Diocesan News

Sisters of Charity Served Brooklyn Before There Was Even a Diocese

Several sisters who were graduates of Bishop McDonnell Memorial High School gathered together for this photo taken in 1946. The school opened in 1933. (Photos: Courtesy of the Sisters of Charity Archives)

DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — The Sisters of Charity of New York, who announced in April they would no longer accept new members, enjoyed a long history of service in the Diocese of Brooklyn. 

In fact, the sisters started working in Brooklyn two decades before the diocese was established in 1853.

The sisters taught in schools, cared for children in an orphanage, and served in local churches, including the parish that is now the Cathedral Basilica of St. James in Downtown Brooklyn.

“If you look back, it really is a rich history. And I think it parallels the influx of immigrants to Brooklyn who at that time were mostly Irish and German,” explained Sister Regina Bechtle, SC, of the congregation’s Charism Resource Office.

Here’s just a sampling of the sisters’ legacy of service in Brooklyn:

  • The sisters administered to the needs of hundreds of patients at St. Mary’s Female Hospital, which opened in 1868 to care for women and infants. The hospital’s School of Nursing, established in 1889, was the first Catholic training school to be accredited in New York State.
  • In 1873, the sisters established the St. Joseph’s Female Half Orphan Asylum on Willoughby Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant for girls who had either lost both parents or had parents who simply could not care for them. “Orphanages were prevalent in the era because children were often either abandoned if families could not support them or if one parent died, the other parent had to work and so could not be around to supervise the children,” Sister Regina explained. By 1909, more than 600 children were living there. And by the 1950s, the facility had expanded in size to take up an entire city block. Its name was later changed to St. Joseph’s Hall. 
  • The sisters were one of five religious congregations that taught at Bishop McDonnell Memorial High School, an all-girls school that opened in 1933 and closed in 1973. 
  • Other schools on which the sisters left their mark included: St. Paul’s; St. Mary, Star of the Sea; St. Peter’s; St. Paul’s Industrial; Assumption; St. Stephen’s; St. Charles Borromeo; and St. Joseph’s.

“Their influence in Brooklyn as far as education and care for the children and the poor was just remarkable,” said Sister Maryann Seton Lopiccolo, SC, episcopal delegate for religious in the Diocese of Brooklyn. She is a member of the Sisters of Charity-Halifax.

The sisters’ service in Brooklyn lasted for more than 130 years — from 1831 until 1964 when Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York called them back to the Archdiocese of New York. Cardinal Spellman had the authority to do so because the sisters were originally established as a congregation of the archdiocese. But even after they were summoned back by Cardinal Spellman, a small group of sisters were allowed to remain in Brooklyn, Sister Regina said. 

“Our sisters taught at Bishop McDonnell Memorial High School all the way up until it closed in 1973,” she added.

While the sisters served Brooklyn, they also found the borough to be a fruitful harvest of vocations, according to Sister Regina. 

“We’re certainly proud that we’ve had many vocations from Brooklyn,” she said, adding that Bishop McDonnell Memorial High School, in particular, produced many of the new nuns.

The congregation announced on April 27 that after “a long and painful discernment process,” it would no longer accept new members — a move that signals the beginning of the end of its existence.

The Sisters of Charity of New York were originally part of the Sisters of Charity, a larger group founded by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821) in Maryland in 1809. The New York congregation was established as an independent community in 1846.

But even before then, in 1817, Mother Seton dispatched three sisters to New York City — where she was born and raised — to help orphans and work with the poor. 

From 1817 until 1831, the sisters worked exclusively in Manhattan. But starting in 1831, they would regularly travel by ferry to Brooklyn to teach children in the Parish of St. James — which would eventually be designated as a cathedral. 

From St. James, they spread out to other locations in Brooklyn to do God’s work.

“The sisters came and opened schools all along the whole waterfront because that’s where the need was,”  Sister Maryann said. “Immigrants would get jobs working on the docks and settle in communities near the waterfront with their families.”

She praised the work of the Sisters of Charity of New York and said their focus on education made a difference in the lives of generations of students. 

“They taught in all of those schools, and then they spread out through the diocese. And they had quite a legacy at Bishop McDonnell Memorial High School,” said Sister Maryann, a Bishop McDonnell graduate. “Their influence in Brooklyn as far as education and care for the children and the poor was just remarkable.”