Mathews, Ann Teresa (1732–1800)

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Mathews, Ann Teresa (1732–1800)

Co-founder of the first Roman Catholic women's religious order in the United States . Name variations: Sister Bernardina Teresa Xavier of St. Joseph; Mother Bernardina. Born Ann Teresa Mathews in 1732, in Charles County, Maryland; died on June 12, 1800, in Port Tobacco, Maryland; daughter of Joseph Mathews (a farmer) and Susannah (Craycroft) Mathews; never married; no children.

Ann Teresa Mathews was better known as Mother Bernardina, head of the first Roman Catholic religious order for women in the United States. Mathews was born in Charles County, Maryland, in 1732, into a devout Catholic family that was left in hardship after the death of her father two years later. Although the state originally had been founded as a haven for Catholics, prior to the American Revolution there were many strictures placed upon its Catholic citizens; public worship was banned, as were seminaries, convents, and other training institutions. At the age of 22, Mathews decided that she had a religious calling, and so journeyed to Hoogstraeten, Belgium, in order to enter a convent. She joined the English order of the Discalced (Barefoot) Carmelites, a contemplative order that neither taught nor tended to the sick, as most religious orders for women did. She took her vows in November 1755, becoming Bernardina Teresa Xavier of St. Joseph.

Mathews was elected prioress of her order in 1774. After the end of the American Revolution in 1783 and the lifting of restrictions on Catholic worship in Maryland, she began to consider founding an order in the new United States. (There was an Ursuline convent in New Orleans, but the city would remain under French rule until 1803.) Planning, the raising of money, and securing the legal rights for her goal took a number of years. In April 1790, Mathews sailed for America with Frances Dickinson (Sister Clare Joseph), two of her nieces who had joined the Discalced Carmelites, and Father Charles Neale, a priest who was a distant relative. Both he and her brother Ignatius, a Jesuit priest, had encouraged Mathews in her plan. In July 1790, Mathews and Dickinson founded the first convent in the United States at Chandler's Cove, Maryland. They moved not long afterward to land provided by a supportive Catholic landowner, and established the Port Tobacco convent on October 15, 1790. Mathews was its first prioress, and within a decade it was home to 14 other sisters. The bishop of their diocese was interested in having them teach, and received a papal dispensation in 1793 that would have permitted them to do so, but Mathews and the other nuns argued successfully to maintain their contemplative routine. They did, however, raise their own sheep and spin the wool for use in sewing their habits. Mathews died of cancer in 1800, and was later interred in Bonnie Brae Cemetery in the city of Baltimore, where the Carmelite order had relocated in 1831.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Vol. 2. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women: A Biographical Dictionary from Colonial Times to the Present. New York, NY: Dover, 1980.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan

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Mathews, Ann Teresa (1732–1800)

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