Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Sisters of Charity: A Spectacle of Mercy During the Civil War

by Michelle Taylor

One day in 1863, after the battle of Gettysburg, Generals W.A. Hammond and Frank Sigel visited the hospital.  The convalescent patients, eager to catch a glimpse of them, crowded into the corridors.

Meanwhile, a sister in the blue habit and white cornette of the Daughters of Charity approached a young boy still too weak to move and expressed her regrets that he could not join the others. The young soldier replied: “I would any time rather see a sister than a general, for it was a sister who came to me when I was unable to help myself, in an old barn near Gettysburg, where I was.  She dressed my wounds and gave me a drink and took care of me until I came here.”

This testimonial is but one of many to the untiring and sublime dedication, courage, and charity shown by the American Daughters of Saint Vincent de Paul at the battlefields and hospitals of the Civil War.

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At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Catholics were a despised or barely tolerated minority in the United States. The Catholic Church then numbered fewer than thirty thousand souls. When Bishop John Carroll was appointed to the see of Baltimore in 1789, he was the sole shepherd for the whole nation. Yet, a hundred years later the Catholic Church had become a respected ecclesial body in America, influencing the thought and moral fiber of the nation, and an acknowledged leader in human services. Figuring strongly in this development were the ministries of the Community of the Daughters of Charity founded in 1809 by Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.

A short biography

In 1794 Elizabeth Bayley, the petite, lively daughter of a prominent New York doctor, married William Magee Seton, a young merchant from New York. Their marriage was happy and fruitful; they had five children, two boys and three girls.

Daughters of Charity serving in a hospital ward during the Civil War

Through his merchant trade inherited from his father in 1798, young Seton, an Episcopalian, had established business relations with the Italian bankers and merchants Filippo and Antonio Filicchi. These brothers, fervent Catholics, became great friends of the Seton family. They and William agreed to carry correspondence for Bishop John Carroll safely to and from Rome on their merchant ships.

In 1800, young Seton’s business, in a tottering state, reached the point of bankruptcy. William had also inherited the family’s illness, tuberculosis and, as his health continued to deteriorate, a sea voyage was scheduled upon medical suggestion. Hearing of this, the Filicchis invited him to stay with them at Livorno. The Setons made the trip, but William died shortly after reaching the Italian shore. The young widow was warmly received by the Filicchis and experienced at their home a charity the likes of which she had never known before. It was there that the seed of the Faith was sown in her soul. The Real Presence of Our Lord Jesus in the Eucharist especially attracted her.

On returning to New York she pursued religious instruction, and after a period of struggle — between doubt and faith, concern over the need to support her children, and the increasing separation from family and friends over her turn toward Catholicism — Elizabeth was received into the Catholic Church in March of 1805.

At the suggestion of a Sulpician priest from Saint Mary’s College in Baltimore, Father William DuBourg, and the approval of Bishop Carroll, whose priority was Catholic education, Elizabeth moved to Baltimore and launched a small school for girls. Her two sons boarded at Saint Mary’s.

Daughter of Charity

It was also Father DuBourg who informed Elizabeth about the Daughters of Charity founded in France in 1633 by Saint Vincent de Paul and Saint Louise de Marillac to serve the sick and poor. He proceeded to confide to her his dream of seeing them established in the United States. “Mrs. Seton,” he writes in a letter, “expressed a fervent wish to see the dream accomplished and to become part of it.”

On March 25, 1809, Elizabeth made vows for one year in the presence of then Archbishop Carroll and was given the title of “Mother.” By June, four young women had joined her and others were asking for admittance.

It was then that Samuel Cooper, a convert and seminarian at Mount Saint Mary’s College in Baltimore, offered $7,000 to purchase property for the newly founded order. He asked that the new sisterhood be established in Emmitsburg and that they include free instruction for poor children of the neighborhood. Seeing God’s hand in this, Elizabeth accepted.

The beginnings in Emmitsburg were primitive, harsh, and trying. Elizabeth had her three daughters with her as well as her two sisters-in-law, who had followed her into the Faith. In addition, another thirteen women had joined, and all lived in very close quarters. Yet, under the direction of the Sulpician fathers and with Elizabeth’s able leadership and motherly guidance, the order prospered.


At first the order was dedicated solely to the instruction of children. In 1814, at the request of Father Michael Hurley, they became involved in the first Catholic orphanage opened in Philadelphia. Sister Rose White, who had joined Elizabeth as a young widow of twenty-five, was chosen to direct this establishment, the order’s first outside of Emmitsburg. In 1817, Bishop John Connolly of New York requested sisters to staff an orphanage in New York. Again, the excellent Sister Rose was sent. The expansion had begun.

In 1820, the Catholic Church in the United States was composed of one archdiocese, Baltimore, and five dioceses: New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Bardstown, and New Orleans. The community of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph, not yet twelve years old and numbering only fifty sisters, was already established and serving in three of these jurisdictions and was soon to reach the others. In 1850 the American community at Emmitsburg united with the French Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul.

