Sister Augusta and Catholic Education in Utah

Bernice M. Mooney and Miriam M. Murphy
History Blazer, June 1996

The most striking figure in the early history of Catholic women’s work in Utah was a Holy Cross nun, Sister Augusta. Born Amanda Anderson in 1830 in Virginia, she was reared after her mother’s death by an aunt who lived on a ranch in Ohio. The ranch had a grist mill and housed the only Catholic chapel within fifty miles. Young Amanda helped the Indians who brought their corn to the mill to be ground. She also visited them regularly, taking food and medicine to the poor and sick. She rode horseback to attend a small country school. At age 24 she joined the Sisters of the Holy Cross at St. Mary’s in Notre Dame, Indiana, where she took the name of Augusta.

In 1861 Sister Augusta was called to the U.S. Army hospital in Cairo, Illinois, to care for wounded soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. Known as “the soldier’s friend,” she began an association with General Ulysses S. Grant who consulted her about the care of his men. She ministered to others in need as well. On one occasion she visited a critically ill young widow, Maria Antonia DeVoto, who worried about her children Rose and Florian. Sister Augusta promised to be responsible for their care. After their mother’s death the children were raised by the Sisters of the Holy Cross in Indiana. Rose accompanied Sister Augusta to Salt Lake City where she became a teacher of voice and English. Florian, who received a master’s degree from Notre Dame, later became the father of the nationally known historian and critic Bernard DeVoto who was born and raised in Ogden, Utah.

Traveling to Utah at the request of Father (later Bishop) Lawrence J. Scanlan, Sister Augusta and a companion, Sister Raymond, stayed in the home of Judge Thomas and Sarah Marshall until their convent was opened on First West between First and Second South. The Marshall family’s St. Bernard dog adopted the sisters and accompanied them almost everywhere. Judge Marshall arranged a meeting with Brigham Young. He received the sisters with kindness, explaining that he could not aid them financially but encouraging them to open the school Father Scanlan proposed. Though there were only a few Catholic families in the city then, Sister Augusta shared Scanlan’s vision and understood the need to establish a school.

Within a week plans for the school were being drawn up by architect G. C. Davis of the 14th Infantry at Fort Douglas. The cost of the building was estimated at $25,000, and the work of soliciting the funds for it fell upon Sister Augusta and Sister Raymond.

Week after week the two sisters took to the road. They visited every mining camp in the area from Ophir to Alta, climbing to the famous Reed and Benson Mine and the Prince of Wales, which employed many men. The miners were generous, and soon the money needed was in hand. The building was completed in three months. St. Mary’s Academy opened its doors in September 1875 to 100 pupils, mostly Protestants. The first graduate of the academy was Louise Heffernan, daughter of the commanding officer at Fort Douglas.

Because the sisters had created such a favorable impression in the various mining camps and smelter towns, workers petitioned them to open a hospital in Salt Lake City. Sister Augusta responded by renting a brick house on Fifth East for $50 a month. It accommodated twelve patients and established the foundation for the Holy Cross Hospital. As the hospital opened and other Catholic churches, schools, and an orphanage were built, additional sisters came to Utah to assist in the work Sister Augusta had so courageously begun. Sister Augusta left Utah in 1889 to become the first Mother General of the Sisters of the Holy Cross in the United States.

Source: Bernice M. Mooney, “A History of Women in the Early Catholic Church in Utah,” MS in Utah State Historical Society collections.