Brief History of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth
In 1853 James Roosevelt Bayley, a nephew of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton and the first Bishop of Newark, sought a community of women religious for his newly established diocese which encompassed all of New Jersey. When his aunt’s communities could spare none, he sent five young women from Newark and Paterson to the Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati for initial formation with the understanding that two Sisters of Charity from New York – Sister Mary Xavier Mehegan and Sister Mary Catharine Nevin – would oversee the fledgling congregation. Although free to return to New York, the two professed sisters cast their lot with the Church in NJ, founding the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth in September 1859. Having already outgrown the original facility in Newark that served as an orphanage, a hospital and a novitiate, Mother Xavier purchased property from the Diocese, which was relocating Seton Hall College from Madison to South Orange. On the feast of the Visitation in July 1860 the Motherhouse was relocated to Morris County.
During Mother Xavier’s tenure of fifty-six years, the Community experienced remarkable growth in membership and ministries. Schools, hospitals, crèches (day nurseries), orphanages, a home for the incurably ill, a residence for working women and the first college for women in the State of New Jersey were established. During the Civil War Sisters of Charity cared for soldiers on both sides in emergency hospitals set up at the train stations in Newark and Trenton. Then, as now, the Sisters extended themselves personally to the sick, the poor, the dying, the orphaned, the bereaved, in short, to all those in need.
Within the first quarter-century the ministry of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth began to reach beyond New Jersey to Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Florida and other states. Beginning in 1925 we began to serve the people of God in more distant areas, such as China, Bolivia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and, in more recent times, El Salvador, Mexico and Haiti. And, while we were founded in a diocese that encompassed the entire state, as each new diocese has been established the Sisters of Charity have served the people of God in the Dioceses of Paterson, Trenton, Camden and Metuchen, as well as the Archdiocese of Newark.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) profoundly altered religious life. The Council’s directives to make the following of Christ in the Gospels the norm of religious life, to return to the spirit of the founders and foundresses, and to adjust to the changed conditions of the times led to the establishment of new ministries and the revitalization of some traditional ministries, even as other commitments regretfully were ended. Religious women and men no longer viewed their vocation as separation from the world but as active involvement with the world. Our Sisters responded enthusiastically to the Church’s exhortations to hear the cries of the poor and to make justice a constitutive element of following Christ.
While we retain some of our earliest works, the Sisters of Charity also seek “to read the signs of the times” in keeping with the spirit of Vatican Council II. The opening of Josephine’s Place in 2003 as our most recently sponsored work was unique in our history. In the words of Sister Judy Mertz, its founding vision was “to reflect the needs of women as they articulated them and to be a place where they could feel safe, be respected, and form community with each other.” While new in its desire to work in partnership with the women it serves, its establishment also resonates with our heritage of service in Elizabeth, where the Sisters of Charity have sought to meet the educational and healthcare needs of its citizens since 1866.
We thank God for all the Sisters who have gone before us and on whose strength our community was built, for all those who have ministered with us since 1859, and for all who support our ministries. We celebrate our partnership with women and men of faith as together we work to realize the Reign of God.