Death of Mother Seton, daughter of the Church

On January 4, 1821, Mother Seton died at age forty-six. She had said to the sisters around her sick bed: “I thank God for having made me a child of His Church. When you come to this hour, you will know what it is to be a child of the Church.” Her last words were, “Be children of the Church; be children of the Church…”

Beginnings of health care

Bishop Carroll had not envisioned health care as part of the sisters’ service for, at least, another century . Yet, the reputation of the Daughters of Charity in France as nurses was such that in 1822 their American counterparts were requested to staff the new infirmary in Baltimore.

The next two decades saw schools, orphanages, and hospital services established in Washington, D.C.; Frederick, Maryland; Wilmington, Delaware; Harrisburg, Conewago, Pittsburgh, and Pottsville, Pennsylvania; New York City, Albany, Brooklyn, Utica, and Fordham, New York; St. Louis; Boston; the Diocese of Vincennes, comprising the whole of Indiana; and New Orleans.

In 1833 the sisters working at the Maryland hospital began to take notice of patients with psychiatric problems. They learned much about psychiatric care from the doctors and at the same time surrounded the patients with a gentle and humane atmosphere that fostered healing. One witness reported that the sisters “combine natural tenderness with a supernatural motive of divine love; the softness of domestic affection with the firmness of a stranger,” and went on to say that they recognized every case as more or less unique, requiring an individual course of treatment.

The war years

By 1861, the year the Civil War broke out, the Daughters of Charity in the United States had much experience in nursing, hospital care, and administration. The combination of experience and Catholic charity made for the best care available in the country. The result was that, throughout the war, their services were in high and constant demand on both sides of the line. Generals, surgeons, and even the surgeon general requested their help.

More than 270 of the eight hundred sister comprising the community at that time nursed the wounded during the war. All together, some six hundred sisters from twelve different religious communities served in the war effort. Space demands that we limit this article to the Community of the Daughters of Charity, who had the most training and experience in the medical field. The community had thirty years experience in American health care, having served in three public hospitals and twelve Catholic hospitals under strict standards and quality controls developed by the sisters themselves.

At the beginning of the effort there was prejudice and anti-Catholic feeling to overcome. By the war’s end, however, the title “Sister” was honored and revered throughout the land.

Thus, in a report to the Lincoln Hospital, the surgeon general of the United States Army wrote: “Twenty-eight Sisters of Charity were on duty, and I must bear evidence to their efficiency and superiority as nurses. The extra diet kitchen is under the care of a sister, and one is detailed by the superior to each ward. They administer medicine, diet, and stimulants under the orders of a ward surgeon and are responsible to him alone. They have been beloved and respected by the men.”

Sisters served untiringly for the duration of the Civil War, sometimes at a ratio of two sisters to two hundred soldiers in conditions that were frequently deplorable. But, wherever they went, they established order and cleanliness and dispensed the best of professional and Catholic care.

Edified by the dedication and kindness of the sisters, many soldiers requested baptism before dying. From Manassas, Sister Angela Heath wrote, “On an average, ten died every day, and of this number, I think I may safely say, four were baptized.” From the military hospital in Cliffburn, Washington, D.C., Sister Helen Ryan wrote of a young Methodist who was seriously wounded and kept calling out for a priest. Thinking he wanted a minister, the sister in charge of the ward finally asked if he wanted a Catholic priest. “I do not know what you call him,” replied the patient, “but I want one of those belonging to your religion of white bonnets.”

Not just the sick and dying were moved to conversion by the sisters’ dedication. Dr. S. P. Duffield, the surgeon in charge of the military hospital at Point Lookout, Maryland, was led by his admiration for them to investigate the Catholic Faith and was eventually received into the Church.

The sisters’ service was deemed indispensable. One such proof was at Point Lookout. Upon the arrival of Confederate prisoners there, the government issued an order that all female nurses must leave. Anxiously, the doctors applied to Washington for the sisters to stay. They received the prompt reply: “The Sisters of Charity are not included in our orders. They may serve all alike at the Point, prisoners and others.”

They had continued to serve even when quarantine had been declared due to typhoid fever. Sister Consolata Conlon, just nineteen, succumbed to that malady and was buried with the soldiers at Point Lookout.

General Benjamin Butler, who headed the occupation of New Orleans in May of 1862 and was known by Louisianans as “the Beast,” nevertheless demonstrated great kindness and respect toward the sisters. He left a beautiful testimony: “Sisters to all mankind, they know no nation, no kindred, neither war nor peace. Their all-pervading charity is like the love of Him who died for all, Whose servants they are and Whose pure teaching their love illustrates.”

At Sattarlee Army Hospital in Philadelphia it is estimated that the Daughters of Charity tended to eighty thousand sick and wounded soldiers in a three-year period. Nathaniel West, Sattarlee’s Protestant chaplain, published a historical sketch of the hospital in 1863 in which he pays a tribute to the sisters: “It is most firmly believed that better nurses, better attendants on the sick, more noiseless, ceaseless performers of services in the hospital than these Sisters could not be found…. And it will be hard to find any establishment of equal magnitude to the Sattarlee United States Army General Hospital where neatness, cleanliness, arrangement, order and adaptation to the end designed are better contrived and observed.”

Many were the stories brought back to the Motherhouse in Emmitsburg. There were the accounts of deathbed conversions and baptisms. There were anecdotes of soldiers who at first did not know what to think of these “strange” women or who were prejudiced against them when told they were Catholic, but who, on finding that they owed their lives to the sisters’ assistance, not only came to admire them but defended them against any ill judgment. “Sister! Sister of Charity! Sister of Mercy! Put something in this hand!” “Sister, Sister, don’t forget me!” “Sister, Sister, for the love of God!” “Oh, Sister, for God’s sake!” Such cries resounded throughout the wards of North and South and were answered without distinction.

There was the case of a patient who one day asked a sister who it was that paid her. On being informed that the sisters received no salaries and worked solely for the love of God, the man relapsed into bewildered silence. A little later, becoming a little more confident with the sister, he told her there was only one class of people in the world whom he hated and these were Catholics because they were detestable people. Being asked if he had ever met one he answered that he had not. On learning that the good sister was a Catholic the poor man burst into tears of disappointment. His disappointment was short-lived, however, for he left the hospital a Catholic.

If any sisters happened to be in the same rail car as soldiers there was great rivalry as to whose seat they would take. Whether whole or lame, none of the gallant brave failed to offer his place to the sisters. “Sister, do take my seat; it is the most comfortable.” “Oh, Sister, take mine; do oblige me.” “No, Sister, mine!” Sweet was the sisters’ reward as they watched these men begin to love Our Lord and, therefore, His Church through them.

In another case a man in one military ward was given up for dead. A sister knelt by him for three hours, picking the vermin from his festering wounds. Due to her care and perseverance the man recovered, confounding his doctors.

Another soldier, once handsome and strong, lay dying in a military ward in Missouri. The sister who cared for him, realizing that his end was near, asked him if he belonged to any church. On receiving a negative answer, she asked if he would consider accepting the Catholic Faith. “No, not a Catholic. I always hated the Catholics,” answered the young man with whatever disdain he could still muster in his sinking voice. “At any rate,” urged the kind sister, “you should ask pardon of God for your sins and be sorry for whatever evil you have done in your life.”

He answered her that he was sorry for all the sins of his life and hoped to be forgiven but that there was one sin that especially haunted and weighed on him. He had once insulted a sister in Boston as he passed her in the street. She had said nothing but had looked at him with a look of reproof that he had never forgotten. “I knew nothing then of what sisters were,” continued the young man, “for I had not known you. But now that I know how good and disinterested you are and how mean I was, I am disgusted with myself. Oh, if that sister were here, I would go down on my knees to her and ask her pardon!”

“You have asked it and you have received it,” said the sister, compassionately looking him full in the face.

“What! You are the sister I passed in Boston? Oh, yes! You are — I know you now! And how could you have attended me with greater care than any of the other patients? I who insulted you so!”

“I did it for Our Lord’s sake, because He loved His enemies and blessed those who persecuted Him. I knew you from the first moment you were brought into the hospital, and I have prayed unceasingly for your conversion,” said the sister.

“Send for the priest!” exclaimed the dying soldier; “the religion that teaches such a charity must be from God.”

And so he died in the sister’s Faith, holding in his grasp the symbol of our salvation and murmuring prayers taught him by her whose mild rebuke had followed him through every battle to this, his last.

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Truly, the Daughters of Charity were a silent spectacle of charity in the years of the terrible Civil War. They tended, nursed, and consoled without regard for color, code, or creed, considering only the suffering human being before them made in the image and likeness of his Creator. They loved in him the blood a crucified God had shed for his soul, and silently, tenderly, and lovingly hoped that their service, their prayers, and their sacrifice would bear fruit in him. And so it did in many.

Above all, however, their effort bore fruit for the Church in America, helping to dispel the fog of prejudice and misunderstanding so prevalent in those days and presenting America with the shining face of true Catholicism.

In the aftermath of peace in 1865, many of the most ardent critics of the Catholic Church had had a change of heart toward Her. The devotion and care demonstrated by many Catholic chaplains as well as hundreds of Catholic sisters changed the way many Protestants viewed the Church and Catholics in general. Once again, the charitable and educational institutions of the Church could continue expanding into many new territories of this great land.


Hannefin, Sister Daniel, D.C., Daughters of the Church, A Popular History of the Daughters of Charity in the United States 1809-1987 (New York: New City Press, 1989)

Kelly, Ellin M., Ed., Numerous Choirs, A Chronicle of Elizabeth Bayley Seton and Her Spiritual Daughters. Volume II — Expansion, Division and War — 1821-1865 (Evansville, Indiana: Mater Dei Provincialate, 1981)

Mahonand, P.J., and Rev. J.M. Hayes, S.J., Trials and Triumphs of the Catholic Church in America, Vol. 1 (Chicago: J.S. Hyland & Company, 1907)


We thank Sr. Betty Ann McNeil, D.C., archivist for the Daughters of Charity, for consultation, corrections, and review of this article.

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