International Women’s Day: Sisters of Charity Of Nazarath

PADUCAH — Sometimes it takes looking at the past to inspire the future. March 8 is International Women’s Day, a date dedicated to celebrating women who have changed their community while highlighting the continuing need for change.

As part of our coverage, we are highlighting local women whose impact is felt in our community today, yet their names were almost lost to history.

Members of the local Catholic community are likely familiar with St. Mary School District. It took the passion of an orphaned girl and the strength of four nuns to make the school system what it is today.

To know St. Mary Schools, you first need to know about Catherine Spalding. She was born in 1793. “Catherine Spalding was born in Maryland, but her family moved to Nelson County (today the Bardstown area of Kentucky) when she was three years old,” St. Mary School System Director Eleanor Spry explains.

Spry tells us Catherine faced challenges as a child .”Her mother, there was some illness. The dad deserted the family. There was debt, and she had relatives that took her in,” Spry says.

There was some good fortune though. Spry says Catherine was treated so well by her relatives that, “when she grew up, her goals was to take the orphaned, the deserted, the lost children.”

Because she spent her life educating and caring for children, Spry says Catherine is often called the first person of social work in Kentucky. She eventually was one of six women to develop the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in central Kentucky. Her dedication to children and their education spread throughout the commonwealth.

That’s where Martha Drury, Beatrice Skees, Sophia Carton, and Mary de Sales McKelvey — all members of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth — enter the story. In 1858, the four left Lexington and braved the wilderness of west Kentucky. Spry says when they arrived in Owensboro, “they got on a boat and rowed on a boat to Paducah. It took them five days, and when they arrived here, they were met by the priest who was here in town who took them and put them in a house.”

The sisters began to work quickly. They started the St. Mary Academy in October of 1858 with 60 students.

Spry says the school was important not just for the Catholic community, but for kids throughout our area. “This was really the first school,” she says. “There were no public schools. Schools were held in individual homes, and so home schooling at that time. They developed students from across the area, not just Paducah. Because, you could come from places other than immediately in town.”

Spry says of the four sisters, it was Drury’s drive and motivation that allowed the school to grow so quickly. In the second year, the school nearly doubled with 114 students. The school system now educates students from preschool through 12th grade, and it has celebrated its 160th anniversary. Spry believes the sisters would be proud of what the system has become. “Their whole focus was to build schools for students —to educate them, to care for them, and grow them into givers to their community and also givers for the Lord,” Spry says.

To learn more about St. Mary School System History, click here.

To learn more about the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, click here.

To learn more about Catherine Spalding, click here.

To learn about the other amazing local women we are honoring for International Women’s Day 2018, click on the story links below.

International Women’s Day: Ann Stokes
International Women’s Day: Mary Wheeler
International Women’s Day: Maggie Steed

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