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Mother of the Church in Cincinnati, Part II

January 31st, 2017posted by Sarah L. Ater

In Part One of this series on Mrs. Sarah Peter, we explored Sarah’s life before she became a Catholic. We will continue the narrative here.

While Sarah was still in Rome preparing for her entry to the church in 1855, she spent Lent on retreat in a convent. In her discernment she writes, ”When I come home, I trust, by the Divine aid, to enter steadily upon the prosecution of some of those good works for the bodies and souls of men, which it has always been in my heart to do if I could have had adequate assistance. Under the care of a church which provides food and work for all her children, I shall have helpers.”

After her reception into the Church, she traveled a few more weeks until her return to Cincinnati. She visited the Motherhouse of the Order of the Good shepherd in Angers, France, where she saw 800 women prisoners being taught skills and manners that would enhance their lives once they were free.

Back at her home at Third and Lytle Streets in Cincinnati, Sarah commenced at once to do good works. Never confining herself to Church institutions, she made regular visits to the prisoners and the poor. In Cincinnati prisons, men, women and children were indiscriminately housed together. Sarah noticed that the conditions, especially for the women and children,were horrific and degrading. Sarah approached Archbishop John Purcell with her proposal to bring the Good Shepherd Sisters to Cincinnati.

Abp. John B. Purcell

Abp. John B. Purcell

Archbishop Purcell was initially not at all supportive. After all, he had the Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of Notre Dame and he was convinced that they could supply every need the Archdiocese had for charitable work. Sarah was not daunted. She had been encouraged by her church friends in every part of Europe, including the Holy Father. She had seen how women and children could be rehabilitated through the love of Christ and the influence of these holy women. Eventually, the Archbishop consented and officially invited the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, who had a convent in Louisville, to make a foundation in Cincinnati.

Initially, the sisters lived with Sarah at her home. She introduced them to many benefactors, including Mr. and Mrs. Reuben Springer, who assisted the sisters with the items they needed to start their new home. Sarah herself donated a large amount of money and constant support over the years. After a week, they were settled in their new home at Bank and Baymiller streets in the West End. Sarah, who had influence with the city government, brought them their first 18 “penitents.”

From there, the Good Shepherd Sisters made several more homes, including taking over a female prison on Front Street for a time at no cost to the city. They had a reformatory school in Mount Adams and eventually built Our Lady of the Woods Convent and Girl’s Town in Carthage (near present day St. Xavier High School) and the St. Mary Institute in the former seminary in Price Hill. Some of the “penitents” did not want to leave when it came to be their time to move out into the world. The sisters formed a group of “Magdalens” who would stay and assist the sisters. From Cincinnati, the sisters branched out to Northern Kentucky, Columbus, and Cleveland.

From the success of this foundation in Cincinnati, Sarah was quietly planning more extensive charitable work for the people of Cincinnati. In Part 3 we will explore her additional efforts.

Links for photos
Convent of the Good Shepherd, Bank Street

Convent of the Good Shepherd, Baum Street

Our Lady of the Woods, Carthage

Lamont, Rev. John H. History of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 1821-1921, Frederick Pustet Company, Inc. Cincinnati, 1921

Fortin, Roger, Faith and Action, The Ohio State University Press, Columbus, Ohio 2002

King, Barbara, Memoirs of the Life of Sarah Peter, Vols I & II, Roger Clarke & Co., 1889


Laboring on the Mission is a blog of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati Archives. The title is taken from a letter written by Bishop Edward Fenwick, OP, describing his mission work in Ohio. Whether in the wilds of the 19th century or the baby boom of the 1950s, the Catholic Church continues the mission entrusted to her by Jesus Christ. Here we tell that story.