Minnesota was still six years away from becoming a state when the steamboat Nominee chugged up the Mississippi River from Galena, Ill., docking in St. Paul on May 20, 1852.
Two first cousins named Ellen were among the passengers stepping off the boat amid a swirl of commotion, horse-drawn wagons and barking salesmen. They had advertised the territory as a farming paradise and health resort.
Richard Ireland, a lanky carpenter from Burnchurch, County Kilkenny, was happy to get his extended family away from the East Coast swarming with fellow Irish immigrants.
His daughter, Ellen Ireland, was 9. Her cousin, Ellen Howard, had just turned 10. The girls were inseparable since the elder Ellen’s parents died in the potato famine back across the Atlantic.
Richard made the crossing first, in 1849, finding work in Montreal and Vermont. His wife, Julia, sailed a year later to Boston with her kids and the Howard orphans, spending time in Vermont and Chicago before heading to Minnesota.
Along with Richard’s single sister, Nancy, they raised the Howard kids — tossing them in with their own six children in one big family.
They were bittersweet times. Eight-year-old Richard Jr. died of typhoid fever shortly after the family arrived in St. Paul. His older brother, John, would become Minnesota’s first archbishop as the Catholic Church gained its footing following statehood in 1858.
Today, a street connecting the Capitol and the Cathedral of St. Paul carries John Ireland’s name. But comparatively little is known about his kid sister and cousin — the Ellens — who entered the convent together at 16.
Attending the Mass of the Immaculate Conception together Dec. 8, 1858, Ellen Ireland took the name Sister Seraphine. Later she would be known as Mother Seraphine, spending 39 years as provincial superior. Her cousin became Sister Celestine, climbing the church hierarchy as well. Both nuns played pivotal roles in helping open 48 schools and churches across the state — including St. Catherine University in St. Paul.
“They served approximately the same time as the archbishop did and really built the church in the Twin Cities area and in rural Minnesota,” said Sister Mary Kraft, the archivist for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, a community of nuns still rooted at St. Kate’s.
She notes that another of Richard Ireland’s offspring, Eliza, also became a nun known as Sister St. John and helped steer Holy Angels Academy in its infancy. But she died in 1897 at 53 — 33 years before her older sister, Mother Seraphine.
A little-known 1976 oral history project conducted by one of the nuns, Sister Ann Thomasine Sampson, included 16 interviews with aging sisters who shared tales of Mother Seraphine and her cousin, Celestine — the two Ellens.
Sister Patricia Heslin remembered arriving from Ireland as a scared 12-year-old: “Mother Seraphine was so warmhearted. She threw her arms around me and hugged me. I was little and young. She was so friendly and knew I was lonesome.”
The Mother Superior had a unique greeting style.
“She had a custom of slapping you on both cheeks, a love pat,” Sister Patricia said.”
Sister Bartholomew Schwab, who came from Fulda and joined the community in 1906, recalled being sent to see Mother Seraphine for a penance after mumbling her prayers as a novice.
She rapped on the Mother’s door and explained why she’d been sent. “She asked me to say the prayer for her and she told me it sounded perfect. … ‘Tell Mother Francis Clare she doesn’t have to worry about you.’ That was all the penance she gave me.”
Then there were the times Mother Seraphine would ride the streetcar to visit her brother, John, the archbishop, on Portland Avenue. “She would get in the streetcar and never say a word. She would start her praying,” said Sister Edwina Raymond, who joined the nuns in 1907. “Several times we went way beyond our destination — almost to Minneapolis — and had to take another streetcar back.”
The sisters recalled hearing Mother Seraphine’s funny tales from her childhood and watching her play checkers every night with a nun from France in the sisters’ room.
Her cousin, meanwhile, grew up to be more stately, deliberate and proper.
“Mother Celestine remained her dependable friend, with greater shrewdness, more caution and less frankness than her chief,” wrote Sister Helen Angela Hurley in her book, “On Good Ground.”
Celestine molded country girls to teach in Catholic schools and prodded Mother Seraphine to adopt more rigid disciplinary practices.
“She acted as a check on her cousin’s too visionary plans,” Sister Helen wrote. “Mother Celestine would try to hold back her plunging cousin, but when decisions to expand were made despite her warning, she strained every nerve to get the money together.”
Mother Celestine died in 1915, after asking her sisters “to speak little of me when I die, but pray much for my soul.”
She was buried beside her cousin, Sister St. John Ireland, at St. Paul’s Calvary Cemetery. Archbishop Ireland was buried nearby in 1918.
Mother Seraphine continued as provincial superior until retiring in 1921 and then served as a senior council member until she died four days shy of her 88th birthday. She’d been a nun for 72 of those years.
Like her brother’s funeral a dozen years earlier, St. Paul’s political, educational and religious leaders crammed into the cathedral for her funeral. She was buried at Calvary near her relatives — all of whom disembarked that riverboat together as kids destined to make their mark on St. Paul and the young state of Minnesota.
Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org