CSA Sisters on the St. John Hospital staff, 1917

A Brief History of the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine

“Surely I can do this for God. I am free. No earthly tie binds me. Yes, I will go to America and care for the little Indians” reasoned 24 year old Mademoiselle Louise Brulois, a postulant in the Augustinian Sisters at Saint Louis Hospital, Boulogne sur Mer, France. No matter that Cleveland, Ohio, in 1851 was nearly as devoid of Indians to convert as it was full of immigrants with ship fever and forgotten orphans to be cared for, Louise had finally decided to leave her beloved country and go with her superior to America.

The Most Reverend Amadeus Rappe, first Bishop of Cleveland, long aware of the need for establishing a hospital staffed by Sisters, had tried unsuccessfully in his native France to obtain Sisters. Finally directed to Sister Bernardine Cabaret, superior of Saint Louis Hospital, he found her an enthusiastic volunteer.

Though the Sisters at the hospital were reluctant to let her go, they responded to Sister Bernardine’s spirit of sacrifice and unanimously remitted the remainder of her term as superior. Having earlier secured the assistance of Sister Francoise Guillement, she had now convinced Louise Brulois and another postulant, 20 year old Cornelie Muselet, to join in the missionary venture.

Beginning their two week trip across the Atlantic on the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy, September 24, 1851, the four missionaries, with little more than chapel furnishings and boxes of linen destined to be made into sheets and bandages, spent their stormy trip learning the rudiments of English.

Early Hardships
Bishop Rappe, eagerly awaiting the Sisters’ arrival, had written in the spring, “Come, my children, I have now prepared a place for you. On it is good spring water and good fresh air.” The house on the eight acres, though, was still occupied on October 10 when the Sisters came to Cleveland. However, the Ursuline Nuns, who had come to the city from Boulogne just the year before, received them as guests and provided religious training for the postulants.

Within two weeks, Sister Bernardine and Sister Francoise, advised by the Bishop, began living with individual families so that they could better visit the sick and poor in their homes. Cleveland’s first public health nurses were soon a familiar sight in the city, and people called them “angels” because of their white habits.

By March, 1852, the Sisters were able to move into their small, two story frame house in the fresh air of the country, Ohio City. In August, they opened Saint Joseph’s on the same site, the first public hospital in what later became part of the city of Cleveland.

The encounter with the hardships of a pioneer land, an unfamiliar language, a historically severe winter, and failing health were perhaps the reasons why Sisters Bernardine and Francoise obtained permission to return to France in September, 1852. Cornelie and Louise, who had become Sister Saint Joseph and Sister Augustine, strengthened themselves with the Scriptural injunction that those who put their hand to the plow and look back are not fit for the kingdom of Heaven and decided to remain in Cleveland.

First American Superior
Bishop Rappe then turned to Sister Ursula Bissonette, an Ursuline novice, for assistance in continuing the work he had begun, which had already attracted two more young women. As a laywoman, Sister Ursula was well known to Bishop Rappe from her work in the Sandusky area, particularly instructing First Communion classes. In addition, she had worked with the cholera victims in the epidemic of 1849, gathering orphans and widows and caring for them in an abandoned house until the disease passed. Sister Ursula made her profession as a Sister of Charity in the chapel of the Ursuline convent on October 21, 1852, adding a fourth vow to devote herself to works of charity and in the afternoon became, at age 35, the superior of the new American community.

Under her direction, the Sisters continued their work with the sick, and in order to care for children left by deceased patients, built an addition to the hospital. To support the orphanage, the boys were taught tailoring and carpentry and, with the Sisters, weekly pulled their wagon to deliver suits and cassocks for the clergy and furniture to the West Side Market.

Hospitals and Orphanages
By 1856, a number of considerations forced the closing of Saint Joseph Hospital, and the entire building was used by the orphans until Saint Vincent Orphanage was completed in 1859. Later, additional room was again needed for the orphans and 100 boys and several Sisters moved to Saint Louis Orphanage, Louisville, Ohio.

The original convent continued to house a few patients and the elderly remaining from the hospital until the present Saint Vincent Charity Hospital was opened in 1865. The hospital had long been discussed by Mother Ursula; Doctor Gustave E. Weber, a prominent retired Army surgeon; and Bishop Rappe, who finally purchased the property for $10,000. Though Mother Ursula did not live to see the building completed, her spirit of sacrifice remained with the Sisters who willingly gave their pillows to furnish the hospital while they slept on straw. “Charity towards the poor,” said Bishop Rappe at the dedication, “was ever to be the motto of the hospital.”

To continue this charitable service, the hospital added a school of nursing; to staff the pharmacy, two Sisters became the second and third women in Ohio to be certified by the State Board of Pharmacy. Sister Augustine, long since aware of more than Indians in America, headed the hospital while Sister Saint Joseph continued to direct the orphanage.

On a cold winter’s night in 1873, a widow about to deliver a child was taken in and the Sisters began Saint Ann Hospital and Infant Home, first near Charity Hospital and later on Woodland Avenue. Encouraged by Bishop Richard Gilmour, the Sisters cared particularly for unmarried mothers and neglected infants.

