Nuns as Nurses in the Civil War ~ With a Lowell Connection

Our friend Dave McKean has another interesting post on LowellIrish. In writing about nuns – specifically the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul – who nursed the wounded, the sick and the dying during the Civil War, Dave brings the story home to Lowell.

Lowell’s Civil War Nuns

Sisters at Saterlee Hospital, Philadelphia

You can barely make them out.  Along the edge of Yard 4 of Saint Patrick Cemetery is a series of stones.  They are small, all similar, and quite plain in keeping with their owners’ way of life.  This lot belongs to the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, the Sisters who served St. John’s Hospital from 1867 to 1961.  Their habit made them quite memorable with their large winged headpieces, reminiscent of the Flying Nun TV series of the 1960s.  The markers have become overgrown with grass clippings and sod and are slowly sinking into the ground.  It is almost metaphorical to the work the Sisters labored at for decades; few remember their ministry of healing the sick.

Though no words mark their deeds, three of the stones draw special attention.  Sisters Matilda, Amelia, and Frances all have a special place in the history of our country.  They are three of the 600 Sisters who served as nurses during the Civil War.

There were not many life opportunities for women in the 19th century.  The great majority knew that their lives would be spent as farmer’s wives, bearing children and spending endless hours doing chores, often dying in childbirth or meeting an earlier death than their male counterparts due to exhaustion or disease.  A few women were able to learn a trade or become teachers, but they were few and far between.  Some women sought the religious life as a way of breaking out of the norm.  Religious women were often in places where other women could not be; hospitals, administrators, or traveling to places outside their homes.

A number of Catholic orders trained their religious to become nurses, a job often looked down upon for the type of work they would be asked to do.  When the Civil War broke out the Sisters took it upon themselves to use their services for both sides of the conflict, often bringing contempt upon themselves from both sides for aiding the enemy.

Not everyone appreciated the work of the Sisters.  Anti-Catholic sentiment was ripe during this period, especially in the South.  Some doctors refused to have Sisters as nurses.  The great Florence Nightingale was so anti-Catholic she would not allow Sisters in her wards.  Others recognized the work of the nuns.  Secretary Stanton and even President Lincoln requested Sisters to work in military hospitals.  Often they were better trained than their civilian counterparts and worked endlessly when civilian nurses would refuse certain duties or leave when met with the brutality of war.

When the battle of Gettysburg was over a group of Daughters of Charity left their mother house about 20 miles away in Emmitsburg, MD and went to work with the wounded from both sides.  Though the Sisters were offered wages, they refused them requesting only medicine and supplies for their work.

All three of the Sisters at the cemetery served as nurses at the Satterlee Military Hospital in Philadelphia.  At one point the hospital held 6000 patients, though built for 4500.  Sr. Martina was born in Maryland and worked in the tents that were set up around Satterlee to meet the overflow numbers in the hospital.  She spent many years as the night supervisor at St. John’s Hospital in Lowell before her death in 1926.  The daughter of a barrel maker, Sr. Amelia was born in Pennsylvania.   She worked in a number of Southern schools before the war and then did nursing at Satterlee.  She spent her final years working at St. John’s spending 60 years as a nun and dying at the age of 80.  Born in County Sligo, Sr. Mary Frances was the daughter of an Irish farming family.  The war years prevented her from taking her final vows but it did not stop her from also nursing in Philadelphia.   She too spent decades serving at St. John’s and upon her death her funeral was held at Immaculate Conception church with burial at St. Patrick’s.

Though application for veteran stones were made out for the 3 Sisters in 1928, no veteran markers were ever placed recognizing the service the Sisters gave to their country and their God.  Today’s regulations for a veteran stone demand that a direct descendant must apply for the stone meaning they will not be given the  recognition they deserve.

As usual Walter must be given credit for finding the original requests for markers which started our story.  Photo credit belongs to Daughters of Charity Archives, Province of St Louise.