Sister Mary DeSales

By | 24 January 2014

Annie McElwee 1867 – 1955

Like most family historians, I’ve accumulated box upon box of family photographs, letters, newspaper clippings and other ephemera.  While the subjects of most photographs are easily identified, a few are a mystery with no information provided on the reverse.  Others are annotated with incomplete information or guesses.  But someone felt strongly enough about the people in these pictures to store them away for safekeeping.  I feel a need to research these relatives and create an appropriate remembrance in our family history.

One such photograph contains the inscription “Grand mom Toy’s sister”, showing a young Roman Catholic sister posing in front of a snow-covered yard and building.

Sister Mary DeSales
The distinctive headwear, referred to as a “Cornette”,  was worn by the Daughters of Charity beginning July 26, 1685 through September 20, 1964.  It was abandoned as part of the reforms of Vatican II.

Grand Mom’s Sister

The challenge was figuring out who this individual might be.  Assuming that the annotation was written by my mother-in-law, ‘Grand mom Toy” would have been Elizabeth McElwee (1864 – 1952) who was the wife of James Frederick Toy (1865 – 1937).  Unfortunately, Elizabeth had five sisters (Catherine, Hannah, Mary, Margaret, and Annie).  Short of identifying them as sisters of Elizabeth, I had done no previous research on them.  This led to a long weekend, consulting a variety of web sites and more items in my archive boxes.

Process of Elimination

I first discovered that Hannah McElwee had died young, and was buried with her parents at St, Joseph on the Brandywine outside of Wilmington, Delaware.  I was also able to find marriage records for two of the others. Catherine McElwee had married Daniel Ryan and Margaret McElwee had married James Gallagher.  This left Mary and Annie, and I was finding no leads.

I had been searching for records in Delaware and surrounding states, with a focus on Wilmington, Delaware and Emmitsburg, Maryland, which is the longtime home of the Daughters of Charity.  When I did an unrestricted search on, using only her name and birth year, I found an intriguing record for ‘Anna Mcelwee’ in Buffalo, New York, in the 1920 census.

St. Vincent’s Orphan Asylum

This record was for a teacher working for the St. Vincent Technical School and Asylum.  The census for the institution identified a good number of staff in addition to Anna along with hundreds of boarders, all of them female.  Another search for the history of this institution revealed that it was also know as the Saint Vincent’s Female Orphan Asylum, and was established and operated by the Daughters of Charity.  I had found my missing relative!

Sister Mary DeSales

The final (and most productive) step in this journey was to locate any records for Annie McElwee maintained by the Daughters of Charity.  The archive site was easy to find on the Internet and an email inquiry received a response from the Provincial Archivist of the Daughters of Charity in less than two hours!  I learned that Annie McElwee had taken “Sister Mary DeSales” as her community name and had served with the Daughters of Charity for 63 years.

Annie McElwee’s Story

Annie McElwee was the youngest child of John McElwee  (1805-1870) and Mary Marley (1830 1908).  She was born January 22, 1867 at Henry Clay Village in Christiana Hundred, New Castle, Delaware.

In the 1870 census, her father was identified as a teamster, and there is a good chance he was associated with horse and carriage business run by James A Toy (1818-1881).  By the 1880 census, Annie’s father had died and she and her siblings are shown as working in the cotton mill.  Annie was 13 years old at the time, and the cotton mill was likely Walker’s Mill.  Walker’s Mill was situated across the Brandywine from Henry Clay Village and operated off and on as a textile mill from 1815 through sometime in the 1930s.

Annie went to the Sisters of Charity at the Seton Institute in Baltimore, Maryland on March 18, 1891, at the age of 24.  She put on the habit six months later and first took her vows on April 24, 1896.  I say first took her vows because, unlike religious orders, the Daughters are a religious society that renews vows annually.  Sister Mary DeSales renewed her vows every year, until her death on her 88th birthday, January 22, 1955.

She served as a teacher, nurse and administrator at thirteen different missions throughout the Northeast and Midwest for the next 56 years, beginning with the Saint Joseph’s Asylum and Schools in Richmond and Norfolk, Virginia (1891 – 19897).  During the Spanish-American war, the government called for nursing sisters to provide medical assistance in military hospitals and the Daughters of Charity provided the majority of the nurses, including Sr, Mary DeSales (1898).

Annie is found in the 1900 census, serving as a prefect at Saint Vincent’s Asylum and School in Troy, NY.  In 1910, she is serving at the House of Providence hospital in Syracruse, NY and in 1920 she is found in the census she is found at Saint Vincent’s Asylum in Buffalo, NY.  In 1930, she is at St. Mary’s Mission School in Greensboro, NC and in 1940 she is a supervisor at Providence Hospital in Detroit, MI.

In 1947, at the age of 80, she returns to Emmitsburg, MD living in the sisters’ residence until 1952, when she moves to Villa Saint Michael, a home for elderly and infirm sisters.  Annie died on January 22, 1955. She was buried in the cemetery at Saint Joseph’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland.  The cemetery will be a 2-3 hour drive, and I’m planning a visit in the spring.

Below is another picture of Annie, taken somewhat later than the first.  The Archivist for the Daughters of Charity is trying to identify the location of both of these pictures.

Sister Mary DeSales 2

5 thoughts on “Sister Mary DeSales

  1. Nancy Van Dyke-Dickison

    What an interesting story!! Good job Reese. You are a sleuth above all sleuths.


  2. Mike

    Great job on the flying nun Annie McElwee. You did a lot of digging, WOW!

  3. Dr. Denise Gallo

    Thank you for working on this and, as Provincial Archivist for the Daughters of Charity, I can say that we were happy to assist. I would add, however, that the Daughters of Charity headdress descends from the head wear worn in Paris at the time of St. Vincent de Paul and is known respectfully as the cornette. We do not refer to it or to the sisters who wore it as “flying nuns.” There remains that unfortunate similarity to the headdress which Sally Fields wore, but that was a situation comedy. Also, to be accurate, the Daughters are not nuns but sisters. They take their vows annually rather than perpetually. Again, thanks for calling attention to one of the amazing stories that reflect the work and sacrifices of our sisters!

    1. Reese Post author

      Thanks for your assistance and feedback on the article. I have made appropriate edits to the text!

      We still haven’t made the trip to Emmitsburg to visit Annie’s final resting place, but hope to do so sometime this year.

  4. Mary Koyne Aitken

    Thank you so much for all of this valuable Ancestry information-Now I have some details to add to my Great-aunt Annie McElwee’s profile, along with a wonderful photo too! The McElwee relatives that I know will love to see all this news on our ancestors!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *