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Mother Catherine Spalding (1793–1858) was the cofounder and first leader of one of the most significant American religious communities for women—the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth near Bardstown, Kentucky. Elected at age nineteen to lead the order, Spalding also founded several educational institutions, Louisville’s first private hospital, and the first social service agency for children in Kentucky. Pioneer Spirit is the first biography of Catherine Spalding, a woman who made it her life’s work to serve the citizens of the Kentucky frontier. Catherine, who lost her mother at a young age and was raised in many different homes before she was ten years old, eventually came to be raised in a colony of Catholic families. These formative years taught her independence, the value of hard work and an enduring spirit, and the importance of education, all of which would figure prominently in her later career. Spalding became increasingly interested in health care, services for orphans, and education, and her business skills and strong sense of purpose allowed her to achieve her goals with little interference from outsiders. She showed a natural gift for administration, and the scope and services of the Sisters of Charity expanded under her leadership. In the midst of this ministerial work, however, Spalding always maintained the connection of her ministry to spiritual and communal life, ascribing great importance to all three facets of her calling. Author Mary Ellen Doyle notes that in Spalding’s correspondence with the Sisters, she repeatedly emphasized the heart of charity: “genuine interest in each other and sisterly affection free of personal ambition or jealousy.” By the time of Catherine Spalding’s death, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth extended beyond Nazareth to more than one hundred sisters in sixteen convents. Spalding’s legacy of service continues today with more than six hundred members worldwide, and her story of progressive and compassionate leadership offers unique insights into the growth of a religious order and the struggles of developing America’s frontier communities.

"A clear and intimate picture of Spalding's inner life."—C. Walker Gollar, Xavier University

"Doyle seeks to balance the historical data with an exploration of Cather Spalding's character. . . . Has revealed to Sisters of Charity and lay readers alike the first glimpses of the emotional and spiritual facets of Mather Catherine Spalding."—Kentucky Record

"Spalding was one of the architects who shaped the Catholic Church in America. Doyle's book, using source material previously unpublicized, fleshes out the life of this woman who answered the call of her church as a teen and provided leadership beyond her years."—Kentucky Standard

"An excellent addition not only to American and Kentucky Catholic historical study, it is also a lively, moving account of a particular resourceful woman in the antebellum upper South."—Louisville Courier-Journal

"Doyle weaves pioneer life in Kentucky into the story of development of the Catholic Church and the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in this well-written book."—Northern Kentucky Heritage

“An informative description of the personality and achievements of Spalding. . . . It is difficult to imagine a more comprehensive biography of Spalding.”—Ohio Valley History

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY






Catherine Spalding, Kentucky, Sisters of Charity of Nazareth


History of Christianity

Pioneer Spirit: Catherine Spalding, Sister of Charity of Nazareth
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