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Courtesy of Washington University School of Medicine
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Courtesy of Daughters of Charity, St. Louis
Mother Anne Simeon
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Courtesy of Washington University
Sisters of Charity after 1900
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Courtesy of Washington University
By James Rada Jr.
In the Missouri Military Hospital, a sister on her nightly rounds came upon a soldier who was suffering from pain in his forehead and temples. He had caught a cold, and the inflammation spread to his eyes to the point where they had swollen until he could no longer see. The soldier said the pain was so intense that he thought he wouldn’t live until morning. The sister asked the man to allow her to bind his head with a wide bandage.
“Oh, Sister, it is no use,” the man told her, his voice straining with desperation. “The doctor has been bathing my forehead with spirits of ether and other liquids, and nothing will do me any good. I cannot live until morning; my head is splitting open. But you may do what you like.”
The sister took a wide bandage, and unknown to the soldier, saturated it in chloroform. She bound up the man’s head and left him for the night once the chloroform had eased him into sleep.
The next morning she returned and asked him how his night had been.
“Oh, Sister, I have rested well; from the moment you put your hands on my forehead I experienced no pain,” the grateful patient told her.
—Angels of the Battlefield by George Barton
“The country had only six hundred trained nurses at the start of the Civil War. All were Catholic nuns. This is one of the best kept secrets in our nation’s history,” Civil War chaplain Father William Barnaby Faherty once said. And many of them were in St. Louis during the Civil War.
Nearly seven hundred Catholic sisters from twenty-two orders provided service during the Civil War. The American Daughters of Charity provided the largest number—around three hundred—to serve in the war. They ran schools, including St. Philomena’s School in St. Louis, as well as hospitals.
In St. Louis, the Daughters ran DePaul Hospital, which began as St. Louis Mullanphy Hospital in 1828. Although education was held in high esteem, nursing wasn’t considered a profession for women. In public hospitals, nursing was done by other hospital residents or the poor. No formal training program for nursing existed.
Even so, the Daughters’ success in caring for the sick at the Baltimore Infirmary in Maryland in 1823 prompted the organization to open the first hospital west of the Mississippi River, St. Louis Mullanphy Hospital, in 1828. The sisters gained experience working with victims of violence, accidents, yellow fever, and cholera.
As their reputation as nurses grew, they opened additional hospitals.
Major General Fremont Requested the Sisters
Public perception of female nurses began changing in the 1850s. The French Daughters of Charity, in existence since 1617, had served as battlefield nurses during the Crimean War. Their service had been so exemplary that, once the Civil War began, many people began looking at the American Daughters of Charity and wondering if they could do the same thing here.
Founder Saint Vincent de Paul once told the sisters, “Men go to war to kill one another, and you, sisters, you go to repair the harm they have done. … Men kill the body and very often the soul, and you go to restore life, or at least by your care to assist in preserving it.”
As the United States broke apart, Daughters of Charity from Emmitsburg, Maryland, found themselves serving soldiers in both the Union and Confederacy. Father Francis Burlando and Mother Ann Simeon visited St. Philomena’s in St. Louis in 1861. Foreseeing the sisters in Missouri being called on to serve as nurses as they were in other states, they left directions for how the sisters in Missouri should handle the request when the time arose.
That time came the summer of 1861. On August 12, Union Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont “desired that every attention be paid to soldiers who had exposed their lives for their country, visited them frequently, and believing that there was much neglect on the part of the attendants, applied to the Sisters at St. Philomena’s School in St. Louis, for a sufficient number of sisters to take charge of the hospital, promising to leave everything to their management,” according to Annals of the Civil War, a collection of first-person accounts of wartime experiences submitted by the Daughters of Charity following the war at the request of Father Burlando.
The tragic situations found at St. Mullanphy Hospital served as the perfect training ground for what the sisters would face in the Civil War.
Get to the Sisters
Twelve sisters from St. Philomena’s went to the Military Hospital House of Refuge in the suburbs of St. Louis. The sisters took charge of hundreds of patients.
Peter Kenrick, Archbishop of St. Louis, sent a chaplain to say daily Mass for both the sisters and any wounded. It soon became the primary location to send wounded Confederate POWs who were brought up the Mississippi River on hospital steamboats. Wounded Union soldiers were sent to City Hospital.
