On a High Note: The Origins of Pittsburgh’s Ozanam Strings

“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

Not dated, Sr. Francis Assisi Gorham conducts the Ozanam Strings.

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 music.

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.

c. 1962, Sr. Francis Assisi Gorham instructs early violin students at the Frederic Ozanam School and Cultural Center.

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 made sense.

“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.)

1974, Students of the Ozanam Strings practice music.

            From there, 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.

            As students 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.

            The Ozanam 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 Pirates.

            By this 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.

            Sister 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.

Mid-1970s, Sr. Francis Assisi conducting the Ozanam Strings.

(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


The Sisters of 1969

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.

In Pittsburgh 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.

The Catholic Accent, March 14, 1968. Bishop William Connare of the Diocese of Greensburg addressed the issue of spiritual renewal and community life at the Day of Faith for Sisters at Seton Hill.

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
  • 58 Convents
  • 13 novices
  • Missions included
    • 15 High Schools
    • 45 Elementary Schools
    • 7 Kindergartens
    • 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.

In 1969,  Sister Frances Augustine, Sister Barbara Hanley, and Sister Esperance, SSF participated in the Faculty Exchange Program.

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 the community.

“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, 1969)

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 religious life.

The Oratory at Seton Hill after the altar and pews were removed post-1970.

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.

1967, Sisters of Charity Fashion Show for new modified habits.

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).

1967, Former Sister of Charity Laura Bench models a modified habit for the community.
C. 1970s, Sr. Mary Janet Ryan and Colette Toler work with a student at Seton Hill College.

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 era.

1969, Final Profession Group poses for a picture in the newly modified habit.

Decisions made in 1969 have brought us through another 50 years.

What will 2019 bring?

Sister Santa: East Liberty’s Saint of the Poor

Written by Sr. Louise Grundish, SC

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.”

Photograph of Sr. Mary Thomas Woods

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:

Sr. Mary Thomas and Betty Behrman and friends pack groceries for the needy in the late 1930s.
  •    “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.

Sr. Mary Thomas Woods peers around the corner of the convent in East Liberty in 1939.

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. 

Sr. Mary Thomas Woods assists Santa giving gifts to needy children through the Social Service Department of Sacred Heart Church in the 1930s.

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.

Obituary for Sr. Mary Thomas Woods, The Pittsburgh Press, April 10, 1944.

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. 

Reaching Out For Change Within: Prison Ministry of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill

Setonian Tradition of Prison Ministry

Elizabeth Seton’s own daughter, Catherine Josephine, entered the Sisters of Mercy in New York and dedicated 40 years of her life toward prison ministry. Sister Catherine advocated for prison reform and served as spiritual advisor and confidante to even the most hardened criminals.

In the Annals of the New York Sisters of Mercy, Mother M. Austin Carroll wrote, “as soon as [Catherine] began the visitation of the Tombs, she set herself the task of learning German and Spanish [being already fluent in Italian and French] in order that her usefulness among the unhappy inmates might find no limit.”

Many of the former prisoners to whom she ministered kept in touch with Sister Catherine Seton and were eager to show their gratitude in the form of gifts, letters, and donations for the poor.

Sister Catherine Josephine Seton

The New York Catholic News extolled the work of Sister Catherine in in April of 1891: “No one probably ever acquired such influence and control over the thieves and robber class of New York…she was able to prevent much evil and inspire much good.”

Elizabeth Seton’s spiritual daughters have continued this tradition of prison ministry and the need couldn’t be more pressing. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit think-tank focused on mass incarceration, imprisoned individuals earn 41% less income than non-incarcerated individuals (prior to their incarceration). Basically, incarcerated individuals, particularly women, are more likely to struggle with poverty and lack of an education throughout their life, both pre and post-incarceration. In addition, cries for prison reform and human rights echo hollow without advocates outside the prison system.

Prisoners are exactly the kinds of poor, forgotten populations that Jesus Christ, St. Vincent de Paul, and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton have urged us to consider. The Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill began their important ministry with prisoners in the 1970s.

Operation Outward Reach

In 1972, Sister Mary Agnes Schildkamp, who was working as the director of Project Forward at Seton Hill College, learned of the need of an organist and GED teachers at the State Correctional Institute (SCI) in Greensburg. She felt called to respond and recruited Srs. Marian Clare McGurgan and Mary Leon Bettwy to help with the Sunday liturgy and GED courses. In 1986, SCI-Greensburg would honor Sr. Mary Agnes at the first GED graduation ceremony for the years she taught men and women in the prison system of Westmoreland County.


It was during this same period that Operation Outward Reach (OOR) was instituted at SCI-Greensburg. Funded by a federal grant through the Governor’s Justice Commission and a state grant by the Department of Community Affairs, OOR was founded to “provide training leading to employment for men nearing the end of their terms in the correctional institution.” The program, which was initially supported by the United Presbyterian Church and the Diocese of Greensburg, took place at the Regional Correctional Facility No. 5.


Sister Mary Agnes became involved in Operation Outward Reach through the GED program and she dedicated nearly 20 years of her life to it. As a work release and skill development program, OOR functioned similar to an apprenticeship program where a cohort of inmates from each prison system would train under the leadership of qualified tradesman, particularly in construction fields. The inmates participated in the renovation and reconstruction of community buildings, historic sites, churches, and local homes.

State Correctional Facility, Greensburg, 1970s

In its first 20 years, the program trained 982 inmates in construction and ¾ of those inmates obtained a job in the field in the year following release. Only 10% of program participants ended up back in prison. In later years, OOR would expand to prisons in Mercer and Huntingdon.

