Excerpt from Sister M. Dymphna Flynn's book, “Mother Caroline and the School Sisters of Notre Dame in North America.”(1928)
Among the events of the year 1910, one especially will be long remembered with affection and loyalty by the sisters and their friends. May 19, marked the passing into eternity of a rare soul whose loss to this world will be deeply mourned. The reference is to the death of the superior of Our Lady's Academy at Longwood, Illinois, Sister M.F. Seraphica; she had been for more than fifty years a pillar of the Congregation, for more than thirty-two years Mother Caroline's devoted support and co-worker. To Sister Seraphica is due recognition of the fact that she built up two of the best-known schools for the higher education of young women in the middle west - St. Mary's Institute, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the Academy of Our Lady at Longwood, Illinois.
A brief sketch of the life of this remarkable religious educator will be of interest not only to the general reader but particularly to her former pupils, many of whom still live to bless her name, and to hundreds of friends and patrons who have at heart the higher and nobler life of the women of our country.
Sister Seraphica was the daughter of Henry Sewall Mitchell and Maria Henrietta de Courcy who owned a large plantation near Port Tobacco, southern Maryland. But it was at Myrtle Grove, the home of an uncle not far from Washington, D. C., that the happy parents received their first treasure, a little daughter, December 1, 1837. She was baptized Maria Henrietta and reared with the tenderest care by her cultured parents, both of whom belonged to distinguished colonial families of Maryland. After the death of an uncle, Myrtle Grove came into the possession of Mr. Mitchell, and there the family lived at first for part of each year, and finally, it became their permanent home. Maria Henrietta was prepared for her first communion by a Father of the Society of Jesus from St. Thomas’ Manor, Maryland; until her entrance into religion her spiritual directors were often Fathers of the same society.
Her education was carefully directed by her parents, at first with the aid of a governess at home, then in a private school of high repute presided over by an English gentleman. All her life she cherished fond recollections of that school, claiming that her best work as a student had been accomplished there. She next entered the Academy of the Visitation Nuns, Georgetown, D.C. Here her mother had been a pupil for seven years. But Miss Mitchell's health was not robust while at this school, and it was found expedient to send her elsewhere. The choice fell on Eden Hall, near Philadelphia, conducted by the Ladies of the Sacred Heart, where she finished her studies with honor. She returned to her home well equipped for the career for which Providence destined her. Her thirst for further knowledge and the polite accomplishments was gratified at home, where learned men and women of the day from Washington, DC and Maryland often met around her father's fireside.
Besides assisting her mother in entertaining these guests, she continued her music and voice culture, of which she was very fond. Her father traveled many months of the year, and her mother's health became delicate. Miss Mitchell then assumed many of the duties of both parents. Her first thought was for the spiritual improvement of the slaves. She formed catechism and first communion classes, which she supervised and helped to teach. Her charges soon learned the prayers with which a good Catholic ought to be familiar; she taught them hymns and songs and gave them many opportunities of enjoying a wellearned outing, picnics, or nutting and berry-picking parties. They, in turn, were devoted to their young mistress.
Beyond the wide domestic circle, prisons, hospitals, and the districts of the poor shared Miss Mitchell's solicitude. Shortly before she entered the convent, four men under sentence of death were visited by her in the prison, instructed, and their spiritual and corporal necessities provided for until the last moment. But while seemingly absorbed in these works of charity, her mind and soul were dwelling on higher things. She had repeatedly asked her parents' consent to become a religious, but they resisted so earnestly that she was not permitted even to broach the subject in their presence.
The sequel shows her strength of character, her resolute will, and above all her love for the Crucified Savior whose invitation to the rich young woman filled her soul with a love of poverty and a life of hardship in a missionary congregation. Through the Redemptorist Fathers, she became acquainted with the School Sisters in the little convent on Aisquith Street in Baltimore, Maryland, made arrangements to enter, and then set to work with all diligence to prepare for her departure. Everything that she was likely to find useful in her new life was carefully packed and on a certain day one of her trusted dependents drove off to the station with a number of trunks. This excited no suspicion, for Miss Mitchell's trunks had often carried supplies to the homes of the poor and to hospitals.
Every evening it was her custom to visit her mother's room after the latter had been prepared to retire, for the purpose of reading to her either from the Imitation of Christ or from the Scriptures. "That night," she told the writer, "I kissed my mother good night, as usual, said a few words of grateful affection, and slipping my farewell letter into her Imitation, placed it on her bureau. I have never seen her since."
On the fourth of November, 1859, Miss Mitchell reached the Milwaukee Mother House and called for Mother Caroline. Before their first conversation was ended each had won the affection and confidence of the other. Miss Mitchell recognized in Mother Caroline the greathearted religious whom bishops and priests had even then learned to appreciate as a missionary aid. In Miss Mitchell Mother Caroline's keen eye perceived a kindred soul, one which, like her own, had made the supreme sacrifice of home and all that the world could offer, to enter the service of Him who said, "Come and follow Me." Mother Caroline was at that time thirty-five years of age, and Miss Mitchell twenty-two, but in maturity of mind and experience the latter was gifted beyond her years.
Her terms in the candidature and in the novitiate were happily completed and on the third of September, 1861, she made her temporary vows. St. Mary's Institute was her field of labor, first as a teacher, and, soon after, as directress. For thirty-five years Sister Seraphica's fame shone ever more brilliantly among the heads of higher institutions of learning for young women. Students came from remote quarters of the country to be educated and trained under the guidance of this gifted religious. She was the principal manager of the School Sisters' Exhibit at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893.
In 1896, Sister Pacifica resigned her charge of the Academy at Longwood and Sister Seraphica was appointed to succeed her. It was now that her strong faith manifested all its strength and greatness. After her appointment to Longwood, she began at once to plan for more modem and commodious equipment. To open a way for the struggling student, to place education within the reach of all, were her chief objects; she pledged herself to these with all her powers of body and soul.
Much might be written of the new life which she infused into the Academy of Our Lady; of the encouragement given to the teachers to bring their departments to high standards of excellence; of her abiding faith when financial difficulties and suffering of no ordinary kind became her portion with advancing years. Space is lacking in which to tell of her spirit of prayer which sustained her at all times. One of her friends wrote of her: "In crucial moments, there was in her countenance that which plainly indicated that she clasped the Divine Hand. Success or failure was His dispensation, her sanctification.
"I can recall no one whose outlook on life was broader and saner, whose knowledge of human nature was more profound; nor have I found anyone who could more successfully draw out the best in those whose lives touched hers. Two leading characteristics were her loyalty to her friends, and her extraordinary gentleness and affability. Hers was indeed a rare personality. Annually she gathered the alumnae around her at Longwood, with a view to making more enduring the bonds of friendship."
When in 1909 and 1910, advancing years compelled her to retire from active duty, she reaped as she had sown. She became to all an object of veneration and loyal affection. In the spring of 1910, she paid a visit to the dear old Mother House in Milwaukee, where thirty five of her best years had been devoted to its interests. The journey took too great toll on her strength. She never rallied. On the nineteenth of May, she answered the Master's call to receive the reward promised to those who "instruct others unto justice." Fitting it was that she should come home to the Mother House to die; fitting, too, that her blessed remains should lie in close proximity to the tomb of Mother Caroline in God's Acre in Elm Grove, where the sisters and the orphans, whom she loved so well, now perpetuate her memory in death.