Roman Catholic, associations of women bound together by religious vows, and devoted to works of charity. In this article only those sisterhoods are mentioned which profess to embrace exclusively or in a very special manner hospital work, and the care of the aged or infirm poor, orphans, and penitent women. The history of religious orders of women whose principal object is the pursuit of ascetic perfection, forms a part of the history of the great contemplative orders on which they depend for their origin, name, and spiritual guidance. (See Monachism, Religious Orders, and special articles on the several orders.) Female congregations whose sole purpose is the instruction of youth, or who embrace at the same time works of public charity, are treated under School Brothers and SCHOOL Sisters. - In the 5th century mention is made by ecclesiastical writers of associations of women at Rome, Milan, and other chief cities of the Roman empire, who gave up their wealth and time to the relief of the suffering poor. Congregations of female hospitallers existed throughout western Europe, dependent on the communities of canons regular, professing like these the rule of St. Augustine, and subject to the same changes and reforms.
The earliest known sisterhoods of extensive influence, devoted solely to hospitality or hospital work, are the sisters of St. John of Jerusalem and the sisters of St. Lazarus. The former had a utility coextensive with that of the knightly brotherhood of the same name; the latter especially professed to care for lepers, incurables, the plague-stricken, and persons afflicted with every form of loathsome disease. The order of St. Lazarus is contemporaneous with the hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem. A guild of men and women were in charge of several leprosy hospitals in that city when it was conquered by the crusaders; they were organized soon afterward into a religious order under the rule of St. Augustine, and their establishments multiplied rapidly both in the East and the West. The first female leprosy hospital in France was founded at St. Denis, near Paris, in 1109, by Louis VI., who also opened several others in various parts of the kingdom, among them one at La Saussaie, near Villejuif, and another at Etampes, besides founding many in the East. The sisterhood was recruited from among the nobility; and Henry II. of England, in founding a hospital for female lepers at Rouvray, near Rouen, stipulated that none but noble ladies of the sisterhood of St. Lazarus should belong to the community in charge of the lepers.
The sisterhood also found protectors in Richard I. of England, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, Louis VII., Louis VIII., and Louis IX. of France, all of whom encouraged the daughters of the nobility to enter it. The popes bestowed many privileges on the sisters, and they soon spread throughout England, Germany, Poland, Italy, and Spain. Among the most noted Au-gustinian sisterhoods in France is that of the hospitallers of the Hotel-Dieu in Paris, which existed at least as a guild before Charlemagne, and was formally organized as a religious community under Louis le Debonnaire in 814. Their numbers had to be repeatedly recruited during the "black plague" in 1348. Similar sisterhoods, all governed by the rule of St. Augustine, had charge from the beginning of the other Parisian hospitals, and of those founded since that period in French cities and in all the French colonies. Other nurseries of hospitallers in the 13th century were the abbey of Longchamp near Paris, the community of "Quinze Vingts" founded by St. Louis, as well as the Maison Dieu, and the hostelleries des postes for strangers and travellers, all in Paris, besides similar foundations by the same king in other parts of France. From these Augus-tinian communities came the hospitallers of the Hotel-Dieu (1639) and general hospital (1693) in Quebec, as well as those of the Hotel-Dieu of Montreal, founded in 1659 by a colony of nuns from La Fleche. Four sisterhoods devoted to hospital work and the care of the poor under the title of the " Presentation " have existed: one founded in 1627 by Nicolas San-guins, bishop of Senlis, approved by Urban VIII., but which only possessed a few establishments; a second in Paris, with the mitigated rule of St. Benedict; a third and more important order, founded by Cardinal Federigo Borromeo (died 1631) at Morbegno in the Val-tellina, living under the Augustinian rule, and very popular in the north of Italy; and a fourth founded in Ireland and described in the article SCHOOL Brothers and SCHOOL Sisters. In England, the Gilbertine nuns, founded about 1170 by St. Gilbert of Sempringham, embraced hospital work with every other form of public charity.
They numbered 1,200 in 1189. - In the year 1100 arose in France the order of Fontevrault, which united the care of leprosy hospitals with that of asylums for fallen women. These were all placed under the protection of St. Mary Magdalen, and, spreading rapidly with the order itself, effected a great moral reform in France and elsewhere. The "Sisters of Penitence" originated at Marseilles in 1278, and were specially devoted to the same purpose. A host of similar sisterhoods arose afterward, among which were the "Sisters of Charity " established at Marseilles in 1290, who soon opened houses in the chief cities of southern France; the Jesuates of St. Jerome, founded in 1358 at Siena, approved by Pope Martin V., and suppressed by Clement IX.; the "Congregation of Our Lady of Charity" in Paris; and the numerous communities of noble ladies popularly known as Magdelonettes, but united under the patronage of St. Mary Magdalen, established at Metz in 1452, at Paris in 1492, at Naples in 1524, and at Rouen and Bordeaux in 1618. In the Magdelonette establishments, the women under care of the nuns were classed in three categories: the congregation of St. Martha, formed of persons supposed to be thoroughly reformed, and permitted to bind themselves by religious vows; the daughters of St. Martha, who, though penitent, are not permitted to make vows; and the daughters of St. Lazarus, who are either unwilling to reform or are placed in the establishment by the public magistrates.