In her retirement letter to Raymond Thompson, Director of Operation Outward Reach, in 1992, Sister Mary Agnes Schildkamp wrote, “OOR is special for me. I have marveled at its function and success since it was born twenty years ago…”

In addition to her work on behalf of SCI-Greensburg, Sr. Mary Agnes was involved in the Western Pennsylvania Coalition Against the Death Penalty and the Pennsylvania Council to Abolish the Penalty of Death.

GED Program & Spiritual and Emotional Support

At the invitation of Sr. Mary Agnes, Sr. Edith Strong began teaching mathematics courses to inmates in the GED program at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institute in 1974. She would expand her ministry as organist for Sunday liturgies and spiritual and emotional support for inmates and families for nearly 20 years. She also worked at the Westmoreland County Detention Center from 1981 until 1993.

Chapel at SCI-Greensburg, 1970s

In describing her work for the prison in 1985, Sr. Edith wrote, “on Sunday mornings, we have Mass, time to socialize with the residents, and opportunity for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, instruction in the faith, bible study, and Holy Name Society meetings. Residents of all faiths attend the Liturgy.” Sr. Edith also served an influential role in fostering interfaith support groups for the inmates and was a proud sponsor of the annual Christmas party where laughter and a sense of joy filled the prison walls.

1980s, Sr. Edith Strong and Sr. Marian Clare McGurgan are ready to enter the State Regional Correctional Facility No. V in Greensburg 

She received an award from SCI-Greensburg in 1993 for her volunteer efforts. In a congratulatory letter, Bishop Anthony Bosco wrote, “it was clear to me that the men had a genuine affection for you and you for them…I commend you for your fidelity.” Fifty inmates attended Sr. Edith’s award ceremony – a true testament to the love and gratitude of this prison community. Although she moved on from prison ministry when SCI-Greensburg closed in 2013, Sr. Edith’s shining example made a lasting impression on those around her.

To read more about Sr. Edith’s experiences, check out a full article in Celebration, Vol. 27, No. 1 here: https://scsh.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/2018-02-Celebration-Winter.pdf

Prison Network

In 1992, Sr. Eleanor Dillon took over the ministry of Sr. Edith at the Westmoreland County prison, but found that there were changing needs in the prison community. Sr. Eleanor began administering a program called Prison Network for female inmates in 1994. Prison Network helped filled institutional and legal gaps by answering questions and fulfilling requests that the Westmoreland County Public Defender’s office couldn’t handle. It was a pioneer program in the county and was supported by both judges and prison wardens.

Services also extended to family members of inmates. Sr. Eleanor served as a liaison between female inmates and family, friends, and members of the criminal justice system, rehabilitation facilities, and other agencies. Sometimes the requests were practical – someone needs to turn off the gas in a now-empty home. Other times, the requests were more pressing – who will care for my children while I am imprisoned? When will I be released?

1995, Sr. Eleanor Dillon stands in the doorway of a room in the Westmoreland Prison and talks with one of the administrators.

In a grant application, Sr. Eleanor wrote, “the goal of the Prison Network is to enable the female offender to return to society better prepared to avoid/abstain from further criminal involvement.”

By 1996, Prison Network was ready to evolve. By partnering with THE PROGRAM for Female Offenders in Pittsburgh, Sr. Eleanor expanded and enlarged the scope and design of the ministry. Job placement programs became part of the rehabilitation of convicted women. Seeing the struggle of interim child caregivers, Sr. Eleanor also advocated for support programs for grandparents and legal guardians.  The Pennsylvania Commission on Corrections and Delinquency helped fund the ministry, as well as the Sisters of Charity.

1995, Sr. Eleanor Dillon stands outside the Westmoreland County Prison ready to enter and teach classes for women.

Unfortunately, leadership transitions within THE PROGRAM for Female Offenders in Pittsburgh prompted significant staffing and services alterations. Prison Network in Westmoreland County was discontinued in 1998.

Although Sr. Eleanor hoped to continue prison ministry at the age of 75, frail health forced her into permanent retirement.

Prison Reform

The prison programs adopted and supported by the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill have served as models for modern work-release plans, educational opportunities, and advocacy programs.

With the opioid crisis devastating the Pittsburgh region in the past decade, an influx of drug-addicted individuals have been and are entering the prison system. Rehabilitation and general support programs, like those mentioned above, are becoming even more necessary for adjustment to a post-release, successful civilian life.

Srs. Marian Clare McGurgan, Mary Philip Aaron, Mary Zachary Endress, Mary Dorothy Huber, Mary Noel Kernan, and Lois Sculco have also volunteered in prison ministry. Let the work of all these wonderful sisters inspire us to “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:1-3).

1955, Sisters take tour of Prison Facilities, Pittsburgh, Pa. Chief Armstrong of the Homestead Police Dept. takes the Sisters on a tour.  Srs. John Baptist Curran, Brigid Marie Grandey, Aquinas Bettwy (Isabel), Ann Francis Reagan, Mary Ethel Byers, Mary Joan Cole.

To the Brink of the Grave: Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill During the Spanish Influenza of 1918

“To stay there would be suicide.

To leave the baby would be murder.”

These are the words Sister M. Carita Duffy wrote in reference to her time spent in Hays, PA, during late October of 1918, at the height of the Spanish Influenza pandemic.

Sr. Carita Duffy Hays Pa
The first page of a record kept by Sister M. Carita Duffy detailing her time volunteering in Hays, PA during the Spanish Flu pandemic.

Upon arriving in Hays, Sister M. Carita and her companion, Sister M. Hubert, offered to help the local doctor. He then sent them to care for local families too ill to move from their homes. The first family they encountered was in dire condition—mother, father, three children, and the baby were ill. A ten-year-old daughter was left to care for them by herself.

After doing what they could to ease the family’s suffering, the Sisters decided to take the baby with them that night. It died the next morning.

