No one would look at a Daughter of Charity and see the steel in their personalities that gave them the ability to venture where women rarely went in the 1860’s. They ran schools, among which was St. Philomena’s School in St. Louis. They ran DePaul Hospital in St. Louis, which began as the St. Louis Mullanphy Hospital in 1828.
The latter was frowned on. Nursing wasn’t considered a suitable profession for women. Nursing in public hospitals was often done by other residents of the hospital or the poor. No formal training program existed.
That way of thinking began changing in the 1850’s, though. The French Daughters of Charity had served as battlefield nurses caring for French soldiers during the Crimean War. Their service had been so exemplary that many people began looking at the American Daughters of Charity and wondering if they could do the same thing once the Civil War began.
As the United States broke apart, Daughters of Charity from Emmitsburg found themselves serving soldiers in both the Union and Confederacy.
Father Francis Burlando and Mother Ann Simeon visited St. Philomena’s in 1861. Foreseeing that the sisters in Missouri might be 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.
Catholic sisters and war
Nearly 700 Catholic sisters from 22 orders provided some sort of service during the Civil War. The Daughters of Charity provided the largest number—around 300—to serve in the war.
“The country had only 600 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.
Though the American Daughters of Charity had been in existence for 52 years by 1861, their mother organization in France has existed since 1617. Even before the Civil War, the Catholic sisters’ future was tied to war. Not long after their founding, Founder Saint Vincent de Paul told the sisters, “Men go to war to kill one another, and you, sisters, you go to repair the harm they had 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.”
The American Sisters of Charity started gaining experience in health care when they took over the administration of the Baltimore Infirmary in 1823. Their success with the care of the sick in the hospital led to them opening the first hospital west of the Mississippi River, St. Louis Mullanphy Hospital. They gained experience working with victims of violence, accidents, yellow fever and cholera. As their reputation grew as nurses, they opened additional hospitals and they were asked to assume the administration and nursing duties of others.
These varied experiences in dangerous surroundings became the training ground for what they would face in the war. In doing so, they also became the only source for trained nurses, according to Sister Mary Denis Maher in her book, To Bind the Wounds: Catholic Sister Nurses in the U.S. Civil War.
On August 12, 1861, Union Major General 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, St. Louis, for a sufficient number of sisters to take charge of the hospital, promising to leave everything to their management,” according to the Daughters’ Annals of the Civil War. Because of the reputation of the Daughters of Charity, he promised he would leave the management of the hospital as well as the care of the sick and wounded in the hands of 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 the hundreds of patients in the wards and whatever related to the sick and wounded. Peter Kenrick, Archbishop of St. Louis, sent a chaplain to say daily Mass for them. It soon became the primary location to send wounded Confederate POWs who were brought up the Mississippi River on hospital steamboats. The Union wounded 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,” George Barton wrote in Angels of the Battlefield.
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 there. More than 800 wounded were known to arrive 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,” according to Notes of the Sisters’ Services in Military Hospitals, 1861-1865.
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 3,000 beds.