Six months after the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War in 1861, the Sisters of the Holy Cross responded to the request of Governor Oliver P. Morton of Indiana who asked the congregation if it could spare sisters to care for the Indiana soldiers then serving in Kentucky. Although they had no training as nurses, six Holy Cross sisters, led by Mother M. Angela (Eliza Gillespie), volunteered to journey to Paducah, Kentucky, to tend the sick and the wounded. Many more sisters followed. Simon Cameron, President Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War, asked them to take over the nursing at a government hospital in Louisville, Kentucky; others went to hospitals in Illinois, Tennessee, Missouri and Washington, D.C.
On Christmas Eve 1862, three Holy Cross sisters boarded the U.S. Navy’s first hospital ship, the Red Rover, to serve as nurses for the wounded on both sides of the Civil War. They traveled the Mississippi River carrying sick and wounded soldiers to various military hospitals. In so doing they became what U.S. naval history today hails as the forerunners of the United States Navy Nurse Corps. Before the conflict ended, 65 of the 160 Sisters of the Holy Cross in the United States would serve in the Civil War, and another 13 sisters would serve in the Spanish-American War.
In the decades that followed, Holy Cross sisters continued to respond to the unmet health needs of people across the developing frontier by establishing 19 hospitals over 133 years, serving as administrators, nurses and chaplains. In 1979 the congregation brought together its remaining eight congregation-sponsored hospitals to form Holy Cross Health System. In 2000 this health system consolidated resources with Mercy Health Services to create Trinity Health. Sponsored by Catholic Health Ministries, Trinity Health is one of the largest Catholic health care systems in the United States.
Today, Holy Cross sisters continue to minister in a variety of health care settings worldwide.