This record and others in the archives trace the tragic impact of the 1918 Spanish Influenza in southwestern Pennsylvania. They also serve to highlight the courageous volunteer efforts of Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill. This year in particular we remember 100 years since the arrival of this deadly disease.

When the Spanish Flu hit, it did so suddenly and without mercy. Mortality rates were high; medical knowledge at the time was of little help. At the height of the pandemic, daily death rates were so great in number that there was a shortage of caskets and gravediggers throughout many areas.

Prior to that, however, preventative measures were initially seen as a nuisance. In Pennsylvania, all places of amusement in the state were closed—this included theatres, movie houses, saloons, and college football games. Pittsburgh streetcars were sanitized between trips, soaking traveller’s pant legs and skirts. Spitting in public became cause for arrest.

Then the flu did indeed arrive and the matter became deadly serious. Upon the pandemic’s arrival in Pittsburgh in early October, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Institute of Technology campuses were quarantined. Shortly thereafter, the United States army took over both Magee and West Penn Hospitals.

Pittsburgh Hospital & Nursing School—staffed and attended by Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill—found itself part of the efforts to combat the flu. One such nursing student was the mother of Assistant Archivist Sister Louise Grundish. Sister Louise recalls her mother talking about the flu and her role at that time in the men’s ward of the Pittsburgh Hospital. Most of the men in the ward died. One man desperately jumped from the window. Surprisingly he lived, surviving both the flu and his own self-inflicted injuries.

After fighting the flu, victim’s bodies were weak and susceptible to further disease. As such, pneumonia was often the true cause of death. When a victim contracted pneumonia, fluid filled the lungs and made it hard to breathe; skin turned blue due to oxygen deprivation. Those who succumbed to pneumonia drowned on dry land.

Those living in damp and crowded conditions were even more vulnerable to pneumonia and the flu. These conditions made the Steel City a deadly place to live in the fall of 1918 when the Spanish flu swept through. According to an article by Kenneth A. White, Pittsburgh experienced 22,000 reported influenza cases that year and over 4,500 fatalities.

Youngwood Emergency Hosp
Flu epidemic patient intake record from the Youngwood Emergency Hospital.

Tent hospitals were soon set up in open spaces to accommodate sheer number of victims (in addition to providing fresh air for the ill, which was thought to have curative properties). The Carnegie Steel Company hosted one of these hospitals, which had 3 large tents in addition to a tent for the nurses’ quarters. The hospital’s 60-bed capacity was nearly always full during the pandemic. During this time, Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill assisted nurses and did laundry and housekeeping.

Smaller towns and communities faced their own challenges. These places were in dire need of trained medical professionals, most of whom were overseas at the time helping in the war efforts. Those who remained were stretched thin; some areas lacked any medical professionals at all.

As sickness spread, schools and parishes closed. Sisters of Charity were recalled from their assignments and sent to help at the motherhouse in Greensburg and at various locations. In Sr. Electa Boyle’s history of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, she writes that the Sisters received appeals for aid from throughout southwestern Pennsylvania. They were sent to be volunteers in McKees Rocks, Hays, Homestead, Youngwood, Greensburg, and beyond. It’s likely the Sisters had little company in their efforts—White writes of a Red Cross call that went out to Pittsburgh nurses in mid-October, asking for volunteers. Eight responded.

Archival records list five Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill as victims of the Spanish flu. Sister John Francis Conlon is pictured above; also pictured is a Pittsburgh Daily Post article from November 1, 1918 that details the Conlon family’s encounter with the disease.

Sister Mary Clarissa Benson was a volunteer at the time of the pandemic and was given her last rites by a Reverend Father Brennan, who had also baptized her and given her First Holy Communion. Sister Leo Vincent Guiser was still new to the community in 1918 and took her vows on her deathbed.  Sister Mary Maurice McDermott and Sister Teresita Foley were both teachers prior to falling ill.

*Shown below are some pictures of Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill who are known to have volunteered locally during the time of the Spanish Influenza. Of the 350+ Sisters in the community at the time, it is presumed that 40 volunteered as nurses.

Once the flu’s spread subsided and life returned to normal, schools opened again and the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill returned to their posts. Their efforts were not forgotten, however; the archives retains some letters expressing gratitude for the Sisters’ service. Shown below are two of the thank-you notes that Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill received. Of particular interest is $400 given by the Jamison Coal & Coke Company, a gift amounting to over $6,000 by today’s standards.

Jamison Note
Letter from George B. Taylor, Assistant to the General Manager of Jamison Coal and Coke Company to Mother Mary Joseph Havey, January 31, 1919

American Red Cross
Letter from the Chairman of the Mt. Pleasant Chapter of the American Red Cross to the Sisters of Charity

Written by Bridget Malley, archival intern


Newspaper clipping, “Two Die in Family; Three Others Ill,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, November 1, 1918. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.

Record of ministry in Hays, Pennsylvania, Sister M. Carita Duffy [October 21st, 1918], Box A-906.001, Apostolic Special Ministries Emergencies File, Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill Archives, Greensburg, Pennsylvania.

Treatment record for emergency hospital in Youngwood, Pennsylvania [October 15th, 1918], Box A-906.001, Apostolic Special Ministries Emergencies File, Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill Archives, Greensburg, Pennsylvania.

Thank-you letter from American Red Cross in Mount Pleasant to the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill [undated], Box 906.001, Apostolic Special Ministries Emergencies File, Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill Archives, Greensburg, Pennsylvania.

Thank-you letter from Jamison Coal & Coke Company to the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill [January 31st, 1919], Box 906.001, Apostolic Special Ministries Emergencies File, Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill Archives, Greensburg, Pennsylvania.

