New exhibit, “We Saw The First Spade of Earth Turned”

Provincial House groundbreaking

Sister Isabel Toohey, Visitatrix breaking ground for the new St. Joseph’s Provincial House on September 27, 1961 (used with permission of Daughters of Charity Provincial Archives)

On Sept. 27, 1961, Sr. Isabel Toohey, Visitatrix of the Emmitsburg Province, broke ground for the construction of a new Provincial House. There for this “never-to-be-forgotten moment” were sisters who had processed from the old Central House on the original property (now owned by FEMA).
The new Provincial House was considered the flowering of the seed planted by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. She and her first sisters arrived in Emmitsburg in 1809 and on July 31 took possession of their first home, the Stone House. The growing community moved into the White House the following year. In 1826, they took up residence in a larger building that served, with necessary additions, as the Central House for 138 years. The ground breaking for a new Provincial House took place on 27 Sept. 1961 and in less than three years, the building was ready, with sisters moved in on 12 Sept. 1964. Arriving soon after were 69 postulants.

Speaking at the ceremony was Fr. Francis J. Dodd, C.M., who told those gathered, “This is a very simple ceremony, but I hope that it will mark a memorable occasion. We have, by God’s Providence, been able to prepare a place for our sick and ancient Sisters. We are faced at home now with an acute problem of providing for the members of the Community itself. The buildings you occupy have served wonderfully well, many of them for more than a century. They are not now adequate. Besides that, the maintenance is growing year by year. So, the economic thing to do is to prepare a new Central House. A few years ago, we had Seminary Sisters for a few months; the Postulants did not come here; we did not have a Juniorate. Now we have Postulants, Seminary Sisters and the Sisters of the Juniorate. And the Juniorate will soon be for two years…. So a larger building is needed. That is why we meet on this occasion to turn the first spade of ground in the work to be begun.”

One of the most memorable aspects of the new Provincial House was the “big chapel,” as one of the sisters called it. Originally meant as a private place for the sisters, it would become the Basilica of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

To remember these events, the Provincial Archives traces the planning and building of this house in a new exhibit, “called “’We Saw the First Spade of Earth Turned….’: The Building of St. Joseph’s Provincial House.” Featuring photographs, architectural plans, artifacts, and a special video of some of the sisters who were the original occupants, the exhibit will be open through January 9, 2015. Watch for a virtual tour of the exhibit here on our blog!

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