The Daughters of Charity came to Austin in 1902, in response to a letter writing campaign by a group of local women. Their mission: to build and operate a first-class medical facility.
At the time, Austin’s existing hospital was decidedly less than first-class.
“City County Hospital was not ideal by any stretch. It had been plagued with money problems from the very beginning. The quality of care was questionable, it was sort of talked about as how that was where you went to die,” says Carl McQueary, archivist and historian for Seton Healthcare Family.
When the Daughters came to Austin to build and operate the original 40-bed Seton Infirmary, they already had a reputation for excellence in similar missions across the country. That tradition of service to the poor and needy goes back to the year 1633, when the Catholic religious order was founded in France.
The Daughters of Charity have operated institutions across Texas and the world aimed at serving the needy, including schools and orphanages. At Seton, they’ve served in almost every role there is over the past 100 years – from nurse to executive director. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve provided the sense of guidance and mission.
“It’s the way we treat people, with the greatest respect and compassion and care, so that they can be persons who are fully alive and fully aware of the contributions they can make to the community in which we live,” says Sister Helen Brewer, vice chairman of the Seton Health Care Family board.
In the 1800s and the early 1900s, serving in a religious order allowed women a rare opportunity to pursue education and take on leadership roles. But the number of women taking vows has been in slow decline since the 1960s.
With fewer members, the Daughters of Charity began to examine their work. Seton was one of about a dozen ministries that were considered so healthy and vibrant that they could be turned over to lay leaders.
The six Daughters now serving at Seton, including Sister Helen, are leaving Austin.
“It was because we were doing so well, it was because the lay leadership had assumed the responsibility for the leadership in great measure and so completely that we had no concerns that the mission will continue,” says Sister Helen. She's the first to be leaving, though she will remain on Seton’s board.
The news that they were being called elsewhere came as a surprise, and left them with a sense of sadness for all the friends they would miss.
“People say to us, ‘Yes, we understand that there are fewer sisters and you need to go where there is great need. But we don’t like it. We don’t want you to leave.’ So that’s also very gratifying – that we know we are loved here,” Sister Helen says.
Sister Nora Gatto was on the panel that spent two years looking at the various missions of the Daughters of Charity in the Province of St. Louise, which covers about three-fourths of the United States. She says the changes will allow the Daughters to use their limited resources in the places of greatest need and allow them to pursue their calling, which is “to move on, and go where nobody else is and do what nobody else wants to do.”
Sister Nora says the Daughters’ legacy will be more than just Seton.
“I think we will be remembered as a very happy group of women doing God’s work, working hard for sure, but doing it always in a way that really fulfilled us and I think was contagious,” she says.
The Daughters have nurtured Seton from its beginnings as a 40-bed hospital to a network of 90 locations across Central Texas. And always with an eye on their founding principle -- caring for the needy.
It’s an example that will guide those carrying on Seton, says president and CEO Jesus Garza. “The values that they bring, the way they carry themselves in terms of service to the community, serve as powerful examples of what our organization is to do and needs to do to serve the community.”