White, Kenneth A. “Pittsburgh in the Great Epidemic of 1918.” The Western

Pennsylvania Historical Magazine 68, no. 3 (July 1985): 221-42.

Journey with Elizabeth

In June of 2018, the Archives of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill were approached by Seton Hill University to help curate and organize an exhibit on St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in honor of the university’s centennial year celebration. Titled Journey with Elizabeth, the exhibit will rotate periodically and explore an aspect of Elizabeth Seton’s life and legacy by making connections to Seton Hill students, alumni, professors, benefactors, and the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill.

Portrait of Elizabeth Seton by Sr. Fides Glass

This first foray, however, simply details Elizabeth’s journey from an educated New York socialite, wife, and mother to the founder of an influential American women’s religious community. In addition, the exhibit briefly explores the path of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill in western Pennsylvania, as well as the founding of Seton Hill College.

The Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill have built a small collection of artifacts and documents related to the life and legacy of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the founder of the Sisters of Charity and the first American-born saint.


In the planning of Journey with Elizabeth, we wanted to celebrate Elizabeth Seton as the first American-born individual to be canonized by the Catholic Church, but more importantly, we wanted to humanize Elizabeth Seton. We believe that the life and legacy of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton echoes the journey of all Setonians. She experienced devastating loss, as well as great success. She questioned her Episcopalian upbringing, looking to God for answers…for more. She lost devoted friends and close family members after her conversion. She became a penniless widow. She suffered the loss of several children. She was human and experienced all that life can give and take away. However, Elizabeth triumphed. Her sacrifices and struggles led to the establishment of a new way of life for thousands of Catholic women. Her life inspired millions more. Those that followed her did great good in the world.

Image of the exhibit being installed in the parlor at Seton Hill University

Journey with Elizabeth highlights several treasured items from the collection of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill.

First, we must mention Elizabeth Seton’s personal copy of Thomas à Kempis’ The Following of Christ with Elizabeth’s personal notations. This book, given to Mother Aloysia Lowe when she left Cincinnati to establish a community in Altoona in 1870, has been lovingly cared for by the Sisters. The importance of this rare book, however, was rediscovered in the 1940s when the postulator for the cause of Elizabeth Seton’s canonization was visiting Seton Hill. While showing the postulator Seton’s The Following of Christ, Sr. Fides Glass, at that time a young Sister, discovered a key passage written in Elizabeth’s hand – the passage related to Elizabeth’s baptism! It was the only written evidence of her baptism since the church of her baptism had burned down.

Mother Seton’s copy of The Following of Christ with personal notations

Elizabeth Seton was a great writer – of course, by that we mean more than just gifted with the written word. She was prolific in her writings – letters, journals, notes, etc. The exhibit features several primary source documents written by Elizabeth herself, including a letter written to her son, William, whom she addresses as “My Soul’s Darling,” and a handwritten reflection on “Heaven.”  These key pieces in the exhibit reveal Elizabeth’s close relationships with others, as well as her own thoughts on faith, God, and scripture.

Letter, Elizabeth Seton to her son, William Seton, Jr., 1818

In regards to the community legacy, a circa 1815 needlepoint from St. Joseph Academy, the first school founded by Elizabeth Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland, is currently on display in the exhibit.

Additional highlights include tickets from the beatification of Elizabeth Seton in 1963, a medal from Mother Seton’s rosary, the key to the Stokes Mansion on the Seton Hill property, writings from Mother Aloysia Lowe, a letter certifying the charter of Seton Hill College, and much more.

We hope you enjoy your Journey with Elizabeth.

Written by Casey Bowser, Archivist for the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill

Sister Spotlight: The Doran Sisters

The vision of a thriving community and home for the Sisters of Charity was imagined by Mother Aloysia Lowe and Mother Anne Regina Ennis, but the third Superior of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, Mother Josephine Doran, fully realized that dream. In addition to overseeing the completion of St. Joseph’s Chapel at Seton Hill, Mother Josephine established the first hospital under the management of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill and obtained clear title to the Seton Hill property. She was the first western Pennsylvania-bred Sister of Charity to lead the congregation after the deaths of Mothers Aloysia and Anne Regina. Similar to Mother Seton and Mother Aloysia, Mother Josephine Doran experienced great loss in her young life, but went on to achieve extraordinary deeds for the community.

The name Doran was well-known throughout Altoona in the mid-nineteenth century. Myles and Bridget Doran were among the first Irish Catholic settlers in the area. Mrs. Doran, born in Carrick-on-Shannon, Ireland in 1818, met and married Myles Doran in Ireland. They immigrated to America in the late 1840s and first settled in Peekskill, New York. Several years later, the Dorans found their way to Altoona. Myles owned a prosperous real estate business on the current site of the Mishler Theatre. The Dorans produced eight children, but only four girls survived beyond early adulthood. Two of the Doran sisters were among the earliest members of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill.

Doran Family
The four Doran Sisters pose with their mother, c. 1870. Mary Jane (Sr. Baptista) is seen standing at the far left while Margaret (Sister Josephine) is seated at the far right.

Mary Jane Doran was born in 1854, the eldest daughter of the Doran clan. She attended what would become St. John’s Academy, the first school run by the Sisters of Charity in the Diocese of Pittsburgh under Reverend John Tuigg. The family patriarch, Myles, died in 1865, leaving his four daughters and a widow without an income.

Mary Jane felt a call from God to enter the newly formed novitiate of the Sisters of Charity in 1871. She received the habit in August of 1871 and pronounced vows on July 19, 1873. She took the name Sister Mary Baptista. Sister M. Baptista began teaching 5th grade at St. John’s, but then spent most of her life teaching at Sacred Heart School in the East End of Pittsburgh.

