Ulrica O’Reilly! Sisters smile when they hear her name. Wasn’t she the Civil War heroine who defied the mob and single-handedly saved the soldiers and military hospital from the angry rioters? She’s the very one!

In “Nuns of the Battlefield,” Ellen Ryan Jolly tells us that Sister Mary Ulrica O’Reilly can claim the title Princess of Brefney. Her royal lineage is traced to the founder of the O’Reilly family, Hugh the Fair, King of the Irish Province of Connaught, 620 A.D. Unfortunately, the O’Reillys of Ireland were punished for their devotion to Mary Stuart, the bride of France and Scotland’s Queen, but nothing could squelch Ulrica O’Reilly’s stately courage. 

Mary O’Reilly, an Irish immigrant, was 24 years old when she arrived at Saint Joseph, Emmitsburg, on September 12, 1839. She received the habit of the Sisters of Charity on the following Christmas Day and was given the religious name, Mary Ulrica. One can’t help but wonder what Mr. and Mrs. O’Reilly thought of their daughter’s new name but, whatever they felt, they could not have imagined that in almost every chapter of the early history of the Sisters of Charity, Mary Ulrica’s name would be recorded.

On December 28, 1841, Sister Mary Ulrica sealed her covenant relationship with God through the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and, like Mary, she opened herself to the mystery of God’s plan. From that day on, she served in schools and hospitals and orphanages. She was sent to instruct children, nurture orphans, heal the sick, console the wounded and comfort the aged. She was always on the move, rarely granted the time to enjoy the fruit of her labor.

Ulrica’s first mission was Saint Peter School, Barclay Street, where, no doubt, the spirit of Elizabeth Seton was very much alive. There community life, shared with Sisters Mary Jerome Ely, Mary Constantia Hull, Mary Frances Wallace, and Mary Josepha Hadden, followed a calm daily routine. From those Sisters, Ulrica imbibed a spirit of service and deep commitment to the Congregation. Together, they faithfully responded with dedication to the many families that struggled to preserve the Faith, educate their children and find economic opportunities. Then, after eight years of ministry at Saint Peter School, when a devastating crisis struck New York — the cholera epidemic — Ulrica, the young teacher, would somehow, through God’s grace, become nurse.

Bishop Hughes looked to the Sisters of Charity to minister to the sick and dying. On November 1, 1849, his sister, Mary Angela Hughes, along with three untrained assistants, Sisters Mary Xavier Mehegan, Mary Agnes Hancock, and Mary Ulrica O’Reilly, opened Saint Vincent’s Hospital in a rented red brick building on Thirteenth Street. They endured overwhelming hardships — no running water, no light but from oil lamps, and very little heat. Yet, they laid the foundation for the great Saint Vincent’s Medical Center.

Ulrica had left behind the relative quiet of the classroom but, spurred on by the energy of her companions, she plunged into the arduous task of organizing a hospital. She learned to minister to the corporal and spiritual needs of the sick poor and to create a haven of comfort and peace. She diligently observed the surgical and medical prowess of Dr. Valentine Mott and his son-in-law Dr. William VanBuren, and her intelligent cooperation won their admiration. After five years of untiring service in the hospital God, once again, changed the course of her life.

Within the next eight years, from 1854 to 1862, she ministered in the Half Orphan Asylum, twice at Mount Saint Vincent as Procuratrix, and back in the classroom at Saint Brigid Academy.

In the early 1860s, the Civil War raged on and casualties mounted so furiously that the government was unable to provide and staff military hospitals quickly enough to meet the needs of the wounded. President Lincoln, remembering the distinguished nursing record of the Daughters of Charity and Sisters of Mercy during the Crimean War, requested the help of Catholic religious women to address the crisis.

In 1862, the Central Park Commissioners suggested to the City Council that they open a military hospital in the building of the old Mount Saint Vincent. Mr. Edward Pierpont of the Union Defense Committee wrote to the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, informing him of the offer made by the Commissioners of Central Park. He added, “We want the nurses of this hospital to be the Sisters of Charity, the most faithful nurses in the world. Their kindness, their knowledge and religious convictions of duty render them by far the best nurses around the sick bed which have been found on earth.” This request was supported by Alderman Francis Farley. It was agreed that the Sisters would accept the challenge.

