Early Female Education in Frederick County

Henrietta Bacchtel received this award in 1838 in recognition of her achievement in fourth class writing. She was a student at St. Joseph’s Academy in Emmitsburg, one of the earliest institutions dedicated to the education of women in Frederick County. Henrietta and her colleagues studied at St. Joseph’s during a time when the school’s curriculum was evolving in accordance with changing attitudes towards women’s education in the United States. 

When St. Joseph’s Academy opened its doors in 1809, the school’s first thirty students were educated in basic writing, reading, and arithmetic in addition to courses in etiquette and other domestic duties a woman was expected to perform once she married and started a family. By the mid-19th century, the school’s curriculum shifted to a greater academic focus with the introduction of courses in the sciences, philosophy, and languages. In time, schools like St. Joseph’s Academy developed a comprehensive academic course of study for their students and many of the women used this education to become teachers after the establishment of public education systems in the late-19th century. In 1902, St, Joseph’s Academy received a charter to become a degree-granting college which it remained until its closure in 1973. 

St. Joseph’s Academy was founded by Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, who came to Frederick County in 1809 with the goal of caring for poor children and educating young women. Born into a wealthy New York family in 1774, Elizabeth’s early adulthood followed the traditional path of many women in her class and time. She married William Magee Seton at age 19 and had five children. Her husband enjoyed success in his business pursuits and the family lived in an upper-class neighborhood in New York City. However, by the age of 30, Elizabeth’s husband had died from tuberculosis and the family’s fortune had been decimated by trade interruptions from ongoing European conflicts. In this difficult point of her life, Elizabeth converted to Catholicism and dedicated herself to caring for children in need.   

At the invitation of Sulpician priests from Baltimore, Elizabeth moved to Maryland in 1809 and settled at Emmitsburg where she organized a religious order named the Sisters of Charity of St. Josephs (renamed Daughters of Charity in 1811). At the same time, the order established St. Joseph’s Academy to educate young women. Elizabeth Ann Seton was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1975, becoming the first person born in the United States to become a Catholic saint.

March 1, 2023 by Jody Brumage, Heritage Frederick Archivist