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Sister Mary Baptista Doran

Sister Baptista was considered the quintessential Sister of Charity – practical with good common sense, pious, and an untiring worker. We can only assume she positively influenced her younger sisters. One such sister entered the Benedictine Nuns of St. Mary’s in Erie, Pennsylvania and became Sister Genevieve, O.S.B. Her youngest sister, Margaret, entered the Sisters of Charity in 1874 and took the name Sister Mary Josephine.

Sister Mary Josephine was born in 1857 and was the first full graduate of St. John’s School in Altoona. She took vows on November 13, 1876. With a natural gift for the arts, Mother Aloysia sent Sister Josephine to Cedar Grove Academy in Cincinnati to study painting.

Mother Josephine Doran before entrance
A young Margaret Doran (Sister Josephine) poses while a student at St. John’s School in Altoona.

After teaching at Sacred Heart School in East Liberty, she went on to teach at her alma mater, St. John’s in Altoona. Sister Electa Boyle wrote that “she had a brilliant mind, and was devoted to study. She spoke French fluently, and was a fine mathematician…but her chief interests were music and painting.” When St. Joseph Academy was complete in Greensburg, Sister Josephine established the art courses and remained a teacher at the academy. Interestingly, Sister Josephine designed the shape of Lake Regina, a former lake on the Seton Hill property named for Mother Anne Regina, after the form of a painting palette.

Unfortunately, the elder Doran sister, Sister Baptista, contracted tuberculosis in the Spring of 1882 and convalesced in Altoona. Mr. Olmes of Olmes Meat Market in Altoona provided a daily pint of hot cow’s blood as a remedy for the disease, but despite best efforts, Sister Baptista died. It was a devastating loss to Altoona, Pittsburgh, and the Sisters. In an added shock to Sister Josephine, the other religious in the family, Sister Genevieve, O.S.B., also died in 1882.

As a testament to the good work of Sister Baptista Doran, hundreds of lay individuals attended her viewing and funeral in Altoona. The author may suggest that in the ensuing years of mourning, Sister Josephine may have naturally drawn closer to the older Sisters in the community, named Mother Aloysia and Sister Anne Regina.

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Mother Josephine Doran as a young Sister of Charity.

After the death of Mother Aloysia, Sister Josephine Doran became the Assistant Mother from 1889 to 1891 under Mother Anne Regina Ennis. Mother Anne Regina died in office and Sister Josephine succeeded her in 1894. She was elected to two terms.

Although Mother Anne Regina initiated the building of St. Joseph’s Chapel at Seton Hill, she died when the foundation was only partially in place. Mother Josephine had the pleasure of seeing Mother Aloysia and Mother Regina’s vision come into fruition. Mother Josephine’s only remaining sister, Miss Ellen Doran, donated the main altar of St. Joseph Chapel in memory of their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Myles Doran.

Interior of St. Joseph Chapel, Seton Hill, c. 1900.

Mother Josephine, utilizing her artistic abilities, designed the stained glass forms for the windows on the chapel doors which included images of Saint Aloysius, Saint Genevieve, Saint Anne with Child Mary, and Saint John the Baptist with Child Jesus. Do these names sound familiar? The stained glass windows, also donated by Ellen Doran, were created in honor of Mothers Aloysia and Anne Regina, Sister Genevieve Doran, O.S.B., and Sr. Baptista Doran – all of Mother Josephine’s great losses.

When St. Joseph’s Chapel was dedicated on November 18, 1896, the Sisters of Seton Hill donated the chapel bell in honor of Mother Josephine’s Silver Jubilee. The next time you are in St. Joseph’s Chapel at Seton Hill University, take a moment to reflect on the good work and life of Mother Josephine Doran. The chapel is truly hers.

During her tenure as Superior from 1894 until 1900, Mother Josephine Doran oversaw the maintenance of twenty-three parochial schools staffed by the Sisters of Charity and the opening of St. Luke’s School in Carnegie in 1899.

Mother Josephine, accompanied by Sister Mary Grace Ryan, made a hurried trip to Colorado in 1895 to visit Mr. John Jennings, former owner of the Seton Hill property, to make clear an undocumented title transfer. Luckily, she succeeded in her efforts.

Music Class at Seton Hill, July 1892. Shown are: (Front L-R) Srs. Beatrice Gority, Angelica Rooney, Marie Joseph Darr, Josephine Doran, Mary Grace Ryan; (Back L-R) srs. Mary Inez Cronin, Annina O’Donnell, Andrea Millbach (withdrew), Mary James Brownlee, DeChantal Brownlee, Hilda Popp, Maria Flanagan, and Felicita McGuire.

In 1897, a team of medical doctors from Pittsburgh appealed to Mother Josephine to administer and staff a nine-room hospital at Stanton and Collins Avenues in East Liberty. Mother agreed and sent the first troop of Sister-nurses to Charity Hospital (later Pittsburgh Hospital).

Pittsburgh Hospital must have been a mission close to Mother Josephine Doran’s heart. After her final term as Mother Superior ended in 1900, Sister Josephine became the first superintendent of the hospital and remained for 10 years. In her obituary the author wrote, “When she went there the hospital was a comparatively small wooden structure, quite incapable of the demands made upon it, and she immediately projected a new and commodious structure, complete in all details, which now stands as a monument to her sterling business ability, as well as her religious zeal.” After much difficulty with local citizens and politicians, Sister Josephine secured the permanent “Finley” property site for Pittsburgh Hospital.

1934, An established Pittsburgh Hospital at the Finley Homestead that Mother Josephine Doran secured.

Around 1910, Sister Josephine returned to Seton Hill to teach in the art department of St. Joseph Academy and, later, Seton Hill Junior College. She went to St. Kieran’s Convent in Pittsburgh and died quite suddenly from pneumonia on October 20, 1919.

