Early Difficulties and Privations

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XVIII (15) start of chapter

The two ladies who first joined Mrs. Seton, were Miss Cecilia O'Conway and Miss Maria Murphy; and among those who formed the little community of Emmettsburg—the locality selected for the parent house of the Order in America, we find such names as Maria Burke and Catherine Mullen; proving that, in this infant institution, the Irish element was not wanting. In a miserable little house, of one storey and a garret, sixteen persons, including the female children of Mrs. Seton, were crowded; and here the holy women, who were destined to prove the most eminent benefactors to religion and humanity, suffered hardships and privations which they yet bore with cheerfulness. At times, indeed, they were reduced to a condition of absolute destitution. To supply the place of coffee, they manufactured a beverage from carrots, which they sweetened with molasses; and their rye bread was of the coarsest description. For months they were reduced to such absolute want that they did not know where the next day's meal was to come from. On Christmas-day they considered themselves fortunate in having some smoked herrings for dinner, and a spoonful of molasses for each.(27) By her anti-Catholic friends Mrs. Seton was denounced as 'the pest of society,' and 'a hypocrite and a bigot,' they visiting on her the early death of two loved members of her own family who, braving the trials of her exalted mission, died in the early bloom of youthful womanhood. As, with some modifications to suit the constitution of different religious communities, the objects contemplated by the Daughters of Charity are those common to several Orders in America, it may be well to state their objects, as given by Mrs. Seton's biographer:—

The end which the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph proposed to themselves was, to honour our Lord Jesus Christ as the source and model of all charity, by rendering to Him every temporal and spiritual service in their power, in the persons of the poor, the sick, prisoners, and others; also to honour the Sacred infancy of Jesus Christ, in the young persons of their sex whom they may be called upon to form to virtue, while they sow in their minds the seeds of useful knowledge. Thus the poor, of all descriptions and ages, the sick, invalids, foundlings, orphans, and even insane persons, were embraced within the sphere of their solicitude and care. Another object of their zeal, no less important at that time in America, was the instruction of young persons of their sex in virtue, piety, and various branches of useful learning.

And these, and such as these, were then, and have been even to this day, described as Mrs. Seton was described by her anti-Catholic friends—'pests of society,' 'hypocrites and bigots!'

Philadelphia was the first place to which a branch of the Order was extended; and the care of the orphans whose parents had perished of yellow fever offered a fitting opportunity for the exercise of their charity. Their's, however, was a hard trial for a considerable time, notwithstanding the sympathy shown to them, and the assistance they received. The Sisters had nothing beyond the coarsest fare, and not always sufficient of that. For three months they had no bread whatever, subsisting wholly on potatoes, which formed their principal article of diet for their first year. Their 'coffee' was made of corn, and their fuel was gathered from the tanyards. 'One day, the Sisters being too much occupied at home, an orphan was despatched to the market with twelve and a half cents, all the money in the house, to buy a shin of beef. A few hours after, the child returned to the asylum with a large piece of meat, telling the Sisters that an old market-woman, finding that she was one of the orphans, had given her the money and meat, and authorised her to call upon her for assistance whenever they were in want. This old woman became a generous friend of the institution. By the benevolence of herself and others it gradually acquired ample resources, and was enabled to maintain under its charitable roof an increasing number of orphans.'

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America