Sister Elisabeth Oesterlein, recognized as the first teacher of Salem Academy and College, was born on September 12, 1749.
Sister Oesterlein, born in Pennsylvania, embarked on a journey with her fellow Moravians at the age of 17 to the piedmont region of North Carolina. Oesterlein’s group arrived in Bethabara on October 31, 1766, and after the completion of the Salem community, she moved again. In 1772, she was selected to be the first teacher for the girls’ school– known today as Salem Academy and College.
Oesterlein began teaching a class of three students in April of 1772, in the Gemein Haus building, where the Main Hall of Salem College is located today. The school, older than the United States by four years, persevered and never closed, despite the disturbances of the Revolutionary War and outbreaks of smallpox. The number of enrolled pupils increased steadily, and the boarding school (now South Hall) originally built to accommodate 60 students quickly was outgrown, with 83 boarding students enrolled in only a few years.
Sister Oesterlein is honored many times throughout the academic year, but particularly on Founder’s Day, when Academy and College students, faculty, staff, alumnae, and friends of Salem gather together to celebrate the founders of Salem and their incredible legacy that has survived for more than 240 years.
Elisabeth Oesterlein died in 1802 and is buried in God’s Acre, adjacent to the Salem Academy and College grounds. To celebrate her 265th birthday, students from Salem College will walk to her grave and leave daisies, a token of sisterhood and friendship, for the woman who ignited the spark of education for the women of Salem so long ago.
Published on September 12, 2014