The Sisters of Charity Novitiate built in Greensburg in 1963 was renamed Doran Hall in 1970 after Mother Josephine.


Written by Casey Bowser, Archivist


Angels on the Way: St. Philip School in Crafton

Angel Way will not be the same as Saint Philip School begins the 2018-19 school year this August.  For the first time since September 1915, there will be no Sister of Charity principal to welcome the students as they pass the Angel Statue on the corner of the drive. Sister Geraldine Marr, the 17th consecutive Sister of Charity principal, bade farewell to the school at the completion of the 2017-18 school year.

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Angel Statue by St. Philip School in Crafton

The association of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill with Saint Philip Parish School in Crafton dates back to October 15, 1885 when Mother Aloysia Lowe accompanied Sister M. Borgia Casey and Sister Mary Austin Akers to staff the small two-room schoolhouse built by Father James Keenoy.  The school housed 75 children.  The sisters traveled from Southside by train each day, as no convent was available. Sister Thecla Adams replaced Sister Mary Austin after Christmas that year. Sadly, the school closed on May 17, 1891 due to a lack of finances and a slight economic depression.

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1887, Sr. Thecla Adams with students at St. Philip’s two-room schoolhouse built by Father James Keenoy.

Father William C. Kelty became pastor in 1898 and on February 6, 1906 Bishop Regis Canevin dedicated a magnificent new Church. By 1915, Father Kelty completed the building of a modern school and convent and requested the return of the Sisters of Charity.  In September 1915, the school opened with Sister Benigna Doran as Sister Servant and Principal and ten additional Sisters of Charity to complete the faculty.  The school population grew rapidly and Father Kelty erected a second building, including six classrooms, a gymnasium and a bowling alley in 1929.

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St. Philip’s School in Crafton, built in 1915.

Since the opening of Saint Philip School in 1915, an Angel Statue has stood at the entrance to the driveway used by students coming and going to classes.  Alumni of the school often remember this statue when they reminisce about their days in Saint Philip Elementary School.  Sister Geraldine utilized Angel Way and the Angel Statue to design a character development program based on Virtue education, which proved very successful throughout her 22 years as school principal.  ANGEL WAY formed the anachronism for Achieving Natural Goodness in Everyday Life.

Alumni members who visited the school in recent days remark about the many things that remind them of earlier times at Saint Philip School  They marvel at the marble hallways and some of the classrooms that have weathered years of students passing through the doors.  It is clear to those associated with St. Phillip’s that Father Kelty and the early pioneers created a school for the future.  Sister Geraldine Marr built on that tradition and brought the school into the next century with her efforts to introduce a strong technology program enhanced with a lived experience of a virtuous Christian life.

Father Kelty (center) with St. Philip’s School Class of 1947. Sr. Louise Grundish is pictured 5th row, 4th from left.

Saint Philip School continues to live the Mission as described in the statement below:

Saint Philp School, rooted in the love of the Heart of Christ, exists to pass on the faith and to teach the Gospel values of Jesus Christ.  Saint Philip School is committed to academic excellence and to the development of Christian virtues, which generate responsible character.  It endeavors to prepare the student for life now and into the twenty-first century.

The influence of one hundred years of labor by the Sisters of Charity stands out in the Mission Statement, which sounds very much like a paraphrase of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton’s words regarding education, “always prepare your students for the world in which they are destined to live.”

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Sr. Miriam Fidelis Guinagh and Sr. Demetrius McMahon with St. Philip’s School Class of 1935

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c. 1990s, Sr. Annina Fox with students at St. Philip’s School

A bronze plaque will hang on the outside of the school building to commemorate over one hundred years of service of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill to the students and people of Saint Philip Parish.

The students of St. Phillip’s will continue to pass by the Angel Statue as the school bell rings, but the influence of the many Angels – Sisters of Charity – who were missioned to this beautiful school in Crafton, will also live on.

St. Philip’s Parish, Children outside of the Church

Written by Sr. Louise Grundish, S.C.

A Nod to Nursing: A Recollection of the First Graduating Class of the Pittsburgh Hospital School of Nursing

It would seem wrong to let the year 2018 get further on than May without remembering the 110th anniversary of the first graduating class from the Pittsburgh Hospital School of Nursing.  The school opened in 1905, seven years after the hospital received its charter. Perusing the Archives, the author found a speech given by Sister M. Irenaeus Joyce to the Graduates of the Class of 1968.

In her speech, Sister Irenaeus, the oldest member of the Class of 1908, reminisced about the pioneer days of the school.

Sixty years ago the first group to graduate from this nursing school numbered ten members: five young women and five Sisters of Charity—the Class of 1908.

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Pittsburgh Hospital School of Nursing, Class of 1908, Lay Women Graduates

We, like you, had studied faithfully; we, like you had excellent teachers—doctors of the staff who were devoted to their work, well qualified, most exacting, and eager that the first class set the pattern, lead the way for all classes that would follow through the years to come.

Mother Josephine [Doran], the first superintendent of the hospital, provided the best of supervisors and directors for us by employing four graduates from Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.

After our course was completed, the preparations for graduation day included some free time, a special festive dinner for the graduates and all the good doctors, supervisors and others who had worked for us and with us during our years of study.  The dinner was served in the attractive dining room on the first floor.

The hour set for the presentation of the diplomas and the Silver Medal given to each graduate was early evening—about seven o’clock.  This important ceremony took place in the large operating room on the fifth floor of the hospital.  This room was chosen for it had a balcony on front and on one side—a balcony that would hold chairs for thirty or forty persons crowded closely together. 

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Pittsburgh Hospital Operating Room, where the early Nursing School graduations took place.

