Sunday, February 23, 2014

Hospital Nuns: The Sisters of Mercy in the Civil War

By Mary Pat Kelly
Excerpted from:

The Sisters of Mercy were the first women to go with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War in 1854. They worked with her to make nursing more effective and to improve sanitary conditions.

In America, the Sisters of Mercy would make their impact on the battlefields in the Civil War, beginning a legacy in health care that is still going strong today.

“Veritable angels of mercy” are the words President Abraham Lincoln used to describe the nuns he saw tending wounded soldiers at one of the 25 military hospitals hurriedly set up around Washington to receive the more than 20,000 casualties – Union and Confederate – of some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.

“Of all the forms of charity and benevolence seen in the crowded wards those of the Catholic sisters were among the most efficient,” Lincoln wrote after visiting Stanton Hospital, staffed by the Sisters of Mercy, the order founded by Catherine McAuley in Dublin barely 30 years before. “More lovely than anything in art are the pictures that remain with me of these sisters going on their rounds of mercy among the suffering and dying.”
A nice sentiment, but by sanctifying these sisters he unintentionally diminished their human accomplishments. The 36 sisters who nursed at Stanton Hospital, near Washington, D.C., were not angels but women. Tough, determined, intelligent women with names like Murphy, Byrne, Ward, Leahy, and Maguire. Surely, they had to push themselves beyond their fears to face the horrors of war.

Six hundred nuns from twelve religious communities served as U.S. Army nurses during the Civil War.

They served on the battlefield and gave their lives. A group of Sisters of Mercy traveling to St. Louis on a Union steamboat took fire from a Confederate gun battery and worked through it, tending the wounded. At Gettysburg one St. Joseph sister wiped the blood-covered face of a young soldier to discover that he was her 18 year-old brother.

When the Sisters of Providence (the community I was a member of for six years) took over the military hospital in Indianapolis during the Civil War, they found, as hospital inspector Dr. John M. Kitchen would write in a report, “a miserable state of filth and disorder, the sick in wretched conditions,” and would go on to create “a clean comfortable house for the sick soldiers . . . Whatever success may have attended our efforts is due in great degree to these meek and worthy women.”

Worthy? Yes. Meek? No. The orders who sent their sisters to the front line did so despite the fact that Dorothea Dix did not want them. All biographical information on Dix, who had been appointed by the U.S. government to recruit nurses, mentions her anti-Catholicism. She refused to accept Catholic women and nuns as nurses.

But nuns were already operating 30 hospitals around the country, and the doctors and public officials who knew their work by-passed Dix and welcomed them.

The Irish Sisters of Mercy, like orders of Polish, German and Italian, opened their hospitals to all no matter their religion, background or ability to pay.

The Sisters of Mercy in Chicago, who founded Mercy Hospital in 1847, also founded a nursing academy and subsidized the hospital with the tuition collected from the young women in their academic programs.

A great number of the hospitals and education academies throughout the U.S. were built with money raised by nuns. Yet they were always at the mercy of the bishops. In 1871, Mother Theodore Guerin, the French founder of the Sisters of Providence, was excommunicated by Hal Italiandiere, the local bishop, for refusing to hand over the deed to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods women’s college in Indiana. She appealed to Queen Amelie of France, the bishop was replaced, and she was reinstated.

In 1864, Bishop James Duggan of Chicago, whose sister Mary Jane was a Mercy nun, decided to take over Mercy Hospital and gave the Sisters two days to evacuate their patients. Led by Mother Frances Monhalland, the nuns moved 100 sick and dying people to St. Agatha’s Academy, which would become the core of the new hospital.

As it turned out, the bishop’s hospital burned down in the Chicago Fire of 1872 and the new Mercy Hospital was much needed. By that time Bishop Duggan had been institutionalized as mentally incompetent.

In the years following the Civil War, nuns established 800 hospitals, the basis for a network of Catholic hospitals that now serves one in six patients, the largest private group in the U.S.


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