McCANN, ROSANNA (named Mary Basilia), Sister of Charity and educator; b. 1811 in Ireland; d. 27 Oct. 1870 in New York City.
Little is known about the childhood of Rosanna McCann. She came to Maryland as a child and received her education with the Sisters of Charity of Emmitsburg, Maryland. At age 18 she entered that congregation, receiving the name Sister Mary Basilia. Her religious community, begun by Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton in 1812 and the first religious institute for women to have its native foundation in the United States, was one response to the tremendous influx of Catholic immigrants in the early 19th century which made necessary the development of a variety of organizations within the church. The Sisters of Charity were to give temporal and spiritual service to those in need, particularly in the fields of health and education. With the growth of the congregation and the success of its various apostolates, requests for sisters came from many parts of the United States. Sister Mary Basilia served in Baltimore and Frederick, Md, and in Martinsburg, W. Va, as teacher and superior. In 1842 she was sent to New York City, where there were now eight missions and 62 sisters.
In 1845 the New York houses were separated from the Emmitsburg administration, and a second motherhouse was established there in order to give a concentration of authority and supervision. Each sister on mission in New York was allowed to choose whether she would remain or return to Emmitsburg. Sister Mary Basilia, recognizing the needs in the New York area, decided to stay in that diocese. In the spring of 1847 the new motherhouse, Mount Saint Vincent, was dedicated. In the same year the Sisters of Charity of New York received a request from Bishop William Walsh* of Halifax for sisters who would work in his diocese. One hundred years after its founding the city was conscious of the need for organized forms of Catholic education. An affirmative answer to the request was deferred, but when it was repeated two years later four sisters were chosen for this northern mission. With her experience as a successful and tactful administrator, Sister Mary Basilia was named superior.
The sisters arrived in Halifax on 11 May 1849. Bishop Walsh had prepared a convent for them, a four-storey wooden structure, close to St Mary’s Cathedral. Originally built as a parochial school, it was now to be utilized as a convent, an elementary girls’ school, and an orphanage. Sister Mary Basilia and her three companions began their work immediately: 200 girls were registered, and the formal opening of St Mary’s Girls’ School took place on 27 May. Since 1821 there had been some financial help from the Nova Scotia government for private schools. Those who could pay met a small tuition charge, but the majority of the pupils were “free scholars.” In 1850 the first report of the new Board of School Commissioners for Halifax spoke in glowing terms of the “large Day School . . . conducted by the Sisters of Charity,” gave the registration as 400 pupils, and noted a grant of $50 “from the Treasury.” Succeeding reports continued to be complimentary, and the financial help increased. Sister Mary Basilia’s work as an educator was not confined to the classroom of an elementary school. Night classes for illiterate adults and for those who had not completed their elementary school education were also organized. Furthermore, at the end of their first year in Halifax, the sisters were caring for 20 orphans, children of immigrants whose parents had died of ship fever as they journeyed across the Atlantic during the years of the great famine in Ireland; in 1854 St Mary’s Orphan Asylum was said to be housing 16 orphans.
In the same year Bishop Walsh wrote to New York that there was work enough for six more sisters, but to no avail. Instead, in 1856, the establishment of a Canadian motherhouse was approved by Rome and Sister Mary Basilia became the first mother superior of the Sisters of Charity of Halifax, at that time the only independent English-speaking congregation of religious in Canada. The noviciate was established at St Mary’s and postulants admitted. A convent was opened for which property was purchased in the north end of the city. Here the sisters took a particular interest in the blacks, and special classes were provided for them in the convent.
Mother Mary Basilia has been described at this time as “in appearance tall and erect; she had a dark complexion and very penetrating black eyes, which would kindle with disapproval, or beam with sympathy and kindness, as the occasion called . . . a person of vast experience, a clever business woman, and a genuine Sister of Charity.”
In December 1858 there were 14 professed sisters in the young congregation. Mother Mary Basilia felt that she could return to New York. Two years later she was sent to Jersey City, N.J., to supervise a new mission, where she worked for the last decade of her life. In 1870, a few months before her death, she returned to Halifax for a visit. There were now over 50 sisters and five convents; there were also plans for a new motherhouse in Rockingham, N.S., under whose roof Mount Saint Vincent Academy would be founded three years later.
Today, more than a century after Mother Mary Basilia’s death, the Sisters of Charity of Halifax have become an international congregation, numbering over 1,400 sisters, with convents in British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia; in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Washington; and with missions in Peru and the Dominican Republic. As well as education from pre-school classes through university, the work of the sisters in Canada embraces hospital and paramedical services for the sick, supervision of child care institutions, and the care of the aging.
PANS, RG 14, 29, “Minutes of the board of school commissioners for the city of Halifax,” 1850–64, 1 Nov. 1864 – 7 Nov. 1865. Acadian Recorder, 11 May 1849, 14 Aug. 1852, 14 Aug. 1870. C. I. White, Life of Mrs. Eliza A. Seton, foundress and first superior of the Sisters or Daughters of Charity in the United States of America; with copious extracts from her writings, and an historical sketch of the sisterhood from its foundation to the present time (New York, 1853). Sister Francis d’Assisi, Mother Mary Basilia McCann, first mother superior of the Halifax daughters of blessed Elizabeth Seton, 1811–1870 (Halifax, 1968). M. R. Hoare, Virgin soil; Mother Seton from a different point of view (Boston, ). Annabelle [McConnell] Melville, John Carroll of Baltimore, founder of the American Catholic hierarchy (New York, ). Sister Maura [Mary Power], Sisters of Charity, Halifax (Toronto, ). T. H. Raddall, Halifax, warden of the north (Garden City, N.Y., 1965). M. de L. Walsh, The Sisters of Charity of New, York, 1809–1959 (3v., New York, n.d.).