Spalding, Catherine (1793–1858)

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Spalding, Catherine (1793–1858)

American nun who helped to establish schools, orphanages, and a hospital on the Kentucky frontier . Name variations: Mother Catherine. Born in Charles County, Maryland, on December 23, 1793; died in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 20, 1858; parents may have been Edward Spalding and Juliet (Boarman) Spalding.

Entered the sisterhood (1812); elected first mother superior of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth (1813); took vows (1816); established what became St. Catherine's Academy in Lexington, Kentucky (1823); opened Presentation Academy in Louisville (1831); established St. Joseph's Hospital (1832) and St. Vincent's Orphan Asylum (1833); directed construction of convent church at Nazareth, Kentucky (1850–56).

Catherine Spalding, known through most of her life as Mother Catherine, was a pioneer for the Catholic Church in an area of the country that was, at the time, the West. There is some ambiguity regarding her early life. She was born in Maryland, but around 1799 she moved to Kentucky, either with both parents or with her widowed mother. Shortly after this move, she and her sister Ann were orphaned, leaving them to be raised by relatives.

In December 1812, Reverend John David, later bishop, announced his intention to set up a Roman Catholic teaching sisterhood in the American frontier. This sisterhood was to serve Bishop Benedict J. Flaget's new diocese, the first to be established west of the Allegheny Mountains. David had established a seminary for the training of priests on a donated farm at St. Thomas' near Bardstown, Kentucky. It was there that Spalding, a beautiful 19-year-old, presented herself, along with two older women, to help form the sisterhood. The new novices, known as the Sisters of Charity, lived in great poverty while carrying out charitable work among the poor and sick of the area, in addition to performing domestic and farm work. Spalding, who assumed the position of mother superior in 1813, oversaw the establishment of a school in 1814. Within four years, rapid growth from the original nine students necessitated the building of a brick house to board the increasing number of pupils.

In 1819, Mother Catherine ended her second term as superior, and although Father David and the nuns wanted her to continue, she stood firmly by the rule that limited the superior to two consecutive terms. In 1823, she went to Scott County where she helped to establish what became St. Catherine's Academy in Lexington. She returned to the position of mother superior for another six-year tenure in 1824, but found the order in chaos. The nuns had moved to Nazareth, Kentucky, and begun construction on a convent and school there, but the bookkeeping was in disarray and they were heavily in debt. Mother Catherine managed to bring about order, and in July 1825 the first class graduated from Nazareth Academy. The distinguished audience to the examination included Secretary of State Henry Clay, who presented the diplomas. In 1829, the Kentucky legislature granted the sisterhood and the school legal status, and in 1826 Pope Leo XII recognized the order, granting it spiritual advantages.

Although Mother Catherine served as mother superior in Nazareth for two more six-year terms beginning in 1838 and in 1850, she devoted most of her last 30 years to charity work in Louisville, Kentucky, where she had moved in 1831 and opened the city's first Catholic school. During a devastating cholera epidemic in 1832–33, she nursed the sick and cared for children orphaned by the disease. She was observed more than once returning to the sisters' house from a sick call with an infant in her arms, another in her apron, and a third toddling beside her clinging to her skirt. Her concern for these orphans gave rise to St. Vincent's Orphan Asylum, the most cherished of her life's works, and the first Catholic infirmary in Kentucky, which became St. Joseph's Hospital. She convinced wealthy patrons, both Catholic and Protestant, to contribute to and support these institutions. She also opened an orphan asylum at the seminary in Bardstown and directed the construction of the convent church at Nazareth.

Mother Catherine died in Louisville of bronchitis contracted in the course of her charity work. In accordance with her wishes, she was buried in the mother house cemetery at Nazareth near the grave of her friend and mentor, Bishop John David. She left behind a legacy of work with the poor and with orphans, as well as a strong order of 145 sisters in 16 convents in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

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

Malinda Mayer , writer and editor, Falmouth, Massachusetts