This dissertation focuses on the development of two communities of women religious beginning in the early nineteenth century: the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, founded in 1812, and the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, who arrived in Ohio in 1829 and became a diocesan community in 1852. Although administratively separate, these two apostolic communities shared a charism of service to the poor in the tradition of St. Vincent de Paul. The history of these two communities demonstrates the overlapping worlds women religious inhabited: their personal faith, their community life, their place in the Catholic Church, and their place in the regions where they lived. These women were often met with admiration as they formed necessary social institutions such as schools, hospitals, and orphanages that provided services to all religious denominations.
Sisters’ active engagement with their local communities defied anti-Catholic stereotypes at the time and created significant public roles for women. The skills needed to create and maintain successful social institutions demonstrate that these women were well-educated, largely self-sufficient, competent fundraisers, and well-liked by the Catholics and Protestants alike that they served. This dissertation argues for the importance of acknowledging and analyzing this tension: as celibate, educated women who used their skills for lifelong public service, the Sisters of Charity were clearly exceptional figures among nineteenth century women, though they did not challenge the gendered hierarchies of their church or American society.
To further understand this tension, this dissertation utilizes several cases studies of conflicts between sisters and their superiors in each community to examine the extent of their influence in deciding their community’s current priorities and planning for the future. These case studies demonstrate that obedience did not have a fixed definition but is better understood instead as dynamic and situational between multiple locations and circumstances. These findings concerning gender, labor, institution and community building, and the growth of American Catholicism highlight the integral role that women and religion played in the antebellum era.