Catherine Spalding

Born: December 23, 1793

Died: March 20, 1858

Catherine Spalding had an enormous impact on the city, especially for the ill, the poor and the orphaned. In 1831 the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth sent Sister Catherine to Louisville to establish a Catholic school for girls next to St. Louis Church. While classes originally met in the basement of the church, Presentation Academy officially opened on November 21, 1831. Within the first year the school had enrolled fifty to sixty students, both Catholics and Protestants, with the stipulation that those who could afford it would pay tuition and those who could not afford it would be educated for free.(Doyle 2006, p97)

In 1832 Louisville experienced a major flood and Sister Catherine saw the need for an orphanage in the city. She began taking in orphans as early as June 1832 and established St. Vincent's Orphan Asylum at 443 S. Fifth Street. Along with several other Sisters of Charity, Catherine and a couple dozen orphans moved in. Within four years the orphanage had outgrown its building as more and more orphans or motherless children were dropped off. By 1836 they had moved into a new space at Wenzel and Jefferson Streets. The orphanage continued to grow and moved several times before closing its doors in 1983 — 151 years after it opened.(Naber 2001)

Part of the reason for the continued growth of the orphanage in the 1830s was the epidemic of cholera which hit Louisville after the flood. While Europe had experienced this scourge as early as 1817, it did not touch Louisville until October 1832. The disease ran its course for nearly two months killing an average of ten people a day. The Sisters of Charity at Presentation Academy were joined by four sisters from the Nazareth motherhouse to provide nursing care for those in need. The Board of Health offered to pay for their travel, board and lodging expenses. All of the Sisters survived and by December the city's doctors had declared the epidemic over.(Doyle 2006, p101) After the hard work and danger faced by the Sisters of Charity, a local pastor accused the group of being mercenary for having accepted money for their services. Sister Catherine took measures to clear the Sisters' good name in a letter to the mayor and the city council dated February 10, 1834:


At that gloomy period, when the Cholera threatened to lay our city desolate, & nurses for the sick poor could not be obtained on any terms. — Revd. Mr. Abell in the name of the Society of which I have the honor to be a member, proferred the gratuituous services of as many of our Sisters as might be necessary in the then existing distress: requiring merely, that their expenses should be paid. This offer was accepted; as the order from your honorable board, inviting the Sisters will now show. — But when the money was ordered from your Treasury to defray those expenses, I had the mortification to remark, that, instead of saying: The expenses of the Sisters of Charity, the word services was substituted. I immediately remonstrated against it; & even mentioned the circumstance to the Mayor & another gentleman of the Council. — & upon being promised that the error would be corrected, I remained satisfied that it had been attended to; until a late assertion from one of the pulpits of the city leads me to believe that it stands uncorrected on your books; as these same books were referred to in proof of the assertion. — If so, Gentlemen, pardon the liberty I take in refunding to you the amt. paid for the above mentioned expenses. Well convinced, that our Community, for whom I have acted in this case, would prefer to incur the expense themselves than to submit to so unjust an odium.

Gentlemen, be pleased to understand that we are not hirelings. — &, if we are, in practice, the servants of the poor, the sick & the orphans; — we are voluntarily so: But we look for our reward in another & better World.

With sincere respect,
Your [obedient Servant]
Catherine Spalding
Sister of Charity (Spalding 1834)

This letter elicited an apology by the mayor, a correction of the books, and a return of the $75 to cover the expenses of the Sisters during the emergency.

The new orphanage opened soon after this incident and provided lodging for up to fifty people. This accommodated more people than the current entourage of sisters and orphans, and Catherine Spalding began to use the additional space as an infirmary for both Catholics and non-Catholics. In addition to private contributions and an annual fundraising fair, the infirmary helped to raise the money necessary to run the orphanage.(Doyle 2006, p110) While working as superior at the motherhouse in Nazareth, Mother Catherine wrote to Sister Louisa Dorsey who was charged with running the orphanage in Mother Catherine's absence. Even at a distance she was driven to provide for the orphans as best she could. In her letter she stated:

...if your heart beats friendly towards my Dear Orphans, be assured it is a new claim you have on me & an additional tie full as strong as the one that unites us in the sacred bonds of religion. I enclose you here $10... which I had the good luck to obtain the other day from a stranger to appropriate to the benefit of the orphans — I shall continue, as I have done to procure for them all that I can.(Spalding 1839)

Sister Catherine was able to return to her orphans and wrote a friend, "I am here in the midst of near sixty destitute little beings who have few to think of or love them. & I am content; if I only can be useful, I ask no more."(Spalding 1845) In another letter she described the work going on at the combined orphanage and hospital:

We have added to our house & got everything convenient. The kitchen for the sick people is quite separate from the asylum kitchen & Sister Phillipa has care of cooking for the sick while two Sisters... keep house for the asylum & things at large. We have Sister Mary Catherine with us now & she is one of the best Sisters I have known. Sister Martina is on 5th Street [at Presentation Academy].(Spalding 1847)

By 1848 Catherine began work to separate the orphanage from the infirmary as each had grown and needed more space. In 1852 St. Vincent Infirmary was closed and reopened as St. Joseph Infirmary on Fourth Street with Catherine leading the organization of the new hospital. St. Joseph's Infirmary became the largest private hospital in the state of Kentucky and provided services until it closed in 1979 – 143 years after its establishment...(Spalding 2001)

Sporadically throughout her career, Catherine Spalding would be called back to Nazareth to serve as Mother Superior. As she stated, "I came back from Louisville to take again a burden that I little suited and less desired. My heart clung to the orphans and sick I had left."(Doyle 2006, p115) During her time there, however, she was responsible for creating new schools in Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee. Over her lifetime, she served 25 years as head of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth interspersed by her time in Louisville. In her last term as Mother Superior at Nazareth she oversaw the building of a new motherhouse and chapel. (Spalding 2001)

In the last couple years of her life she was able to return to Louisville and her work with her "dear orphans" before she died in 1858.


Doyle, Mary Ellen. Pioneer Spirit: Catherine Spalding, Sister of Charity of Nazareth. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 2006.
"Memorandum of Agreement between General Robert Anderson and Bishop Spalding." In Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Archives, Civil War binder, September 24, 1861.
Spalding, Catherine. Letter to the Mayor & Council of the City of Louisville. February 10, 1834. Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Archives.
Spalding, Catherine. Letter to the Sister Louisa Dorsey. August 31, 1839. Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Archives.
Spalding, Catherine. Letter to the Mrs. Maria Crozier. February 25, 1845. Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Archives.
Spalding, Catherine. Letter to S. Claudia Elliott. 1847. Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Archives.
Spalding, Catherine. Letter to S. Claudia Elliott. September 20, 1848. Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Archives.