A Sister of the Holy Cross tends a wounded soldier. 

Sisters’ nursing ministry begins with Civil War

By Sister Margaret Mary Lavonis

It should not surprise anyone who knows the mission of the Sisters of the Holy Cross — to discern the needs of the times and respond appropriately — that the congregation said yes to Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton’s request to Father Edward Sorin to send sisters to care for the wounded troops then serving in Kentucky during the Civil War. His request came on October 21, 1861, six months after the war’s outbreak.

The next morning, Mother M. Angela Gillespie and six sisters (none of them trained as nurses) departed for Cairo at the southern tip of Illinois, 500 miles from Notre Dame, Indiana. There General Ulysses S. Grant assigned them to the military hospital in Paducah, Kentucky. Thus began the congregation’s ministry in health care.

Paducah was only the beginning. The sisters served so well in Paducah that Secretary of War Simon Cameron asked the congregation to take over the nursing at a government hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. And more sisters were sent to care for the wounded at a newly opened hospital in Mound City, Illinois.

Hospital conditions

The conditions in all of these hospitals, often quickly converted warehouses or factories, were deplorable. They were unsanitary which caused outbreaks of typhoid, smallpox and other diseases that not only affected the wounded but also family members and the medical personnel. The sisters addressed these problems the best they could. 

Sister M. Paula Casey describes her first visit to a military hospital in Cairo in December 1861 as a fearful experience: “Every room on the first floor was strewn with human legs and arms. As the wounded were brought in from the battlefield, they were laid anywhere, and amputations took place. Some of the wards resembled a slaughter house, the walls were so splattered with blood.”

After a tour of the hospital given by William Burke, the doctor in charge, Sister Paula and companions Sister M. Augusta Anderson and Sister M. Isidore Conlin immediately pinned up their habits and wept and scrubbed the hospital wards until they were clean. Actions such as this helped to alleviate the fear the soldiers and the sailors had of military hospitals.

The living quarters of the sisters were primitive at best. Sister M. Callista Pointan describes the conditions upon moving into the hospital at Mound City, Illinois, in 1861: “We found a very miserable barracks of a place, an unfinished warehouse without even the common necessities of life. One bed and one chair had to do service for five sisters. Mother Angela and I slept on a table on some clothes which had been sent to be washed.”

First hospital ship

In June 1862 several sisters were asked to serve as nurses aboard the USS Red Rover, the first Navy hospital ship that went up and down the Mississippi River carrying the sick and wounded of both the North and the South to the various military hospitals. In so doing they became what U.S. naval history today hails as the pioneers or forerunners of the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps. They also were the Navy’s first paid women employees, with historical records showing that Sisters Callista, Sister M. Veronica Scholl, and Sister M. Adela Moran earned two dollars a day.

Sister Adela reflects upon her experience: “In company with two or three other sisters I was sent on board the Hospital boat called the Red Rover, which carried the sick and wounded to the hospitals. I never left the boat till the close of the war. We were near Vicksburg when it was taken, could hear the firing, and see the boats running the blockade.”

Work in other hospitals

In addition to serving on the Red Rover and the hospitals in Illinois and Kentucky, the sisters staffed hospitals in Tennessee, Missouri and Washington, D.C. As the number of hospitals confided to their care by the federal government increased, more and more sisters were sent to serve. Before the war ended, 65 of the 160 Sisters of the Holy Cross in the United States would serve as nurses in the western theater of the war and in the nation’s capital.

Each sister nurse also received a military pension, which helped pay for Bertrand Hall, now the congregation’s administration building at Saint Mary’s, Notre Dame, Indiana. The Navy has honored these sisters with a special headstone placed on their graves in the congregation’s Our Lady of Peace Cemetery at Saint Mary’s.

The Sisters of the Holy Cross are among 12 congregations of religious women who are depicted on the Nuns of the Battlefield monument, erected in 1924 in Washington, D.C. The inscription reads: “To the memory and in honor of the various orders of sisters who gave their services as nurses on the battlefields and in hospitals during the Civil War. They comforted the dying, nursed the wounded, carried hope to the imprisoned, gave in His name a drink of water to the thirsty.”

This year begins the nation’s commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the U.S. Civil War (1861-65).

© 2014 Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross. All rights reserved.