About a year ago, I told you about the time Billy the Kid entered a bank in the Old West for the purpose of robbing it. Inside was a Sister of Charity. Billy took one look, tipped his hat, and walked back out. Anyone who has ever encountered a Sister of Charity would not be surprised by this. However, you might be surprised to learn that Sisters of Charity of New York took on an even greater challenge than Billy the Kid: the infamous gangs of 19
century New York.
If you are in lower Manhattan, be sure to visit the Chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary on State Street for a wonderful exhibit titled.
“How the Sisters of Charity Tamed the Gangs of New York.”
The exhibit will be on until August. The Chapel is on the site of the childhood home of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, founder of the Sisters of Charity. The Sisters of Charity of New York are, of course, are a branch of the community she established 200 years ago in Emmetsburg, Maryland, for the sake of helping poor people.
Now, how did the Sisters defeat the gangs? By opening orphanages and schools to house and educate the immigrant children, many of whom were homeless and alone. Their families perhaps died on the coffin ships bringing the famine Irish to New York in the 1840s and 1850s or succumbed to one of the diseases that raged through the notorious Five Points slum. Some female orphans found work as domestic servants in the homes of the wealthy. The boys were not employable, so many fell into crime.
When you visit the exhibit, you’ll see the number of schools, orphanages and hospitals the Sisters of Charity opened in New York City and upstate. They started the New York Foundling Hospital with just $5.00. They established and ran the majority of the Catholic parochial schools. Their famous and sorely missed St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village cared for the survivors of RMS Titanic in April of 1912.
Until the 1970s, New Yorkers could spot the Sisters, who dressed in distinctive habits that were actually the garb of 19
century widows like Elizabeth Seton. Many of the youngsters they educated went on to careers, business, politics, the law, medicine, priesthood, religious life, and various trades. And these students never forgot their teachers. When the Sisters boarded the old Fifth Avenue Coach Line, for example, many a bus driver would put his hand over the fare box. The clergy and teaching brothers did not receive the same privilege.
Because the Sisters have for the past 40 years dressed in modern clothes, they are difficult to pick out. But they are here and also in Latin America. Their monuments in New York are all around – not so much in buildings, but in the descendants of their students, including those 19
century street urchins they enabled to escape from poverty and crime.
By the way, while you are at the Sisters’ exhibit, be sure to take a look at the history of Watson House, founded by Charlotte Grace O’Brien, a woman cut from the same fine cloth as Mother Seton, to care for young immigrant girls.