Angels of mercy: Civil War service of the sisters
Reprinted from the fall 2011 issue of HOPE.
“Cloistered by the majestic forest, the Convent and the Academy at St. Mary-of-the-Woods in 1860 would seem to have been too remote, too securely enclosed, to hear the rumblings of the approaching national disturbance. Echoes of trouble, however, reached even to this secluded spot,” wrote Sister Mary Theodosia Mug in her 1931 monograph of the Civil War, “Lest We Forget: The Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods in Civil War Service.”
Those rumblings came in the form of letters from the families of students and sisters who lived on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. The fear of war was brought even closer when, according to the Community Diary, on April 8, 1861, a Mr. Dodds came to the Woods to pick up five young ladies with Southern roots to take them home before the possibility of war would make it too dangerous to return.
Four days later, on April 12, war erupted when Fort Sumter was attacked. Shortly after this first taste of battle, President Lincoln called men to arms and governors scrambled to get their states ready for war. Part of those plans included federalizing hospitals into military hospitals. One such hospital was the disorganized and filthy City Hospital (later known as Military Hospital) in Indianapolis. Indiana Gov. Oliver Perry Morton knew who could whip the hospital into shape in a timely manner — the Sisters of Providence. Less than a month after Fort Sumter, Gov. Morton, through Monsignor Bessonies, asked the Congregation for assistance.
Mother Mary Cecilia Bailly, general superior upon the death of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin in 1856 and serving until 1868, penned in the Community Diary on May 15, 1861: “I go to Indianapolis to see about the offer we have to take care of the soldiers in the hospital.” The sisters took charge on May 17, giving comfort to Union and Confederate soldiers.
The Community Diary continued, “They [the sisters] found the new hospital in a miserable state of filth and disorder, and the sick in a wretched condition. The Sisters labored very hard to put the hospital in a proper condition; their exertions were crowned with the greatest success. The change they soon effected in making it a clean, comfortable house for the sick soldiers, filled the people with admiration and inspired great confidence in them.”
As study of the Civil War reveals, the majority of deaths during the war were caused by disease and infection, not necessarily gunshot wounds. A report by Dr. John M. Kitchen and Dr. Patrick H. Jameson, surgeons at Military Hospital, bears this out. Of the 640 patients registered between April to August 1861, 430 were hospitalized due to measles while only eight were receiving care for gunshot wounds or “other injuries.” At the end of their report, the doctors praised the sisters: “In conclusion, we feel that we have performed only a plain, straight-forward duty, and that whatever success may have attended the management of the Hospital is due in a great degree to the noble and self-sacrificing efforts of the those meek and worthy women — the Sisters of Providence.”
The sister most closely associated with the Civil War was Sister Athanasius Fogarty, the directress of the hospital. Sister Mary Theodosia wrote about her: “She was noted for her cheerfulness, charity and tact. The physicians who attended the hospital said that the success of the institution was due to her ability alone, not to their management.”
While the Congregation considers 11 sisters as serving in hospitals during the Civil War, the federal government recognized only seven sister-nurses with cemetery monuments indicating U.S. Army Nurse, Civil War. The original headstones were blessed in the convent cemetery on July 31, 1923. These stones of the sister-nurses were replaced by the Congregation in 1980.
The Sisters of Providence were one of several congregations that ministered as sister-nurses during the Civil War. One of the greatest tributes to these brave women came from President Lincoln: “As they [sister-nurses] went from cot to cot, distributing the medicines prescribed, administering the cooling, refreshing, strengthening draughts as directed, they were veritable Angels of Mercy. …”