By Sr. Regina Bechtle, SC
Though not veterans of any branch of the military, Sisters of Charity of New York not only experienced the brutal impact of war but also gave heroic service during several wars.
The Civil War
Sr. Mary Ulrica O’Reilly supervised 14 Sisters of Charity of New York who nursed veterans of the Civil War in St. Joseph’s Military Hospital in Central Park, 1862-1867. The group of Sisters cared for returning wounded soldiers in a temporary military hospital at the building in Central Park that had formerly served as Mount Saint Vincent, the Sisters’ motherhouse, novitiate and girls’ academy.
As SC-NY Archivist Mindy Gordon wrote: “In addition to distributing medical supplies, dressing wounds, dispensing medication, and feeding and washing patients, the sisters assisted the surgeons with amputations and other medical procedures. Imparting their devotion, the sisters provided spiritual comfort, encouraged the dying to seek God’s forgiveness, baptized those who wished, and prepared the dead for religious burial.” The Sisters had opened St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan in 1849 when cholera was raging in New York City, so they were familiar with basic nursing practice.
Among the returning soldiers was Captain William Seton, the grandson of Elizabeth Seton, who founded the Sisters of Charity. A Union soldier, he was wounded at Antietam in September 1862. But, Gordon writes, “as all soldier patients were assigned identification numbers to maintain anonymity, Sr. Ulrica did not realize that one of the soldiers was the grandson of foundress Elizabeth Seton, until after his recovery.
Besides the New York congregation’s service in the Central Park hospital, Daughters and Sisters of Charity from congregations based in Cincinnati, OH, Emmitsburg, Maryland, New Jersey, Nazareth, KY, and Charleston, SC, also heroically nursed on the bloody battlefields of Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Their courageous and caring service of both Union and Confederate soldiers did much to replace the anti-Catholic hostility then prevalent in America with respect and admiration.
World War 1 – Epidemic on the Home Front
The influenza epidemic of 1918 killed approximately 50 million people, more than the 16 million who died during World War I. America entered the war in April 1917; the country’s first cases of the so-called “Spanish flu” were detected in a Kansas Army camp in March 1918. Overcrowding in military camps and ships as well as global troop movements, along with lack of vaccines and treatments, speeded the spread of the deadly virus. As Sr. Margaret Donegan wrote, the disease “swept across the Atlantic and viciously invaded the east coast of the United States.”
In the Fall of 1918, when influenza hit the small mining town of Shamokin, PA, over three thousand people were infected; the death rate was one of the highest in the nation. Martial law was declared; schools and churches were closed. Caskets could not be produced quickly enough.
Sisters of Charity of New York had served in Shamokin since 1875 as elementary and secondary school educators. At this pivotal moment, they summoned all their skill, courage, creativity, common sense and trust in Providence. The 14 Sisters of Charity in Shamokin were given charge of the emergency hospital that was hastily set up outside the city. Four Sisters at a time worked eight-hour shifts caring for the living and praying with the dying. They distributed medicines, bathed patients and carried out the orders of the few doctors and nurses. When not at the hospital they visited grieving relatives, attended funerals, visited homes and cared for orphaned children, of which there were many. Later on, one of the nurses told the Sisters, “I shall never forget the first day you came. You looked around, rolled up your sleeves and got to work in earnest.” In the true spirit of St. Vincent de Paul, they did what was before them to do.
(Sources: Sr. Marie de Lourdes Walsh, The Sisters of Charity of New York, 1809-1959, vol. II: 262-266; Sr. Margaret Donegan, SC, “Re-Membering the Shamokin Sisters,” March, 2018)
After the United States became militarily involved in Vietnam in 1964, the reality of “thousands of children who were killed, maimed, or orphaned” moved the hearts of several Sisters of Charity of New York to volunteer to work with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) there. In October, 1969, Sisters Mary Assisium Byrne and Mary Patricia Dengel, social workers at the New York Foundling, flew to Vietnam to begin their service.
After a five-month orientation program, both were assigned to Go Vap Orphanage in Saigon. Sr. Assisium’s role was to help the administrators “raise the professional standards of the orphanage.” Sr. Patricia tried “to arrange adoption procedures for the thousands of Vietnamese orphans,” work which took her into almost every province of South Vietnam. In a tape they sent back to the States, the sisters spoke of “the tragic sights [of]…napalm burned children, the too many children in ‘orphanages,’ the impossible burden of work waiting on all sides.”
Subsequently Sister Margaret Mary Moore, a nurse from St. Vincent’s Medical Center in New York, also volunteered with CRS. At her first placement, Nguyen-Van-Hoc Hospital in Saigon, she learned that in Vietnam, families, not nurses, were expected to care for their hospitalized relatives.
In July 1970 Sister Evelyn Schneider, then Mother General of the Congregation, visited the three Sisters on their distant mission. She traveled throughout Vietnam – to Hué, near the demilitarized zone, to Danang, Nah Trang, Pleiku, and Kontum, where Sr. Margaret Mary was serving as nurse-anaesthetist in a hospital. In her extensive travels Sr. Eveline met with many other sisters, priests, and church officials, all trying to address overwhelming humanitarian needs. She carefully recorded her keen observations of a country and a people devastated by war.
At the end of July she returned to New York with insights that would guide the congregation’s consideration of future missions outside the U.S., for example: ability to speak the native language; willingness to make a commitment of more than 18 months; and “a high degree of tolerance and tremendous patience.”
When their eighteen-month tour of duty ended in late spring, 1971, Sisters Assisium, Mary Patricia and Margaret Mary returned to the United States. Though not veterans of military combat, these three women of Charity certainly experienced the lasting trauma of war’s casualties as they ministered to the needs of children, families, the sick and the wounded in Vietnam.
(Source: Sr. Mary Elizabeth Earley, SC, The Sisters of Charity of New York, 1960-1996, Vol. V, pp. 410-417)