By Carolyn Kesterman, Communications intern
The Motherhouse is a welcoming sight from the Ohio River.
From the banks of the Ohio River, the Sisters of Charity Motherhouse is an impressive and welcoming structure high atop the hills of Delhi, the river equally admired from those above. Providing transportation to ministries, a reminder of the past, and a place to come home to, the river has long held an important and beloved place in the Community’s history.
When the first four Sisters arrived in Cincinnati in 1829 to minister to immigrants at the request of Bishop Edward Fenwick, their first glimpse of the city that would become home was from the deck of a riverboat. As the Sisters’ ministry there flourished, other Sisters were sent their way by the same river, including Mother Margaret George, the founder of the Community, in 1845.
S. Anthony O’Connell looks to the viewer as she bandages a wounded soldier in S. Ernestine Foskey’s painting Angels of the Battlefield.
The river also took Sisters away to serve in other places. When the Community came to the aid of the wounded in the Civil War as nurses, they travelled to wherever they were needed, including the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee. Here, S. Anthony O’Connell, known as the “Angel of the Battlefield,” led three other Sisters and several women from Cincinnati as they tirelessly attended to the wounded on “floating hospitals” that took them up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to St. John’s Hospital in Cincinnati. In her account of the events in a letter, S. Theodosia Farn says, “Our duties here were performed on boats which carried the wounded up the river. At one time, our boat’s deck looked like a slaughter-house … wounded everywhere.”
In S. Anthony’s account of the floating hospitals, she describes a moment when their boat was trapped by shoals, also known as sandbars, when travelling up the Ohio River:
“On our last trip from Shiloh, we were stopped at Louisville by the shoals, and our boats were crowded. There were, at least, 700 aboard. The captain informed us that we would be obliged to leave the boat if we wished to live, but none of us would think of doing so. All expressed their willingness, their determination to remain … We received the aid of an expert pilot from Louisville. Both pilots worked bravely. Those who had left us, fearing a watery grave, rejoined us, and again we started for ‘Home Sweet Home.’”
Not long after the end of the Civil War, the Community purchased a farm in Delhi Township, leading to the creation of their current home overlooking the river. After using the farmhouse on this property for several years, it was decided that they would purchase the adjoining property and build a large new Motherhouse, this building dedicated in 1884. Only a year later, though, fire broke out, and although the Sisters tried to utilize their new waterside home by forming a long line down to the river to pass buckets up, the fire was too quick and all but the charred bell tower and fireproof archives vault was destroyed. Work started up the next day to rebuild the Motherhouse, though, and by the next year, Sisters were able to move back into the completed west wing. The building was named “Mount St. Joseph On-the-Ohio,” the latter portion of this name also used for the subsequent college for many years before being dropped.
Taken from the roof of the Motherhouse in 1905, this photograph shows the river on the right, with the avenue leading to Delhi Road on the left. The farmland on the other side of the road is now Mount St. Joseph University.
Plans for a beautiful four-story chapel were made shortly after, and the Immaculate Conception Chapel that resulted also had ties to the river as many of its ornaments, including the enormous Georgian marble columns and the altar, arrived from Europe and other places in large crates via boats. While the river provided a conveniently close drop-off point for the Motherhouse, getting the crates up the steep slope of the hill provided some degree of difficulty, though they met the challenge with readiness and came out with success.
The river continued to provide transportation for the Sisters for many years, bringing women to their Congregation and taking the Sisters to their numerous ministries. Two of these ministries were in Memphis, Tennessee at St. Thomas and St. Anthony schools. A touching memory for the Community developed out of one of these journeys downriver in the early 1900s: in the tradition of waving handkerchiefs to say goodbye, when the Sisters leaving for Memphis passed the Motherhouse on their way, the boat pilot slowed down and blasted the boat’s whistle while the Motherhouse Sisters waved white sheets from the bell tower in farewell.
(Left to right) Sisters Victoria Marie Forde, Mary Declan Browne, Kateri Maureen Koverman, and Julia Mary Deiters reenact the landing of the first Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati in 1979.
While passenger river transportation became gradually less common over the 20th century, the Community retained a strong connection to the river. In 1979, a reenactment of the first Sisters’ arrival in Cincinnati was held on the 150th anniversary of the event. Four Sisters clad in the black habits of 1829 landed in Yeatman’s Cove in downtown Cincinnati aboard the riverboat Abraham Lincoln, and once on shore, a professor from the College of Mount St. Joseph portrayed Michael P. Cassilly, a man who had been sent by Bishop Fenwick to welcome the Sisters. Before processing to St. Francis Xavier Church for a Mass, a prayer service was held by the river, after which the city mayor, Bobbie Sterne, proclaimed October 27, 1979 to be “Sister of Charity Day” and unveiled a plaque commemorating the initial arrival of the Sisters in the city. It was estimated that 600 to 700 members of the Community were present for the activities.
Today, Sisters enjoy looking out at the Ohio River from the balconies of the Motherhouse, remembering the long history the Community has had with those waters and recognizing its serene beauty. The river will long remain an important facet of the Sisters of Charity.