Mother Mary Jerome Ely responded immediately and very soon Saint Joseph Military Hospital began to take shape. As the Sisters undertook this new work, memories of their early days at McGown’s Pass flooded their hearts. For them, every inch of the now bare, desolate rooms was holy ground. In spaces so sacred to them, they set up long rows of cots, ready to receive the wounded. Sister Ulrica O’Reilly was appointed administrator. This time, unlike her assignment in1849 to help organize Saint Vincent Hospital, she brought to her new ministry her years of experience and her strong convictions.

On October 28, the first patients arrived. Ulrica was prepared to meet them and during the following months, her kindness and long vigils brought solace to many lonely soldiers, among them Captain William Seton, Elizabeth Seton’s grandson.

However, Sister Francis Assisium Madden recalled fifty-four years later, the friction that had erupted between Sister Ulrica and Dr. Frank Hamilton, the administrator. A major cause of the conflict might have been the rigid army economy as opposed to the Sisters incorrigible desire to provide a touch of home for the soldiers. After providing a sumptuous Thanksgiving dinner, Sister Ulrica received a crisp directive:

To: Sister Ulrica,

All purchases for the Hospital will be made hereafter by the Steward.
By order of
Frank H. Hamilton, Surgeon-in-Charge
Edward Dubuque, Hospital Steward, U.S.A


This order must have galled Ulrica’s sense of charity, but it never stifled her tender care for the young, inexperienced soldiers who were frightened and, sometimes, despairing. To help them maintain their reputation for bravery, she offered them the privacy they needed to cry. She directed “a gifted young Sister” to bring the soldiers home-made candy and cakes and to sing popular war songs, a remedy for healing that doctors agreed was better than any medicine.

In 1863, the Draft Riots almost devastated New York City. Strong resentment arose against the inequity of the conscription act authorized by Congress and enforced with flagrant injustice in New York. Primarily, the Irish laboring class rebelled when men in comfortable positions paid a fee to obtain an exemption from the draft. Consequently, the laboring class, already suffering from the hardships created by the war, were forced to make up the quota of 30,000 men. In desperation, these angry laborers rioted, attacking people and property indiscriminately.

When a group of ruffians pounded on the door of Saint Joseph Military Hospital, demanding entrance and threatening to set fire to the hospital, they encountered Sister Ulrica O’Reilly. “If you value your lives,” they warned her, “you will leave at once.” Confidently and calmly, Ulrica faced the mob. “We are on duty with these men. We shall not leave them,” she responded. Her fearlessness and obvious dedication to the soldiers quelled their anger and, one by one, they retreated. 

In an account in the New York Sun on April 12, 1935, Flora Ryan, daughter of Columbus Ryan, the first superintendent of Central Park, and a resident in a former Mount Saint Vincent building during the Civil War, credited the Sisters’ humanity as the weapon that dispersed the mob and saved the hospital on that memorable day.

Following Sister Ulrica’s two years of outstanding leadership in the military hospital in Central Park, Mother Mary Jerome Ely sent her to New Haven to open Saint Francis Orphanage. During her short stay, between 1864 and 1866, she provided a comfortable home for the children and impressed the trustees and clergy with her initiative and charity.

Before being appointed superior of Holy Angels, the Girls’ Department of the New York Catholic Protectory in West Chester, Sister Ulrica, once again, served as Procuratrix at Mount Saint Vincent. In 1870, she arrived at the Protectory ready to face new challenges. Probably the greatest one was the fire on June 25, 1872 that consumed the newly completed Girls’ building. With calm authority, she commanded the older girls to take the hand of a small child as they exited the building. Her good judgment and strong leadership is said to have saved five hundred lives. In her report to the State Legislature regarding the fire, she expressed deep appreciation for the heroism of the older girls and the generous response of the Christian Brothers and their boys who rescued many children.

