March 20, 2017

Quiet influence: The Legacy of Mother Seraphine Ireland

Mother Seraphine on the Derham Hall porch, circa 1925. Photos courtesy the Minnesota Historical Society.

"...She was a fine chief with splendid imagination and with daring to do what she conceived...Has she not in her old age dared to build the College of St. Catherine?"

–Most Reverend Archbishop Dowling
Works to the King: Reminiscences
of Mother Seraphine Ireland

Mother Seraphine family Sister St. John Ireland, Sister Celestine Howard and Sister Seraphine Ireland.

Ellen Ireland was born the summer of 1842 in County Kilkenny, Ireland. Her family escaped the potato famine, made the rough journey to the United States, and lived in Vermont for a year before eventually settling in St. Paul, Minnesota.

At age 16, Ellen entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet (CSJs) as Sister Seraphine. Religious life was a calling for many in the Ireland family. Ellen’s brother John became pastor, bishop and eventually the first Roman Catholic Archbishop of St. Paul. Her sister Eliza became Sister St. John, and cousin Ellen Howard became Mother Celestine — both with the CSJs.

She and her brother remained very close throughout their lifetimes, often traveled together for diocese business, and played influential roles in each other’s decision-making.

In 1882, at age 40, Sister Seraphine was elected superior of the Sisters of St. Joseph, St. Paul province — a position she held for the next 39 years.

During her remarkable tenure as provincial superior, the CSJs established some 48 new institutions including five hospitals, 30 schools. They also achieved Mother Seraphim’s ultimate dream — opening a Catholic college for women, now known as St. Catherine University (then called College of St. Catherine).

With help from her brother Archbishop John Ireland, Mother Seraphine acquired 110 acres of land at the corner of Randolph and Cleveland. She wisely delegated leadership of the school to the much-respected Sister Antonia McHugh, who was known for her savvy business acumen.

Mother Seraphine’s influence extended far beyond St. Kate's gates, beyond Minnesota and the Midwest. In the late 1800s, another Irish immigrant, Charlotte Grace O’Brien, traveled to St. Paul to meet with Archbishop Ireland. She stayed with Mother Seraphine during the visit.

O’Brien was on a campaign to start a home for Irish immigrant girls — a place that would protect them from exploitation and help them acclimate to life in the new world. She needed Archbishop Ireland’s support. That visit with the Ireland siblings eventually led to the opening of Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary for the Protection of Irish Immigrant Girls in New York. Between 1883 and 1908, nearly one-third of the 307,823 Irish girls who arrived at the Port of New York passed through the mission.

The traveling exhibition of “The Irish Girls” — a legacy influenced by the Ireland family — will visit St. Kate’s in Spring 2018.

Not much is documented of the quietly influential Mother Seraphine. In keeping with the sisters’ life of penance and poverty, she destroyed much of her correspondence over the years. But her impact on St. Kate’s, our region, and our nation lives on today.

Related content:

"Dr. Maureen Murphy of Hofstra on Irish American history" (WCCO Radio / March 17, 2017)

"Minnesota History: Irish cousins spurred Catholicism in early Minnesota" (Star Tribune / April 2, 2015)

"Reflected glory: The story of Ellen Ireland" (Minnesota History Magazine / 1982)

Works to the King: Reminiscences of Mother Seraphine Ireland (Archives, Sisters of St. Joseph, St. Paul province)

Additional Women's History Month profiles:

Elizabeth Sudmeier '33: The spy who shattered the glass ceiling
Women's History Month 2017: Jeanne Arth '56
Sister Mary Thompson '53 forged path for women in chemistry