By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
A crowd that packed the plaza in front of the Cathedral of the Assumption July 26 gasped in delight as the new life-size bronze statue of Mother Catherine Spalding was unveiled.
The statue — depicting the foundress of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth carrying a small boy while a little girl clings to her skirt — made history Sunday by becoming the first of a woman to be installed on public ground in the city of Louisville.
“Who better than Mother Catharine Spalding to be the first?” said Mary Margaret Mulvihill, chair of the steering committee that worked to make the statue possible. “Her humble life, her love of God, her love of her sisters and community. … What better person than her to be honored?”
The sculpture was created by local artist Raymond Graf. It depicts the early days of Mother Catherine’s work, days when she might walk down to the wharf and return along Fifth Street with newly orphaned children, said Mulvihill. “The statue captures one of her typical days.”
Mulvihill said she learned about Mother Catherine from other SCNs as a student at Presentation Academy in the late 1950’s. She said she’s been devoted to her ever since.
Sister of Charity of Nazareth Mary Ellen Doyle said the statue isn’t just recognition of all Mother Catherine did for Louisville, but a recognition of what the city did for her, as well.
“The women of Louisville were a constant back up for her,” said Sister Doyle, author of the book “Pioneer Spirit,” which tells the story of Mother Catherine Spalding’s life and work in Kentucky. “She was known for going around the city asking for donations that kept the orphans housed and fed.”
In 1813, when Mother Catherine was 19, and the state of Kentucky was still frontier land, she co-founded the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, then a group of only six women. She went on to lead that religious community for 45 years, said Doyle.
Mother Catherine’s work in Louisville began in what is now the undercroft of the Cathedral of the Assumption. At the time, it was the basement of the old St. Louis Church.
In 1831, Mother Catherine established what would become the all-girls’ Presentation Academy in that undercroft. Initially, Presentation served boys and girls, but in 1945 it became the girls’ high school it is today.
“It wasn’t easy to put together a school for young women and make it a real educational experience, but she did it,” said Sister Doyle. “She was seriously engaged in educating and empowering women.”
Mother Catherine went on to establish Nazareth College, now Spalding University, as well.
Care for the sick, poor and orphaned was at the heart of Mother Catherine’s early ministry. An orphan, herself, she was quoted in an 1839 letter as saying, “In the whole universe there’s not a spot to which my heart clings, but to that,” referring to St. Vincent Orphanage, which she established following the cholera outbreak of 1932.
Before the orphanage was built, Mother Catherine and the sisters lived with the orphans in a small house behind the cathedral. A wing of the building on Jefferson and Wenzel streets, which housed the orphanage, noted Sister Doyle, later became St. Vincent Infirmary.
Mother Catherine’s work, Sister Doyle said, formed the foundation of Louisville as a compassionate city.
“She created Louisville as the compassionate city it is today,” said Sister Doyle.
Father Jeff Nicolas, pastor of the Cathedral of the Assumption, said the Cathedral carries on Mother Catherine’s ministry today, with its outreach to the hungry and homeless.
“The statue not only honors her work back in those days,” he said. “It also honors the idea of reaching out to the forgotten people.”
The statue is a reminder, he said, of the “charism she manifested and the work still being done by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.”
The SCNs have grown from those six pioneer women to become an organization of nearly 600 members, carrying out Mother Catherine’s mission in five nations around the world.
“When people from around the archdiocese (of Louisville) gather at the Cathedral, they’ll see the statue and be reminded that we’re standing on the broad shoulders of those that have come before us,” said Father Nicolas.
The Mother Catherine Spalding Steering Committee raised funds for the statue and received donations from parishioners, non-parishioners and several priests from parishes around the archdiocese.