Sisters of the Holy Cross entered nursing in America's bloody Civil War

March 1, 2014

The Sisters of the Holy Cross of Notre Dame, Ind., had no nursing ministry nor any nursing training in 1861 when Fr. Edward Sorin asked them — at the Indiana governor's request — to care for wounded Civil War soldiers in Kentucky. On Oct. 22, the morning after the University of Notre Dame founder contacted them, Mother M. Angela Gillespie and six sisters departed Notre Dame to travel to a military hospital in Cairo, Ill., and later to their assigned posts at a military hospital in Paducah, Ky.

Military hospitals in the 1860s often were quickly converted warehouses or factories. Many such facilities were an unsanitary hotbed for typhoid, smallpox and other diseases, according to an account of the sisters' civil war work by Sr. Margaret Mary Lavonis, CSC. One of the nurses, Sr. M. Paula Casey, recorded that, "Every room on the first floor (of the Cairo hospital) was strewn with human legs and arms. As the wounded were brought in from the battlefield, they were laid anywhere, and amputations took place. Some of the wards resembled a slaughter house, the walls were so splattered with blood." The Civil War account says upon their arrival, the sisters "immediately pinned up their habits and swept and scrubbed the hospital wards until they were clean."

This helped improve conditions and allay solders' fears of military hospitals, according to Sr. Lavonis' account.

Military leaders requested additional "nurses" from the congregation. By war's end in 1865, about 65 of the 160 Holy Cross sisters in the U.S. had served as nurses.

Three Holy Cross sisters served aboard the USS Red Rover, the Navy's first hospital ship. The vessel plied the Mississippi River — sometimes within earshot of battle fire — transporting wounded soldiers to hospitals. The sisters were the Navy's first paid female employees and the forerunners of the Navy's nurse corps. According to the account by Sr. Lavonis, some sisters earned two dollars a day.

In 1965, to mark the centennial of the Civil War's end, the Navy erected a historical marker honoring the sister nurses on the campus of Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center in South Bend, Ind. Saint Joseph moved from South Bend to Mishawaka in 2009 and razed the legacy campus to make room for a new Catholic high school. Saint Joseph moved the historical marker to its Mishawaka campus in 2013, locating it near a memorial wall containing South Bend campus artifacts. About 200 people attended the rededication ceremony it hosted in September.

The Holy Cross sisters' Civil War nursing work launched the congregation's health care ministry. Over the next 133 years, the sisters established 19 hospitals throughout the U.S. In 1979, the congregation's sponsored health facilities joined together as Holy Cross Health System. That system in 2000 merged with Mercy Health Services to form Trinity Health of Livonia, Mich. Trinity Health merged with Catholic Health East of Newtown Square, Pa., last year to form CHE Trinity Health.


Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.