Elizabeth Oesterlein Christ

Grave of Elizabeth Oesterlein Christ, founder of Salem Academy and College, in God's Acre.

Born: Sept. 12, 1749 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Died: Dec. 3, 1802 in Salem, North Carolina

Known for: Becoming the first teacher of Salem Academy and Salem College.

Elizabeth Oesterlein Christ, affectionately called Sister O. by many faculty, students, and alumnae of Salem Academy and Salem College, was the first teacher of the school. Born and educated in the Moravian stronghold of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, she was baptized by none other than August Gottlieb Spangenberg, or Brother Joseph, known for establishing the Wachovia tract.

Moravian girls and women had many more rights and greater involvement in their society than was generally common in Colonial America and Europe. In 1766, Christ and a dozen girls aged 13 to 17 traveled more than 400 miles to Salem. The group attracted a great deal of attention and was frequently challenged by drunks who wanted to “talk nonsense” to them.

One of the girls on the trip kept a diary and detailed their journey. It’s one of the few accounts of internal migration in the Colonies, especially of women. The young writer describes the excitement of the trip, their pious certainty in their faith, and the trials they faced as they came across wild pigs and slept in barns.

They arrived in Salem on Halloween and took up various roles in the community. In April 1772, Christ held the first classes in the Little Girls’ School. Her students, Maria Magdalena Meyer, 4, Anna Elizabeth Bagge, 2 and a half, and Maria Magdalena Schmid, 8, were the foundation for what is the oldest continually operating educational institution for girls in America, Salem Academy and Salem College.

Today, first-year students remember her life and contributions during orientation weekend when they conduct a candlelight walk to her grave in God’s Acre and place white daisies on the white marble gravestone. Christ is lauded on Founders Day, and as students approach graduation, they process to her grave one more time to celebrate the woman who started it all.

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