The young women wore the white uniform used in that day.  The Sisters wore their best black habits.  All graduates were permitted to carry flowers of their own choice.  Two of the sisters decided they would not carry flowers, for they believed that eight floral displays differing in color and design were more than enough.  I am not certain what seven of the eight bouquets were, but I know that I carried a big cluster of sweet peas, sent by an obliging relative from Philadelphia.

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Pittsburgh Hospital School of Nursing, Class of 1908, Sister of Charity Graduates

As each graduate called by the officiating member of the Staff stepped forward she was given the Silver Medal engraved with name, date, and school—a prized memento.  Then the diploma was placed in her hand while applause and congratulatory words from floor and balcony filled the room.

I am confident that in this hour of accepting the diploma we were all thinking of the many times we had been reminded by Mother Josephine and all the other able minds and hearts who had guided us that we were the first — the pioneers— in a new Nursing School; that our work be superior; our performance without flaw; our goal must be the highest achievement possible.

We could all repeat the words we had heard the doctors, the teachers, the supervisors say over and over again during the long years of study: “The years to come will judge the worth of our efforts, and the future alone can estimate the value of the foundation we are making in this new School of Nursing.”

And so, tonight I am privileged, dear members of the Class of 1968, to speak to you of the past, to tell you of the first days of your school.

With you I thank God for His goodness in blessing the work of the pioneer days, and for His continued blessing in bringing the Pittsburgh Hospital School of Nursing to the high rank it holds in these later days of the Twentieth Century.

Again expressing my joy in being with you on this occasion, and asking God to guide and protect you through life, I say farewell in Saint Thomas More’s favorite words:

“Pray for me as I do for thee until we meet merrily in Heaven.”

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Nursing Pin of Sister Isadore Boyce, a graduate of the Pittsburgh Hospital School of Nursing Class of 1908

The Pittsburgh Hospital School of Nursing opened in January 1905 under the supervision of Miss Emma Powers, a graduate of Johns Hopkins and Miss Ella Beach from Lakeside Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.  Records of these days are in a ledger containing one page for each student with duty assignments.  Pre-entrance requirements were that the candidate have one year of high school or the equivalent, be at least eighteen years of age, of good moral standing and desire nursing.  Admissions occurred anytime from January to December and students were assigned to floor duty the day after admission to the school.  Twelve-hour duty, seven days a week was the order of the day.  Classes occurred in the evening.  No records of subjects, instructors, or grades are noted.  Miss Powers left her position in December 1906 and Miss Agnes Blewett from Mercy Hospital replaced her.

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The Class of 1908 included the following members:

Sisters of Charity:            Sister Marie Fidelis Bridge

                                                                 Sister Isadore Boyce

                                                                 Sister Marcella Renninger

                                                                 Sister Irenaeus Joyce

                                                                 Sister Luigi Walsh

                Lay Women:                         Miss Eulalie Moran

                                                                 Miss Katherine Sophia Frank

                                                                 Miss Julia Mary Madden

                                                                 Miss Mary Emma Kreig

Immediately following graduation, Sister Marcella became Assistant Director of the School until July 1909 when Miss Blewitt withdrew and Sister Marcella succeeded her as Superintendent of Nurses, a position she held until September 1923.

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Pittsburgh Hospital Nursing School Classes of 1908 and 1909. A doctor climbs a tree in the background while another can be seen peeking around a nurse’s cap.

The first class entering under Sister Marcella’s guidance was the first to prepare for the State Board Examinations, which they took following graduation in 1912.  All of them passed, relieving a difficult situation since the examinations were the first in history and no one knew how to help the candidates study for them.  The test was both theoretical and practical.  Those who had completed their studies before 1912 registered by waiver.

All of the graduates of 1908 had successful nursing careers.  The Sisters of Charity from the class continued to hold responsible nursing positions until their retirements or until death. Sister Irenaeus Joyce pioneered the concept of prepaid health coverage at Providence Hospital in Beaver Falls. Modeled on the “Penny Plans” run by their Sisters in Ireland, the Providence nuns, under the leadership of Sister Irenaeus, enrolled more than 1,000 subscribers in the early 1930s, several years before the start of the Hospital Service Association (Blue Cross) plan in Western Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Nurses Association honored Sister Irenaeus as the Distinguished Nurse of the Year in 1963.  She died on October 16, 1976 at age 103.

The Pittsburgh Hospital School of Nursing would graduate over 1,700 individuals, including 45 Sisters of Charity, until its closing in 1976. The author of this blog post had the responsibility and the privilege to close the school and graduate this last class of gifted nurses.

Sister Louise Grundish



Sister Spotlight: Sister Miriam Francis Cunningham

This April we will highlight the life and accomplishments of Sister Miriam Francis Cunningham. Sister Miriam Francis, whose small stature was no measure of the woman herself, was a dedicated religious and healthcare professional. She was also the longest-living member of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill. Here is her story with an additional recollection from her friend and colleague, Sister Louise Grundish.

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Sister Miriam Francis Cunningham

Mary Agnes Cunningham was born January 22, 1898 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to James and Catherine Costello Cunningham. The family moved to Waynesburg, PA and James became a machinist for the Waynesburg and Washington Railroad. Her mother, Catherine, was born in Ireland, but grew up in England with relatives. When the Costello family attempted to immigrate to the United States, 2-year-old Catherine had scarlet fever and was barred from travel. At the age of 15, she travelled alone to America to meet a family she barely knew. She later met James and bore six children.

