Catherine Spalding

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Mother Catherine Spalding
Best Catherine Spalding.JPG
Bronze statue of Mother Catherine Spalding by Raymond Graf in front of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville, Kentucky
Foundress and Educator
Born(1793-12-23)December 23, 1793
Charles County, Maryland
DiedMarch 20, 1858(1858-03-20) (aged 64)
Louisville, Kentucky

Catherine Spalding (December 23, 1793 – March 20, 1858), in 1813, aged nineteen, was elected leader of six women forming a new religious community, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, at a time when no education for girls, private health care, or organized social services existed on the Kentucky frontier. On January 6, 2003, the Louisville Courier-Journal named her the one woman among sixteen "most influential people in Louisville/Jefferson County history."[1]

Early life[edit]

Catherine Spalding was born on December 23, 1793 in Charles County, Maryland. At the age of three, her family moved to Nelson County, Kentucky. Her mother died shortly thereafter. Her father incurred heavy debts and deserted both financial obligations and his family. Her aunt and uncle, Thomas and Elizabeth Spalding Elder, raised the five Spalding children with ten children of their own. At sixteen, Catherine went to live with her cousins, Richard and Clementina Elder Clark for three years until she joined the newly founded Sisters of Charity of Nazareth (SCN). From the Elders and the Clarks, Catherine gained a stable home life, religious faith, the skills for pioneer homemaking and health care, and the basics of education. She also developed a passion to care for other children orphaned by death or desertion,[1]

Sisters of Charity of Nazareth[edit]

Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget of Bardstown, Kentucky and Father John Baptist David saw the need for persons to provide education to the thousand plus Catholic families and their children who had moved to Kentucky from Maryland after the Revolutionary War. Both Sulpicians, they were aware of the school established by Mother Seton near the Sulpician seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and hoped to do the same in Kentucky.[2]

Father David consulted with Father Bruté, advisor to Mother Seton, in beginning a community of women that would educate girls and young women on the Kentucky frontier. In 1812, he sought volunteers to begin a religious order to serve the pioneers in Kentucky. In January 1813, nineteen-year-old Catherine, accompanied by her uncle, arrived at St. Thomas Seminary farm in Nelson County, Kentucky to join twenty-four-year-old Teresa Carrico, and Elizabeth Wells, aged 36. Father David gave the women the rule of St. Vincent de Paul as followed in Emmitsburg.[2]

Initially, sisters did farm work, domestic work for the priests and seminarians, and visited the sick. While Teresa had very little education and no apparent aptitude for teaching, her farming, cooking, and housekeeping skills enabled the community to thrive. Three more women joined the group and Catherine was elected superior.[2]


As a founding leader of the new religious community in the new Catholic diocese of Kentucky, Mother Catherine helped establish a school on St. Thomas Farm in Nelson County. The girls instructed were paying and non-paying boarders, and resident orphans. Under Mother Catherine's leadership, many Kentucky schools, orphanages, and hospitals were founded, including Nazareth Academy (1814), and St. Vincent's Orphanage (1832).[3]

The community grew and in 1822, moved to a larger property at present-day Nazareth, Kentucky, near Bardstown. Nazareth Academy developed into one of the best-known schools for young women in the South outside New Orleans, offering not only the usual "ladies' accomplishments" but a solid curriculum of arts and sciences. It later became Nazareth College and moved to Louisville in 1920; in 1984 it was renamed Spalding University.[3]

By 1828 the sisters at Nazareth had begun taking in elderly, generally people with no other place to go. Care of the elderly became part of the sisters' ministries.

In 1831, Mother Catherine and three Sisters opened Presentation Academy[1] in the basement of St. Louis Church in the rough river city of Louisville, Kentucky, serving children of both prosperous merchants and the so-called "levee rats." Presentation Academy moved out of the church basement into houses on Fifth Street until 1893. It is the oldest school in Louisville.[3]

The next year, when cholera struck the city, the Sisters volunteered to nurse the sick poor. Mother Catherine sought out abandoned, immigrant children as they arrived at the Louisville wharf and gathered them into their own small house behind the church. Twenty-five children moved from there to the house that Mother Catherine and the women of Louisville raised money to build. Within three years, river boats and urban disease had brought enough orphans to require purchase of a large building, the St. Vincent Orphanage that lasted Mother Catherine's lifetime.[4] It had a long wing in which she could complete the triad of services by opening St. Vincent Infirmary.

