2020 Year of the Nurse and Midwife: Trailblazers in American Health Care

Pandemic Coverage


Editor's Note: As health care providers and essential workers across the nation and worldwide toil around the clock to fight the COVID-19 global pandemic, the Catholic Health Association wants to acknowledge that 2020 is the Year of the Nurse and Midwife. Catholic nursing sisters established important principles still in use today.

iytnm-logo-english-400If there is anyone who can appreciate the value of Catholic sisters in nursing and the crucial role they play in health care and patient advocacy, it's Pope Francis: One of them saved his life when he was a young man.

The pope told the story during a speech to members of the Federation of Professional Nursing Colleges, Health Assistants, and Child Wardens at the Vatican in 2018.1 When he was 21 and known to the world as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he endured a life-threatening bout of pneumonia. The damage to his lungs was extensive, and part of one lung was removed. During the doctors' discussions, a dispute arose over how to treat him.

That's when one of the hospital's nurses, Sr. Cornelia Caraglio, spoke up. The Dominican sister was Italian but was assigned to the hospital where the future pope was being cared for in his native Argentina. She had been monitoring Bergoglio's treatment and voiced concern that the doctors' decision might be the wrong one.2

"(She was) a good woman, even brave, to the point of arguing with the doctors. Humble, but sure of what she was doing," Pope Francis said.

Eventually, Sr. Caraglio won the argument.

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Robin Cornett, RN, holds plasma donated by a person who recovered from COVID-19. The donation was made at Mercy Blood Donor Services at Mercy Hospital St. Louis. It was then transfused earlier this month to three patients on ventilators as part of their treatment.

"The role of sister nurses in assisting the patient is truly irreplaceable," the pope said.3 "Like no other, the nurse has a direct and continuous relationship with patients, takes care of them every day, listens to their needs, and comes into contact with their very body." He added that sisters who are nurses are always engaged in the act of listening to understand the needs of their patients, no matter what the patients are going through.

The same story, and thousands of others like it, not only play out daily in the hospitals and medical institutions currently served by nurses and midwives — the trained health professionals who help healthy women during labor, delivery and after the birth of their babies. They continue a tradition that extends back through history to Phoebe, commissioned by St. Paul as a church deaconess, who was the first nurse mentioned in the Holy Bible.4

In honor of their service, the World Health Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health, designated 2020 as the Year of the Nurse and the Midwife.5 The honor coincides with the 200th birthday on May 12 of Florence Nightingale, the British nurse who distinguished herself by following her faith to serve as a nurse during the Crimean War (1853-56) and is recognized the world over as the foundress of modern nursing.6

Even before Nightingale, however, Catholic nursing sisters were making formative strides in the care and ministration of the sick and injured wherever their need arose. As a previous Health Progress article points out, "The evolution of professional nursing as both art and science is inextricably intertwined with the history of women and men religious. In the 16th century alone, more than 100 female orders, as well as new male orders, were founded for the specific purpose of nursing."7

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The Conference of Catholic Schools of Nursing holds a gathering for nursing education in Philadelphia in 1949. The legacy of Catholic sisters in nursing continues today with the care provided by Catholic health systems, hospitals and long-term care facilities.

Nightingale's vision of nursing was founded on principles espoused and taught by Mother Catherine McAuley of Dublin, Ireland, founder of the Sisters of Mercy. Her 19th-century "careful nursing" theory — a system of thinking and acting for the purpose of protecting sick, injured and vulnerable people from harm and fostering their healing and health — still resonates. Nurses everywhere work together and invite each other to equal or outdo one another in tender concern and regard for their patients and other nurses while striving to reach the aims of their nursing practices.8

In the United States today, as nurses help to end the coronavirus pandemic, the treatment they provide continues the traditions and principles that were brought to this fledgling nation over a century ago by Catholic sisters who were nurses.

DAVID SHEETS is a freelance journalist based in St. Louis.


  1. Hannah Brockhaus, "Pope Praises Work of Nurses, Recalls the One Who Saved His Life," Catholic News Agency, March 3, 2018, https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/pope-praises-work-of-nurses-recalls-the-one-who-saved-his-life-46075.
  2. Mariano de Vedia, "Jorge Bergoglio, a Career Jesuit Priest," La Nación, March 13, 2013, https://www.lanacion.com.ar/el-mundo/bergoglio-un-sacerdote-jesuita-de-carrera-nid1562738.
  3. Brockhaus, "Pope Praises Work of Nurses."
  4. Romans 16:1-2 (RSV)
  5. Year of the Nurse and Midwife, World Health Organization, 2020, https://www.who.int/news-room/campaigns/year-of-the-nurse-and-the-midwife-2020.
  6. "Florence Nightingale," Biography.com, Feb. 27, 2018, https://www.biography.com/scientist/florence-nightingale.
  7. Kathleen D. Sanford, "The Legacy of Love: Guarding the Flame," Health Progress, May-June 2010, https://www.chausa.org/publications/health-progress/article/may-june-2010/the-legacy-of-love-guarding-the-flame.
  8. Therese Meehan, "Careful Nursing: A Model for Contemporary Nursing Practice," May 30, 2003, https://www.carefulnursing.ie/assets/28/8828A3CD-1095-45C2-AAE74A41DA0DE4D6_document/The_Careful_Nursing_Philosophy_and_Professional_Practice_Mod.pdf.


Copyright © 2020 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.

Copyright © 2020 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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