Pre-history of the Foundation of the Assumption in the USA

A foundation in the United States had been conceived long before 1919. Saint Marie Eugenie (Foundress of the Religious of the Assumption) wrote these words in 1892, “We have long desired to have a home in the United States ... the object of our strong desires,”  in response to a request made by the Bishop of New York for a foundation in his Diocese. But it was not to be at that time.  The recent foundation in Léon, Nicaragua needed reinforcement and took precedence.

Dennis Cardinal Dougherty

"I feel that it is a special Providence of God that now you have the opportunity to start in the New World a task which can spread to the rest of the entire country if not to the whole hemisphere.”  

These were the words of Dennis Cardinal Dougherty, then Archbishop of Philadelphia on inviting the Assumption to open their first house in this country. He had been acquainted with their work in the Philippines when he served there as Bishop.

Who was Cardinal Dougherty? Can we imagine what he was thinking when he invited the Assumption to his Archdiocese?

Dennis Joseph Dougherty was born on August 16, 1865 in Ashland, Pennsylvania. He was the sixth of 10 children born to a coal miner and a homemaker who had emigrated from County Mayo, Ireland. The young Dougherty was educated in public schools as there were no parochial schools in his small town; during summer vacations he worked in the mines.

In 1880, he passed the entrance examinations for St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. However, he was considered too young and was sent to Collège Sainte-Marie de Montréal, Canada for two years. He returned two years later and entered St. Charles Seminary at the age of 16, skipping his first two years of training. Three years later, he was sent to Rome where he earned a Doctor of Sacred Theology Degree and was ordained priest in 1890. Following his return to the United States, he became a professor at St. Charles Seminary. He was also an official of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, serving as fiscal promoter and procurator.

From the day of his ordination to the priesthood, until he died sixty-one years later on May 31, 1951, Cardinal Dougherty worked toward providing every Catholic child with a Catholic education. He felt deprived of this education and was determined to foster Catholic education from the first grade through university.

In 1903, Dougherty was appointed Bishop of Nueva Segovia in the Philippines and in 1908 Bishop of Jaro. He was known to ride on horseback and in canoe to carry out his ministry, which included confirming children, visiting a leper colony, and opening schools and missions. After twelve years in the Philippines, he returned to his native country upon being made the fifth Bishop of Buffalo, New York, in 1915.

In 1918, he was called upon to become the first native of the Philadelphia Archdiocese to serve as its Ordinary and was installed as Archbishop on July 10th of that year. Pope Benedict XV created him Cardinal in 1921, thus making him Philadelphia's first Archbishop to be made a cardinal. During the thirty-three years of his episcopacy, Cardinal Dougherty earned the title “The Great Builder.” Throughout the ten county Archdiocese, he founded or built 110 new parishes, 75 new churches, 122 grammar schools, nine diocesan high schools, fourteen academies, three colleges, seven hospitals, seven orphanages, seven homes for the aged, three retreat houses for women, one for men, a magnificent new seminary and several institutions for various social services.

Bringing the Assumption to Philadelphia to open Ravenhill Academy in October 1919 was to be one of the first of these many enterprises. 

“It seems to me that the Lord wishes to inaugurate a new era by opening a door in the New World for your congregation”.

These were the words of Archbishop Dougherty in January 1919, hardly six months after he had been installed as Archbishop of Philadelphia in July 1918. Shortly before, the Archbishop had received the donation of a “magnificent stone house built on several acres of land planted with beautiful trees” from Mrs. Anne Weightman Penfield. Cardinal Dougherty had known the Religious of the Assumption in the Philippine Islands and immediately offered the house, built in 1803, and the property of 6 acres on Schoolhouse Lane in Germantown, to the Assumption to start an Academy for girls. Within the year, the sisters would arrive and Ravenhill Academy would begin its history as the first Assumption apostolic work in the United States.

On this day 100 years ago (October 12, 1919) the first Assumption Sisters arrived in the USA. Mother Agnes Marguerite accompanied by three sisters, landed in this country and took up the task of founding the first community of Religious of the Assumption in America.  

Three weeks later (November 3, 1919) Ravenhill Academy for Girls opened at Germantown near Philadelphia with three students. Four more came in December and at the end of the school year in May there were eight… humble beginnings.