Founded in 1633 in France by Saints Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac, the Daughters of Charity were originally young lay women whom those saints recruited to work among the poor and the sick. They were lay women because the concept of an uncloistered order of women was a scandalous idea at the time, and cloistered sisters obviously would not be able to accomplish what the founders wanted: works of mercy out in the secular world. It was not until 35 years later, in 1668, that Pope Clement IX finally sanctioned the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul as a religious order.
The humble work of the Daughters as social workers, nurses and teachers would not have attracted much notice, but their habit certainly did: their simple blue dress was unremarkable, but the spreading white bonnet known as the cornette made them instantly conspicuous even among an assembly of other religious orders. For three centuries, until it was abandoned in 1964, the cornette was one of the most recognizable of all Catholic symbols and was even subjected to parody in the 1960s television series “The Flying Nun,” in which the diminutive Sally Field was borne into the wind by her cornette and transported to other places.
But the work of the Daughters of Charity was no joke. The order spread throughout France, to the rest of Europe, and eventually to the United States, where it found its first home in Emmitsburg, Md. under St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in 1809.
In 1856 a Western Province of the order was established in Los Angeles, and it was from there that the first Daughters of Charity came to Utah. They were invited here by the second Bishop of Salt Lake, the Right Rev. Joseph S. Glass, who knew their work well, for he himself was a Vincentian priest (Congregation of the Mission).
The first Daughters arrived here in 1920 and created what was called Catholic Elementary School #1, now Our Lady of Lourdes School. Six years later they opened Catholic Elementary School #2 at the Cathedral of the Madeleine. (Their educational work has been mostly in elementary schools, for their Rule prohibits them from teaching boys over the age of 12.)
A total of only eight Daughters staffed those schools in Salt Lake City, but in 1927 they moved to Price, where they opened Notre Dame de Lourdes Elementary School, which became their largest and most celebrated foundation in Utah: a total of 86 Daughters staffed that school from 1927 to 1998. In addition to providing a first-rate education for Catholic kids, they cut quite an exotic figure there in rural Utah. (A personal note: my wife, who says she was “a Catholic born into a Mormon family,” grew up directly across Carbon Avenue from Notre Dame de Lourdes Catholic Church, and vividly remembers, as a wide-eyed little girl in the 1950s, watching the Daughters strolling two by two from the convent around the corner to the church for morning Mass before they began their teaching duties. Price had never before seen anything like that.)
The Daughters played vitally important roles in other Utah schools as well. In 1957 they took over Cosgriff Memorial Elementary School in Salt Lake City’s St. Ambrose Parish, where a total of 47 Daughters taught until they left in 1992. In addition, from 1960 they administered St. Olaf Elementary School in Bountiful, where a total of 34 of them taught until 1995.
They fulfilled other ministries also. In 1965 Bishop Joseph L. Federal persuaded the Western Province to send Daughters to create what was called an Outreach Ministry to the Poor on the west side of Salt Lake City. In 2003 Bishop George Niederauer approved formation of a Ladies of Charity lay chapter to provide such things as food, clothing and financial assistance to some 70 families from Ogden to Provo.
The Daughters of Charity, for us, have certainly not been “flying nuns.” Instead, they have been an inestimable blessing as teachers and doers of merciful works.
(Reprinted from the July 10, 2015 Intermountain Catholic.)