Most important was her sensitivity to the pain the children had experienced in their young lives. It was with deep affection that she and the devoted staff supervised the children’s spiritual, academic and social development. To bring them joy and sunshine, she purchased property in Throgg’s Neck in the Bronx. Although her plan to build a summer house never materialized, the children spent many hours swimming in the Long Island Sound before the property was sold in 1905. Those were summer days they would long remember. Sister Ulrica’s ministry at the Protectory ended in 1872 when she was elected to the Council as Procuratrix, but her dedication to the children left a lasting impression. 

New needs kept cropping up in New York. This time it was the city’s aging population who faced numerous hardships.  Often lonely and dependent, their plight cried out for attention. Mother Mary Jerome Ely had been asked repeatedly to help alleviate their suffering. Finally, in May 1868, chiefly because of the very generous donation of Elizabeth Kelly and, later, Mr. Thomas Devine, Saint Joseph Home for the Aged on 15th Street opened its door to welcome the aged poor. For the next seventy years, the Home offered comfort and security to as many as four thousand women and several hundred men. This ministry, the work of the laity and religious, reflected Saint Vincent de Paul’s spirit, “Do not abandon those whom you can assist.”

It was not surprising that in 1874 Mother Mary Regina Lawless named Sister Ulrica Sister Servant at the Home for, from her first days, she had played a vital role in the foundation of many community institutions. As usual, Sister Ulrica responded with characteristic enthusiasm in her new ministry. She acknowledged the material and spiritual needs of the residents, listening to their tales of sorrow and quieting their anxieties. At the Home, the residents found peace and freedom from their fears, while Sister Ulrica struggled to address the mounting debt. In January 1884, after ten years at the Home, Sister Ulrica was transferred, this time, to Rockland County. That Sister Ulrica cherished her work at Saint Joseph Home is probably what prompted her to leave “all her estate real and personal” to the Home.

In 1874, Mr. John Reid of Brooklyn, another faithful benefactor of the Sisters of Charity, donated property in Nanuet to be used as a home for neglected children. It was ten years before John Reid’s dream was realized.

At 69 years old, Sister Ulrica would again be a pioneer. She had witnessed the early days of Saint Vincent Hospital, Saint Joseph Military Hospital, Saint Francis Orphanage, and the Catholic Protectory. It was with confidence in Sister Ulrica’s ability and experience that Mother Mary Jerome appointed her to open Saint Agatha Home. This would be Sister Ulrica’s last assignment, but she approached it with the energy and love that marked her first days at Saint Peter School. Within the next four years, she supervised the construction of a building large enough for 120 residents. She coped with the dreaded scourge, opthalmia, the harsh winters, the blizzard of ‘88, a cyclone and worries about food and heat. But there were festivities too. The Christmas of 1885 was a memorable day when the Sisters and children were joined by men and women who walked miles to celebrate the great feast at Saint Agatha Home.

The details of Sister Ulrica’s death are not clear. It seems that illness in the summer of 1888 brought her to Saint Vincent’s Hospital and then to Saint Joseph Home for recuperation. There she died on September 12, 1888, the anniversary of her arrival at Saint Joseph, Emmitsburg. 

Strangely enough, there is no obituary recording her death. Maybe that is because her vibrant spirit so permeates the history of the Sisters of Charity of New York. She lives in the hearts of her Sisters. In every way, for forty-nine years, she was a true daughter of Vincent de Paul and Elizabeth Seton. Her love of Jesus Christ led her “to reach out in compassion to the poor, the sick, the homeless, the hungry, the outcast of society.” The rich heritage she received from Vincent and Elizabeth, she passed on to the hundreds of Sisters who followed in her footsteps.

Sister Mary Ulrica O’Reilly is buried on the hill at Mount Saint Vincent. Her grave is marked by a Federal stone, commemorating her service in the Civil War and it serves, too, as a symbol of her life of dedication to those who cried out for compassion and love. 

By Sister Margaret Donegan
May 2017

Sisters (Marie De Lourdes) Marjorie Walsh and Anne Courtney are the sources for this article.  

This essay is the second post of a new SC Legacy series.