a new
Decisions made in 1969 have brought us through another 50 years.
With Christmas close upon us and the world in need of the virtues of respect, kindness, generosity and love, this writer began to think of the many persons in her life who modeled these virtues, not just at Christmas time, but throughout the year.
Should she tell of Sister Ann Aloysius Cupples, who in her final years ran the switchboard for the nurse’s residence at Pittsburgh Hospital School of Nursing? Sister Ann had a secret store where she sold warm coats, toys, and other things of value collected from the physicians and members of the Women’s Auxiliary. Her prices were perfect for members of the housekeeping and cleaning staff. “I always charge at least a penny. That way the person buying the item is able to keep their respect,” she said.
Perhaps Sister Joan McGinley? When December began, she spent her free time baking small fruitcakes to give as gifts to the homebound in Saint Sebastian Parish. One Christmas eve, as the lights dimmed at the local Kmart for closing, Sr. Joan began shopping for a family whose need arose last minute. She spent the next two hours wrapping and delivering the gifts.
There are many who have looked beyond themselves to see the faces of those in need. In her search for Christmas spirit, the writer found an interesting handwritten booklet in the file of a Sister she had never met. The late Father R.G. Getty, an assistant to Father Thomas Coakley at Sacred Heart Parish of Pittsburgh, prepared a booklet in 1938 with an original sketch of Sister Mary Thomas. A short biography and several news articles characterize Sister Mary Thomas Woods as a woman of compassion and determination.
Within Sacred Heart parish, she was the “Saint of the Poor” and “Sister Santa.” Her true title was head of the Sacred Heart Church Free Employment Bureau. Sister staffed this Bureau herself, accepted calls from employers seeking competent help, researched possible candidates to assure reliability, and assured those seeking employment that they would find positions with wages that ensured a decent living. Several news articles in 1938 and 1940 laud the success of the bureau. One article in 1938 stated,
“The Free Employment Bureau of Sacred Heart Church secured jobs for 903 persons during the year ending June 15. Of these, 361 were permanent positions, while 542 were day work. The employment service is free.
In addition to this, Sister Mary Thomas, who is in charge of the Employment Bureau, distributed 5,679 pieces of clothing, 647 pairs of shoes, and 2,566-bushel baskets of food for the worthy poor. Sacred Heart Parish has its own Social Service Department and looks after all of its own poor, and renders service to all of the worthy poor of the parish, the work being entrusted to the Sisters of Charity under the supervision of the Pastor, Rev. Thomas F. Coakley.”
Sister Mary Thomas, the former Mary Woods, was the daughter of Michael and Julia Reddy Woods. She was born in the Lawrenceville area of Pittsburgh and was a member of St. Kieran Parish. She entered the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill on December 8, 1897 at the age of fifteen. During her early years in Community, she taught in the parochial schools in Pittsburgh. In 1934, she began to assist Sister Antoinette in the work of the Social Service Department of Sacred Heart Parish in Pittsburgh. She succeeded Sister Antoinette in the work and devoted her energy and concern for the needy.
One report, which she sent to Father Thomas Coakley in 1939, stated briefly:
“Secured permanent work for 315 persons.
Secured 4906 days of temporary work
Answered 10,020 telephone calls.
Had 7981 private interviews
Made 1976 visits to the poor.
Gave away 9661 pieces of Clothing.”
The late Betty Behrman, hired as Secretary of Sister Mary Thomas at the end of 1937, wrote of her first day on the job. Sister Mary Thomas told Betty that they were going to sort clothes for the poor on the first day she came to work. Betty arrived at work prepared with apron and gloves. Sister Mary Thomas asked her what she was doing. “Take off the gloves. This is God’s work and you are not going to catch anything.” That was the end of the gloves.
Betty and Sr. Mary Thomas encountered individuals from all walks of life, but each visitor felt a warm reception. Betty wrote that “the whole atmosphere was informal, on a first-name basis, and everyone who came for whatever reason, caught the feeling of warmth and friendship over a cup of coffee, or maybe iced tea in the summer.”
Sister Mary Thomas most enjoyed packing baskets of goodies and presents for the poor. There was a dinner in every basket for Thanksgiving. Christmas baskets contained dolls and toys, as well as clothes and goodies for the children. One year, Sister Mary Thomas encouraged the manager of the local Five and Ten Store to sell her 25 pounds of jelly beans, which were in short supply because of World War II, so that she could complete her baskets for Easter.
On Easter Saturday of 1944, as Sister Mary Thomas prepared to retire for the night, she discovered a fire on the convent porch started by an arsonist with an incendiary device. After calling the fire department and assuring all that things were under control, she returned to her room to rest. She died that evening of a heart attack while sitting in her chair with her rosary in hand.
Sister Mary Thomas, the Saint of the Poor and Sister Santa Claus, surrendered her large heart to her loving God. The people of the area mourned their special advocate.