Sister Lawrence: a courageous caregiver in an epidemic past
During the terrible cholera epidemics that swept through Indiana in 1849 and 1854, many Sisters of Providence risked their own health in caring for the victims of what was, at the time, a lethal and mysterious illness. When cholera struck Fort Wayne in 1849, the pastor of Saint Augustine, Father Benoit, offered the school building as a temporary hospital and the service of the sisters as nurses. They cared for the sick all during the summer.
But the community’s greatest loss to cholera occurred during the next outbreak in the summer of 1854. Sister Lawrence, who, weeping, had to remain at Saint Augustine in Fort Wayne when the other sisters went to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods for the retreat, was called on for the second time to care for victims of cholera.
Described as a sturdy peasant girl, “quite a small person, but very active and zealous,” Sister Lawrence, a young woman named Julienne Cheminant, was born in France in 1818. Her father had died when she was 9 years old, and she had to work as a maid in a family to support herself and her mother. Others described her as hard-working, pious, prudent, and devout. In 1844, accepting an invitation to work as a domestic at Saint Gabriel’s College in Vincennes, she set out for America from France with Mother Theodore’s little group.
A young woman who knew her mind
But she knew her own mind. The writer of her obituary says that she was known for her “frankness of disposition.” Julienne spent many months with Mother Theodore. She then cared for her during Mother Theodore’s illness in New Orleans. Afterward, she declared her intention to follow Mother Theodore to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Julienne worked at Gabriel’s College for a time to repay her fare. And finally, on May 29, 1844, she arrived at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. She received the habit in August and was given the religious name Sister Lawrence and was professed as a lay sister in 1847. In 1849 she began a six-year mission in Fort Wayne.
In 1854, Sister Lawrence’s duties were to cook for seven sisters and 23 boarders, take care of two cows and do the laundry. No doubt this was why, as the writer of her obituary notes, she was at times “peevish and impatient.” But, as her biographer quickly adds, immediately repentant. Her only complaint about her arduous duties was not having more time for prayer.
“The History of the Sisters of Providence” relates how cholera once again swept through Fort Wayne in the summer of 1854. “Father Benoit called as usual upon Sister Lawrence’s skill and courage, and with her customary self-sacrifice she devoted herself to the sufferers in the temporary hospital in the school building.”
She had cared for a patient on the night of Friday, Aug. 17. The next morning, while cleaning the house, she became very ill with cholera. At 5 o’clock that same day, Sister Lawrence died. “I regret nothing,” she said, “in leaving the world. I have worked hard, very hard, with my body, perhaps my mind has not worked hard enough; our sisters will pray for me.”
Pray for us
Father Benoit sent the news of Sister Lawrence’s death to Mother Theodore with these words: “A victim of zeal and charity, Sister Lawrence’s death was a real martyrdom. And her life? Have you ever seen a person more truly upright, more sincerely pious, more exact in fulfilling her duties? Her last moments were like the evening of a beautiful day.” Sister Lawrence was buried in Fort Wayne. Those she served there remembered and revered her.
Mother Theodore grieved deeply over this loss. But she took comfort in the fact “that our beloved sister is now wearing the martyr’s crown and bearing the palm of victory.”
Sister Lawrence, Julienne Cheminant, who gave your life in caring for those stricken with cholera, pray for all of us as we live through our current pandemic.