Her peers so respected her that Mother Catherine was consistently re-elected to six-year terms. Other Sisters collaborated with her Council, however, and numerous clergy and lay persons worked to establish the three main ministries that Kentuckians lacked.

From 1838 on, Mother Catherine served two more terms in leadership. As Mother, she strengthened and formed the spirit of the growing community, despite continued poverty and many deaths from the pervasive "consumption" of the era. She successfully defended the congregation's independent identity when Bishop Flaget wished to merge it with the Sisters of Charity in Maryland, knowing that the Sisters did not wish it and that a distant administration would hinder the mission, already expanding to other parts of Kentucky. She led the separate establishment of St. Joseph Infirmary so that the orphanage could expand, and in 1854-55, she directed construction of the church and new academy at Nazareth. Although it has new uses, it still stands as her heritage.

Interim periods out of office allowed Mother Catherine to return to Louisville to her beloved orphans, more numerous as immigrants from Ireland and Germany arrived in the 1840s. As superior of the orphanage—"the only place on earth to which my heart clings"—she accepted, loved, and nurtured hundreds of children, directed Sisters and lay assistants, collaborated with all sorts of professional men and their wives, who became her friends, best supporters and fund-raisers at the annual Orphans' Fair. On the streets of Louisville, she became a recognized figure, either visiting businesses to beg for the orphans or attending to the poor in their homes. It was said that "Every orphan in the city claims you as their mother."[4]

In 1843, Mother Catherine opened the first free school in Louisville.

Mother Catherine contracted pneumonia while walking a great distance in inclement weather to tend to the sick.[4] She died on March 20, 1858.


Mother Catherine's legacy is embodied in her Sisters, which is international now in membership and in ministries of education, care of the sick, impoverished, and orphan, and in advocacy groups for social justice in five nations of North America, Asia, and Africa.

Mother Catherine has been called the founder of social work in Kentucky.[2] Under her leadership, schools and hospitals in Kentucky were founded, including Nazareth Academy (1814), St. Vincent's Academy (1820), St. Catherine's Academy - Lexington (1823), Presentation Academy (1831), St. Vincent's Orphan Asylum (1832), St. Joseph's Hospital (1836), and St. Francis' School at Owensboro (1850).

Spalding University in Louisville is named after Mother Catherine Spalding. The Spalding Family Scholarship was established in 1967 by Hughes Spalding as a living memorial to her, and is awarded annually to a student who shows financial need.[5]

In 2015 a statue of Mother Catherine was unveiled, which is the first statue of a historic woman in public space in Louisville, Kentucky.[6] The statue is located in front of the parish office on South Fifth Street downtown.[6]


  1. ^ a b c Doyle SCN, Mary Ellen. "Catherine Spalding, SCN (1793-1858)", National Women's History Museum
  2. ^ a b c d Shaughnessy SCN, Mary Angela. "Catherine Spalding: co-foundress of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth", Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice, Vol. 9, No. 3, March 2006, pp.334-345 Archived 2013-09-26 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ a b c Freund CM, John. "Women's History – Catherine Spalding, Educational Pioneer", Vincentian Family News, March 6, 2014
  4. ^ a b c Delehanty, Dolores. "Catherine Spalding: A legacy worth preserving", The Courier-Journal, September 23, 2014
  5. ^ Spalding University Archived 2013-03-29 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ a b July 26, 2015 (2015-07-21). "Cathedral of Assumption unveils 'first statue of woman' in city". Retrieved 2015-07-29.

Further reading[edit]

  • Coon, Margaret Maria, SCN. Her Spirit Lives. Nazareth, KY, 2007.
  • Doyle, Mary Ellen, SCN. Pioneer Spirit: Catherine Spalding, Sister of Charity of Nazareth. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2006.
  • Doyle, Mary Ellen. Catherine Spalding, SCN: A Life in Letters. University Press of Kentucky, 2016.
  • Schaunger, J. Herman. "Catherine Spaulding," in Notable American Women, Volume Three. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.
  • Spillane, James Maria, SCN. Kentucky Spring. Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, 1968. For middle and high school age.
  • Saia, Grace, SCN. Catherine Spalding, Woman of Kentucky. Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, 2013. For elementary school age.