Living in Presbyterian Waynesburg proved difficult for the Catholic Cunningham family. They encountered much prejudice due to their faith. Despite this hardship, Mary Agnes felt compelled to enter religious life in 1905 at the age of 8. She first encountered the Sisters of the Good Shepherd seeking donations for a girls’ home at St. Anne’s parish in Waynesburg. She knew at that moment she wanted to be a part of that charitable and goodly life in the service of God. However, it would take a number of years before little Mary Agnes or “Mamie,” as she was nicknamed, would find her religious home.

In her late teens, Mary Agnes began work as a secretary for the owner of a local tin mill that made tin hats for the First World War and as a clerk for Western Union. She entered the Sisters of St. Joseph at Baden, but left after only a few weeks due to homesickness.

The call to religious life continued to tug at her. One of Sister Mary Agnes’ cousins, Mariah, had been taught by Sisters of Charity at St. Joseph School in Sharpsburg, PA. Mariah suggested Mary Agnes contact her friend, Sister Mary Albert McElligott, for a visit to Seton Hill. The story goes that by the end of that visit “you could tell by Mary’s eyes that this is where she wanted to be” (Cunningham, 1987). She decided to apply for entrance to the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill in 1919 at the age of 21 with Sister Mary Albert as her sponsor. She then became known as Sister Miriam Francis.

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Sister Miriam Francis as a young Sister of Charity

Tragedy struck home in those early years – the Cunningham matriarch, Catherine, passed away suddenly during routine surgery. It was a devastating blow to the family. Sister Miriam Francis herself nearly died from illness during her novitiate years. Throughout her life, Sister would often find herself in ill health.

Sister Miriam Francis was not alone in her trials or in religious life. In fact, her biological sister entered the community in 1925 and became Sister Rose Angela. Rose Angela would head the Home Economics Department at Seton Hill College for many years. The two sisters, tied together by the bonds of family life, would forever be linked in religious life as well.

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Sister Sisters! Sisters Miriam Francis and Rose Angela (right) with Sisters Harriet Omlor and Corrine Omlor (left) at a Jubilee Celebration

After she spent several years working in the Treasurer’s Office of the community, Sister Miriam Francis was sent to Pittsburgh Hospital School of Nursing in 1929 to pursue her Nursing diploma. She graduated in 1931. She later earned her Bachelor’s degree in Nursing with minors in Psychology and Ethics from St. Louis University.

From 1939 until 1971, Sister Miriam Francis thrived as the Director of Nursing at Pittsburgh Hospital. During her tenure, Sister influenced hundreds of nurses and students, initiated the 8-hour work day, ended the split shift, and helped the School of Nursing achieve accreditation.

“Sister Miriam Francis was a lady to her core. She loved fresh tablecloths, good silver settings, and fine china. When attending conventions, it was a known fact that she would only choose to dine in restaurants with tablecloths and linen napkins. One of the graduate of the nursing school told me she used to study in the “date room” across from Sister’s office. She so admired her lady-like manner, soft voice, and gentle ways that she hoped Sister’s close proximity would rub off on her,” Sister Louise Grundish explained.

A member of the Pennsylvania and National Leagues of Nursing, the American Nurses Association, and the Pittsburgh Hospital Alumnae Association, Sister Miriam Francis became known for her kindness, class, and focused attitude. She was a charter member of the American Society for Hospital Nursing Service Administrators of the American Hospital Association. In 1980, she received the Honorary Recognition Award from the Pittsburgh Hospital Nurses Alumnae Association.

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Her students and fellow nurses affectionately called her “Minnie,” a reference to Minnie Mouse. Sister Miriam Francis was quiet and small, but a true force.

Sister Louise recalls one memorable Easter with Sister Miriam Francis…“Sister Miriam Francis wanted only the best for students in the School of Nursing. She was particular about the Easter candy to be placed in nests on the residence floors. Only the finest would do. One Easter, when Sr. Miriam Francis confined to bed with a heavy cold, Sister James Mary Conway and I went to downtown Pittsburgh to purchase the candy. This was no small task. One stop was Dimlings Candy Store close to Market Square to purchase coconut eggs. Then we went on to Reymer’s for another variety of chocolate eggs. Only the petite jellybeans sold at Dimlings made muster with Sister Miriam Francis and smaller eggs had to be Russell Stover’s – only. The trip took us all afternoon and we arrived home on the streetcar with two overflowing shopping bags of special candy for the nests she would assemble with great care.”

In 1969, Sister Miriam Francis and her two colleagues, Sisters Mary Ida and Mary Cephas, embarked on a whirlwind, month-long tour of Europe. They visited Ireland, Portugal (Fatima), France (Lourdes), Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. It was a well-deserved dream come true after years of hard hospital work.

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Sister Miriam Francis in her nurses’ habit

Although she formally retired in the early 1970s, Sister continued volunteering at the hospital as bookkeeper and patient visitor. She moved to full retirement in 1991 first at Assumption Hall, then Jeannette District Memorial Hospital, and to her final home, Caritas Christi. Sr. Rose Angela was with her every step of the journey.

In 1990, a nephew in the family endowed the Goodman-Cunningham Scholarship at Seton Hill College in honor of Sisters Miriam Francis and Rose Angela.

Despite her lifelong struggle with physical illness and her declining eyesight, Sister Miriam Francis lived to the ripe old age of 103!  Sister Rose Angela lovingly cared for her night and day in those final years.

Although Sister Miriam Francis left us on May 30th of 2001, her legacy has lived on in her students and friends. Known as a strict disciplinarian with a kind streak, Sister Miriam Francis’ shining example made a better person of everyone around her.

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Sister Miriam Francis and Sister Louise Grundish at the 1981 Pittsburgh Hospital School of Nursing Alumnae Association Banquet.


Cunningham, Sr. Rose Angela. (1987, February 22). Interview by Sister Marie Corona Miller [Tape recording}. Oral History Project of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill. Archives of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, Greensburg, PA.