April 15, 2021
Written by 
Maureen Bracken and Luke McCusker

Young Irish Women and Their Vocations: Religious and Secular

Emigration and Options

Irish women actually emigrated at a higher rate than Irish men; the only European people group to do so. In regards to those who arrived in America, options were available for single girls and women that simply were not available in the old country. Many did marry and establish homes, forming their own workplace of sorts, and running their home as they thought best. They balanced caring for husbands, borders and children, and the home itself. A cottage industry was also established by many to generate their own income and assert their significant financial role within a marriage of equals.

Unmarried girls and young women had options well beyond what was typical in Ireland. Domestic service among the homes of the well-to-do was readily available for those above school age, and many found a measure of success there. Those who came at a younger age became educated in the parish schools that were found in most urban neighborhoods, and some became women religious who had additional options within their Order’s emphases, such as work as nurses and educators, or among the distressed elements within their parishes.

Both educated and uneducated young women did find work within various settings: in positions which utilized their grammar school education, and those that did not.

"Women Religious"

The taking up of needle work and other manual trades by graduates was a bit disconcerting to the leaders of parish schools who had spent years educating young women. St. Peter’s Female School, located in West Baltimore was such a place. The Sisters of Mercy had been teaching there since 1855, and had done a great service to the Irish families who were raising children under remarkably different conditions than they had known in Ireland. This Dublin-based order described their young female students as “listless and lawless” when they first arrived, but many were persuaded towards a better demeanor. The work of the Sisters was noticed by important women in Baltimore’s Catholic community, including Emily McTavish, a favorite granddaughter of Charles Carroll of Carrollton.

Through her generosity the Sisters formed a House of Mercy in two small rowhouses that fronted Callendar Alley, just behind their convent. These homes were designated as a place of residence and protection for “distressed women of good character”: usually a young woman that had no solid home life to speak of. These residences allowed women to pursue work or education in secular settings and then return to safe shelter.

Celeste Revillon Winans (pictured) was the woman of the house at neighboring Alexandroffsky Estate, and was generous towards the efforts of the Sisters as they cared for the poor and provided a home for young women.

Some of the more exceptional students of the parishes’ Female School entered the religious community as postulates, and underwent training and education that developed them into members of an Order that focused on nursing and higher education. Among these was Anne C. Liberty. Her mother had died in childbirth; her father John was a horse-and-cart man and the brother of Sarah Feeley, of 918 Lemmon St.

Anne graduated from St. Peter’s School and became a Sisters of Mercy nun, and was renamed Sister Mary Rita Liberty (see photo). She served the city and greater Mid-Atlantic region as a nurse, teacher and college professor during her career, eventually returning to her alma mater. Sister Liberty taught at St. Peter’s Female School for several years.

Another who entered religious life was Elizabeth Medcalfe, a daughter of a successful Quaker banker. She took the vow despite her families’ strong objections and became Sister M. Joseph on December 11, 1855. These were different days, and the tradition of the time was to dress the postulant in a wedding dress for the ceremony, with the thinking being that she was becoming wed to Christ. Her dress, however was second-hand, borrowed from the former Nellie Neale, the daughter of a church leader who had been married recently. The religious ceremony when Elizabeth took the habit and a new name was held in a packed St. Peter’s Church, complete with bridesmaids and flower girls.

Sister M. Joseph taught at the Female School Academy and School for 35 years, later becoming Assistant Superior.

Factory Work

Other young women had a much shorter path to their next phase of life. An embroidery factory known as Lion Brothers was established across the street from St. Peter’s Church just after the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. Young women of the era were in demand to do the needlework of the trade. Some who graduated the 8th grade, amidst fanfare and celebration, walked just a few steps away from the church doors to begin doing piecework for the badge embroiderers (can you see the Church pillars just above the truck's roof?). We can well imagine how the priests and nuns felt as they saw those who were their life’s work settle for such a modest calling. Some of these women are pictured in a later era, most likely during the hectic years of World War II.



Formation of Commercial Schools

We have not determined exactly when it was decided to make a different path available for these young women, but more recent church pastors have expressed to us how Father Smyth (pictured below, top center), serving at the Church in the 1920's and 1930's, agonized about the situation and conceived of something better. He and future pastors followed the pattern of other Catholic churches in the area by opening their own Commercial School in St. Peter’s parish.

It seems that the graduating classes of commercial schools were small in earlier years, and their graduates were accomplished and in demand by local businesses. Among these was St. Gertrude’s Commercial School, located in St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Baltimore’s Gardenville neighborhood. The Baltimore Sun’s description of their first graduation ceremonies on July 19, 1916 actually listed 11 co-eds. That being said, young women dominated the list of class awards for stenography, typing, bookkeeping and commercial law. Carl Gutberlet, graduating at age 15, became a clerk in a railway office, as had several young men in St. Peter’s Parish which neighbored the Mount Clare Shops of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Agnes Sandkuhler graduated St. Gertrude’s at 14 years of age, and was listed as a bookkeeper for an automobile firm in the 1920 Census.

These parish commercial schools must have followed the example of the Y.M.C.A, who began both day and evening commercial classes in 1893. Their 30-year anniversary of the establishment of classes were remarked upon in the Baltimore Sun, who advertised their course offerings that included bookkeeping, secretarial and shorthand.

Successes at the parish level led to a total of eleven Catholic commercial schools by 1954, and included courses at St. Katherine, St. Ann, St. Martin, St. Andrew, St. Wenceslaus and St. Peter Parishes (graduating class pictured, 1943).

These seem to have been established in the 1910-1930 era and developed in future years, giving young women the opportunity to put their solid education into good practical use within the firms and industries of Baltimore.


Baltimore’s ethnic immigrant communities were often established by those who simply wanted to survive. Great men and women with vision created more for the children and young adults who had become the first generation, in many instances, to be educated. Religious life and commercial schooling were two of the significant strides forward for young women who had moved far beyond the need to survive, but rather thrive in one of America’s great cities.


 Thanks to the many who contributed to this writing, including:

 Baltimore Sun

 Costello, Sister Mary Loretto. The Sisters of Mercy of Maryland. St. Louis, Herder Book Co., 1931.

 Diner, Hasla R. Erin's Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant Women in the Nineteenth Century. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

 Mary Ellen Hayward, PH.D.

 Father Michael J. Roach


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