At first, the sisters were a wonder to behold because of their strange dress, and some patients asked them if they were Freemasons. The patients were grateful for the fine care they received, and because of that, they gave the sisters their respect and cooperation.
Women from the Union Aid Society visited the soldiers every other day. These women grew to admire the peace that reigned in the wards overseen by the Daughters of Charity and found the patients “as submissive as children.”
St. Louis was inundated with wounded soldiers after battles. Hospital steamboats would pick up patients from battlefields, treat them, and take them to St. Louis for further treatment and recuperation. In one instance, more than eight hundred wounded soldiers arrived in the city in a single day, and the Daughters of Charity cared for many of them.
Often when the soldiers returned to their regiments, they told other sick or wounded soldiers, “If you go to St. Louis, try to get to the House of Refuge Hospital. The Sisters are there, they will make you well soon,” a sentiment expressed to one sister, who then wrote about it after the war.
Sisters from St. Louis also visited Jefferson Barracks Hospital nine miles from the city. The primary duty of the military camp would shift from training soldiers to saving their lives by 1862 when it became a Union hospital with more than three thousand beds.
Wise surgeons recognized the growing respect for the sisters and used it to help their patients. Where a patient might reject a doctor’s ministrations, it was not so with the sisters. Once treated, if the patient recovered, the sister got the credit, which only added to the power of their reputations and their ability to help others.
One day, the sisters were walking through the wards at the St. Louis Military
Hospital when a soldier raised himself up in bed and said, “Ah, sister, how glad I am to see you. Ah! If you were here to take care of us, that poor boy”—pointing to the soldier in the next bed, — “would be well long ago.” —Sister Betty Ann McNeil, archivist for the Daughters of Charity, wrote in her book, Dear Masters: Extracts from Accounts by Sister Nurses.
In August 1862, the Provost Marshal requested the sister servant of St. Louis Hospital send sisters to the Gratiot Street Prison. When Sisters Othelia Marshall, Mary Agnes Kelley, Melania Fischer, and Florence O’Hara first arrived, the patients refused their assistance due to anti- Catholic prejudice.
“Prejudice greeted us everywhere. The patients would not even speak to us, though, bereft of every consolation of soul and body. However, we were not discouraged but persevered in our work of mercy,” one sister wrote.
One of the doctors commented that “the only kindness received in the prisons has been from Catholics and Sisters of Charity.”
The sisters prepared food for the prisoners at their hospital and brought it to the prison at noon each day. The food helped win the prisoners over so they accepted the sisters. One sister wrote: “Now that they looked on us with confidence, they would flock to us like children around a mother, to make known to us their little wants, which Providence never failed to supply to their great astonishment. They would frequently ask us how we could provide for so many. We replied that our Lord made the provision.”
The sisters had a calming effect on the men at the prison. “A check or two from a sister would be enough so that an improper word was rarely heard.
Others who loved their glass of liquor feared only the sisters knowing it,” one sister wrote.
A sister on her nightly rounds came upon a soldier whose hand had been amputated. The man was suffering, and his arm looked bright red and swollen.
The soldier told the sister that a doctor had ordered a hot poultice for his arm that morning, but he hadn’t received it.
The sister found a nurse and asked why the doctor’s orders had been ignored. The nurse told her that there were no hops in the hospital with which to make the poultice. The hospital steward had gone into town for supplies that morning before it was known that hops were needed, and there had been no other opportunity to send someone else into town.
The sister went across the yard to another building and got hops from a bakery that was nearby. She then had the poultice made.
The man said once he got relief, “The Sisters find ways and means to relieve everyone, but others who make a profession of the work do not even know how to begin it.” —Angels of the Battlefield, written by George Barton
In Missouri, where both Union and Confederate loyalties set neighbor against neighbor, the Daughters of Charity showed that anger should be met with kindness and patience for healing to begin.
It is this kindness and hospitality that marks the lasting legacy of the Daughters of Charity. The sisters’ tireless efforts in treating and healing soldiers during the Civil War wore away at strongly held prejudices against Catholics.
James Rada Jr. is the author of Battlefield Angels: The Daughters of Charity Work as Civil War Nurses, a book he spent five years researching and writing.