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Called to serve: Holy Cross sisters…then and now

12 October 1861. “A pounding at the door of Saint Mary’s intruded upon the peaceful night …. Father Sorin … had hurried by lantern light from Notre Dame to discuss a message received from (the) Indiana Governor … requesting sisters to serve as nurses in Union hospitals. Six of us were chosen to go to war.”

In January 1862, three Sisters of the Holy Cross boarded the Red Rover, the first U.S. naval hospital ship, to care for the sick and wounded of both armies of the Civil War; they became the forerunners to today’s Navy nurses.
In January 1862, three Sisters of the Holy Cross boarded the Red Rover, the first U.S. naval hospital ship, to care for the sick and wounded of both armies of the Civil War; in doing so, they became the forerunners to today’s Navy nurses.

One hundred and sixty years after Holy Cross sisters volunteered—at the request of one governor—to care for soldiers wounded in the battles of the Civil War, another governor sounded a similar call, and Holy Cross sisters again responded.

In January, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced that several hundred retired health professionals had answered the call to participate in Maryland Responds, an initiative to bring nonactive physicians and nurses forward to help staff COVID-19 vaccination sites.

“It’s what we are called to do,” said Sister Ruth Marie Nickerson, CSC. “Where there is a need, we as Sisters of the Holy Cross try to meet that need.”

Sister Ruth Marie Nickerson, CSC at
Sister Ruth Marie Nickerson, CSC

Sister Ruth Marie, along with Sister Paula Goettlemann, CSC, and two former Holy Cross sisters and nurses, Pat Vandenberg and Christa Hojlo, were eager to join the effort to administer COVID-19 vaccines to Maryland residents and help diminish the ongoing impacts of the pandemic.

The four women are volunteering at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland, founded by the Sisters of the Holy Cross in 1963 and, coincidentally, where Sister Ruth Marie began her nursing ministry years ago, prior to moving into leadership positions.

“It’s heartwarming. This isn’t just a clinical effort. It’s human,” said Sister Paula, who recently retired as a 25-year hospice nurse. “People are so happy to be getting vaccinated, they roll up their sleeves before I even have the syringe filled. Then they thank me. They are so excited that they will now be able to hug their grandchildren, take trips, and gather as a family to eat meals.”

Pat Vandenburg and Christa Hojlo administer COVID-19 vaccines in Maryland.
Pat Vandenberg and Christa Hojlo helped administer COVID-19 vaccines at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Vandenberg, who segued from direct nursing to health care administration early in her ministry, called the experience profound. In the course of just a few months, she had vaccinated about 600 people across a wide ethnic and age spectrum, a mix of frail elderly and young teachers eager to get back to the classroom. “It was a spiritual experience to go back to where I started.”

Sister Paula Goettelman, CSC
Sister Paula Goettelman, CSC

Hojlo added, “As Pat, Sister Ruth Marie, Sister Paula and I serve our Silver Spring community together, we honor the legacy of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, who were called to respond to the needs of the country during the Civil War. Today, we are serving at the request of our state governor during a time of global pandemic. I feel honored to serve our community and country in the name of Holy Cross.”

At Holy Cross Hospital, the women found a well-organized operation. Approximately 15 distanced stations were laid out in a clean, open environment. Patient registration and flow was an efficient, competent process, with 500 to 600 people getting vaccinated daily. It was a far cry from what the 19th century sisters had discovered in Civil War hospitals.

7 December 1861. “… what a fearful sight stared us in the face …. Some of the wards … resembled a slaughterhouse the walls were so spattered with blood…. Sister M. Isadore and I cryed with horror…. Mother looked at us both a kind, pitying look, and said now stop, you are here and must put your heart and Soul to the work. Pin up your habits, we will get three brooms, three buckets of water and we will first begin by washing the walls and the floors.”

Pat Vandenberg with patient.

While much has changed in the profession of nursing over the course of a century and a half, one thing has not: Holy Cross sisters’ willingness to put heart and soul into caring for others.

“I’m conscious of making a real contribution to fighting the pandemic,” said Sister Paula.

Sister Ruth added, “I’m happy to do what I can to get us out of this. It’s an honor.”

They will continue to volunteer—and give from the heart—as long as there are people still lining up for vaccinations.