Regis Casserly, Mother Mary (1843-1917)
Mother Mary Regis Casserly (1843-1917)
Founder of the congregation of the sisters of st. joseph
The Challenge of Faith. Annie Casserly, a native of Ireland, immigrated with her family to America when she was nine. She was enrolled in St. Joseph Female Academy, a school conducted by Sisters of St. Joseph, in Flushing, New York. The motherhouse and novitiate of the order were located near the academy, and Annie Casserly grew up observing the life and work of these sisters, most of whom served as teachers in parochial schools all across New England. Immediately after she graduated, she received the habit of the community and took the religious name Sister Mary Regis. She accepted a position teaching at a newly formed parochial school in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston, where in 1873 the two hundred children who applied for admission represented 15 percent of the local school district enrollment. A significant challenge for teaching sisters in the 1870s and 1880s was that parochial schools had to be “free,” since parishioners could rarely afford tuition. Sister Mary Regis agreed that the sisters would use the church basement as a schoolhouse and accept only a small stipend to cover living expenses. Poor and working-class parents expressed their appreciation for the efforts of the sisters by unwavering support and contributions in kind.
Mainstream Opposition. Under the leadership of Mother Mary Regis, the community of sisters rebutted every stereotype about the intellectual capacities and ambitions of the poor and insisted that the professional work of the sisters on their behalf be of high quality and publicly acknowledged. Nineteenth-century Protestants continued to view the development of Catholic schools as a serious threat to social harmony, to developing public schools, and to the rapid assimilation of immigrants flooding Boston and environs. The mere hint that a Catholic school was planned for a community unleashed a storm of controversy. A typical protest in 1884 was that of the Stoughton (Mass.) school committee, who deemed a proposed parochial school as “abhorrent to all true Americans.”
Increasing Prestige. Mother Mary Regis fought to incorporate Catholic schools into local communities. From the time of her arrival in Boston, she determined that schools under her direction would resemble local public schools in all essentials. She prohibited the practices reminiscent of European convent schools, and although daily lessons in religion and moral values were offered, the curriculum, textbooks, and school calendars and teaching methods conformed to public school practice. This step deterred charges that children attending parochial schools lagged behind their public school counterparts in academic progress and social integration. At the same time, she favored innovative teaching practices such as field trips and integration of art and music into the academic curriculum. Although there were few formal requirements for public school teaching, by the 1880s the normal school movement had strengthened teacher preparation in New England. Mother Mary Regis demanded that sisters have professional development opportunities as well. In 1885 she opened a female tuition academy in Cambridge in order to advance the training of the sisters as well as the education of young girls. Wealthy patrons’ tuition was steered to support central community needs, especially the higher education of the teaching sisters.
Lasting Influence. During her seventeen years as superior general of the community, Mother Mary Regis opened six parochial schools, an academy, a specialized program for the education of the deaf, and numerous programs for professional development for the sisters, including enrollment at Harvard University’s Summer School. She did far more than administer a large nonprofit corporation and supervise a network of schools in an era when few women held such posts. She shaped public opinion so significantly that parochial schools, once reviled, became an accepted part of the definition of free education. Her work in the New England area advanced the integration of an outsider, working-class community into mainstream society.
Mary Oates, “Organized Volunteerism: The Catholic Sisters in Massachusetts, 1870-1940,” American Quarterly, 30 (Winter 1978): 652–680;
Maxine Seller, Women Educators in the United States, 1820-1993 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994), pp. 95–102.