Similar sisterhoods were organized at Rome by Leo X., and confirmed and endowed by Clement VIII. The congregation of the "Sisters of Our Lady of Providence," founded in 1830 for the same purpose in the south of France by Mlle. Lamouroux, has several large establishments, one of which is at Laval. - Of the communities whose sole care is that of the aged and homeless poor, two deserve special mention. The " Little Sisters of the Poor" were founded in 1840 at St. Servan in Brittany, by Abbe Le Pailleur, with the aid of two poor girls. They give a home to the aged of both sexes, depending solely on the alms collected from door to door and on the labor of the sisterhood. They were much opposed at first, but were soon called to open houses in all the cities of France. They were approved by Pius IX., July 9, 1854, and recognized by the French government in 1856. A house was given to them in London in 1860, and their labors were warmly recommended by Charles Dickens and other public men, and from London they spread all over Great Britain and Ireland. In 1868 they came to Brooklyn, N. Y., Cincinnati, and New Orleans, in 1869 to Baltimore and St. Louis, and afterward to New York, Philadelphia, Louisville, and Boston. They also have establishments in Algeria, Asia Minor, and Constantinople. The other community is that of the "Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis," a congregation which originated at Aix-la-Chapelle in the present century, and came to the United States in 1857. Besides the care of the aged poor, they take charge of hospitals, into which they bind themselves to receive at all times and without distinction the sick and wounded of every creed and nationality.
They have many establishments in most of the large cities of the United States. - Among the communities devoted to the care of the insane are the " Sisters of the Good Saviour" at Caen in Normandy. The community was founded in 1720 by two poor girls, who taught little outcast children, visited the poor, nursed the sick, and in 1730 opened asylums for homeless children, female penitents, and insane persons. They were suppressed in 1789, but continued to labor among the needy till May 22, 1805, when 15 sisters once more met in community under Abbe Jamet, their former chaplain. In 1817 and 1818 they were first charged by government with the care of insane women, and soon afterward with that of insane men. Besides, . Abbe Jamet having invented a new method of instruction for deaf and dumb orphans, his school gradually became a normal school to which pupil teachers of the deaf and dumb resort from France, Belgium, and the British isles. In 1874 the mother house at Caen numbered 300 sisters and upward of 1,000 insane patients.
There are three associated establishments of equal importance at Albi, Pont-l'Abbe, and Brucourt. In Canada, the care of the insane at Quebec devolved on the sisters of the general hospital till 1844; and the sisters of Providence founded at Montreal in 1828, and canonically approved in 1844, have charge of the insane asylum near that city.
In the church of England several communities of charitable women have been organized in the present century. A community of " Sisters of Mercy " was founded at Devonport about 1845 by Miss Lydia Sellon, who began with the establishment of industrial, infant, and ragged schools. Several ladies joined her in her work, and they took a house and formed a community under Miss Sellon, at first subject to the visitorial control of the bishop of Exeter. The society was composed of three orders, viz.: those living in community, working among the poor, and leading an active laborious life; those who were unable to undertake this work, but who wished to live a calm life, engaged in prayer, reading, and quiet occupations; and married and single women who lived in the world, but maintained a certain connection with the community, and assisted its work in various ways. The sisters were bound by no vows except a promise of obedience to their superior. They were free to abandon their vocation at will, but while connected with it adopted a peculiar garb, and shared their property in common. The sisters also undertook the entire charge and support of a large number of orphan children.
At East Grinstead a sisterhood was founded in 1855 by the Rev. Dr. John Mason Neale, with the object of nursing the sick, poor and rich, in their own homes, and in hospitals or infirmaries, in town or country. In 1874 the society had branch houses in London, Aberdeen, "Wigan, and Frome-Selwood. - The parent house of the "Sisterhood of St. John the Baptist " was founded at Clewer in 1849. The sisters have there a house of mercy, St. John's orphanage, St. Andrew's convalescent hospital, St. Andrew's college for accommodating women recovering from illness or requiring change of air and nourishing food, and St. Stephen's mission, embracing an upper class boarding school, a middle class school for girls and boys, and an infant school. The sisterhood has established branches at London, Oxford, Torquay, Gloucester, and other places. This organization embraces: 1, choir and lay sisters living in community; 2, a second order formed in 1860 of ladies who enter on the sisters' life for periods of three years at a time, to be renewed continuously at their own desire and with the consent of the sisters; 3, associates, who live in their own houses and give such assistance to the work as their circumstances may permit.
The "Sisterhood of St. Mary," Wangate, was established in 1850, and has branches at Bed-minster, Plymouth, and other places. The "Sisterhood of St. Mary the Virgin" established its parent house at "Wymering in 1859. The society consists of sisters of charity, who, being resident and under a religious rule, constitute the sisterhood, and ladies of charity or associates, who undertake to promote the interests of the society in their several spheres of private life. The sisterhood has established branches at Manchester and Aldershott. The "Sisterhood of St. Thomas the Martyr," which has its parent house at Oxford, has branches at Liverpool and Plymouth. The society of the "Sisters of the Poor," founded in 1851, has its parent house in London and branches at Edinburgh, Clifton, Eastbourne, and West Chester. - In the Protestant Episcopal church of the United States, an organization of women for voluntary service as nurses in hospitals, infirmaries, etc, called "Sisters of the Holy Communion," was founded in 1845 by the exertions of the Rev. W. A. Muhlenberg, D. D., in connection with the Protestant Episcopal church of the Holy Communion in New York. They are bound by no vows, and though it is desirable that they should remain in their work for life, they are free to leave whenever they are so minded.
They are usually received between the ages of 25 and 40 years; if under 25, the written consent of parents or guardians must be obtained. Candidates for the sisterhood are required to spend one year of probation before entering upon their vocation. They have no marked uniform, though the dress is generally black, with a white muslin collar and head dress. The sisters managed for several years the infirmary of the Holy Communion, and since 1858 have had charge of St. Luke's hospital, New York, under Dr. Muhlenberg's superintendence. (See Deaconess).