To the continual door-to-door begging trips of the Sisters were added “Donation Days” for this new work to which the people of Cleveland and the surrounding areas gave generously; however, the money never seemed quite enough to meet the growing demands for the care of the sick and needy.

Though by the turn of the century, Sister Saint Joseph, the last of the pioneer Sisters, had died, she had lived long enough to see a community of over one-hundred Sisters of Charity of Saint Augustine established in a new motherhouse in Lakewood, Ohio.

From this center, the expansion of the works of health, education, and welfare in Cleveland and other areas continued during the next fifty-years even though the requests for the Sisters’ service far exceeded their ability to respond. Nevertheless, the Sisters made significant contributions in the development of the healthcare field.

Hospital Growth
Providence Hospital, Sandusky, and its nursing school were staffed by the Sisters from its beginnings in 1902 until 1922 when Sandusky became part of the Toledo diocese. A bequest from a wealthy woman and her brother, who had seen the need, led to the opening of Mercy Hospital in Canton in 1908. Later, another donor provided for the establishment of Little Flower Hospital for Children near Mercy.

In 1916, Bishop John Farrelly, desiring a school of nursing at Saint John Hospital on Cleveland’s West side, requested the Sisters to assume administration and staffing of the 26 year old hospital which had just been rebuilt.

Prior to the opening of Saint Thomas Hospital, made possible by the financial contributions of the people of the area, Akron was the largest city in the country without a Sisters’ hospital. In addition to directing and staffing the hospital and nursing school in 1928, the willingness of the Sisters in 1939 to respond to a new need caused St. Thomas to be the first general hospital to open its doors to Doctor Bob Smith, co founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, when he brought his first patient there.

About the same time, Bishop Emmet M. Walsh of Charleston, South Carolina, had traveled over 120,000 miles trying to get Sisters to operate the sole Catholic hospital which was being built after much effort in Columbia. Circumstances led him to the Sisters of Charity who extended their service to South Carolina and Providence Hospital was opened in 1938.

Educational Initiatives
Although the education of orphans had been undertaken from the early days and was under the supervision of the diocesan superintendent of schools, other elementary and high school education was not begun until 1922 when Bishop Joseph Schrembs formally requested the Sisters to prepare themselves to staff schools. Saint Augustine Academy, enrolling students from kindergarten to sixth grade, was established on the Motherhouse grounds in 1925 and classes extended to high school the next year. By the time the Sisters celebrated the seventy fifth anniversary of their coming to Cleveland, grade schools in Cuyahoga Falls, Ashtabula, Amherst, Harrisburg, Maximo, and Cleveland were part of their apostolic ministry.

Social Service Development

Established to organize the charitable services of the diocese on a sound financial basis, the Catholic Charities Corporation freed the Sisters from the constant struggle of trying to raise sufficient funds while caring for the sick and unfortunate. One of the first acts of Catholic Charities in 1925 was to relocate all the orphans cared for by the Sisters at Saint Vincent and at Saint Louis Orphanages on 180 acres which became known as Parmadale, the nation’s first cottage plan home for dependent children.

The years surrounding the centennial of the Community witnessed the expansion of Charity and Saint Thomas Hospitals; the building of Timken Mercy Hospital and subsequent consolidation of Little Flower Hospital with Mercy; the development of a new Saint Ann Hospital separate from De Paul Infant Home. In addition Sisters continued on the faculty of Saint John College School of Nursing; engaged in Confraternity of Christian Doctrine work in parishes and missions; and cared for pre school children at Saint Edward Home, across from Parmadale. The growing needs of the Community were met by purchase of 350 acres in Richfield for a new Motherhouse, completed in 1957, to train the young sisters and care for the retired.

If the first fifty years of the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine were those of birth and beginnings, the second half century saw growth and expansion. Amid the complexities of the late twentieth century and the new twenty-first century, these last fifty-seven years seem marked by maturity and evaluation.

Pope John XXIII, in opening the Second Vatican Council in the fall of 1962, called the whole Church to renew itself in order “to be found increasingly faithful to the gospel of Christ.” The Sisters of Charity, like all religious communities, revitalized themselves by returning to the sources of all Christian life and to the original inspiration of its founders, making necessary adjustments in their living and service, adapting to the conditions of the times.

Although the number of sisters may be smaller, their vitality and initiative for establishing new services, continues the long tradition of meeting emerging needs. For example, the Open House in Cleveland, for persons with AIDS and their families, is now merged into other programs; the Interfaith Wellness Center in Irvine, Kentucky for health needs in Appalachia; the Catholic Worker House in Akron, particularly for Spanish-speaking immigrants; Joseph’s Home, a short term residence for homeless in the Cleveland inner city who have been released from the hospital; and Centering Space, for spiritual reflection, were all begun by the sisters and their collaborators in the last two decades. Among other ministries, our sisters have also become involved in the efforts against human trafficking.

Sr. Mary Denis Maher, CSA, PhD; Archivist
Revised 2016

Enjoy a video summarizing the history of the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine, provided by the Sisters of Charity Health System: