In Ages Past
Catholic Sisters and the American Civil War
One soldier said of Sister Anthony:
Amid this sea of blood she performed the most revolting duties for these poor soldiers. She seemed like a ministering angel, and many a young soldier owes his life to her care and charity. Happy was the soldier who, wounded and bleeding, had her near him to whisper words of consolation and courage. She was reverenced by Blue and Gray, Protestant and Catholic alike; and we conferred on her the title of the 'Florence Nightingale of America.' Her name became a household word in every section of the North and South.
When surgeons wanted to amputate a soldier's limb, she would say: "Wait and let me see what I can do for him." And she often saved it. In 1897, she was buried with a full military honor guard.
In some quarters, however, particularly among Protestant nurses, prejudice still lingered. One woman, describing the Sisters' habit, said: "What looking objects to wait upon our sick and dying boys!" Dorothea Dix, the Superintendent of U.S. Army nurses, was said to be particularly hostile to Catholics. Part of the reason for this hostility may have been just plain jealousy.
The Sisters evangelized by their example. In many places, they were the first nuns, let alone Catholics, that some soldiers had ever seen. A Confederate Chaplain recalled one incident where they unwittingly won over non-Catholics. One soldier, raised on anti-Catholicism, didn't realize the Sisters were Catholic:
"Sister, is it true that you belong to the Catholic Church?"
"Yes, sir, it's true. And that's the source of the greatest happiness I have in this life."
"Well, I declare. I'd never have suspected it. I've heard so many things . . . I thought Catholics were the worst people on earth."
"I hope you don't think so now."
"Well, Sister . . . I'll tell you. If you say you're a Catholic, I'll certainly have a better opinion of Catholics from now on."
Having recently celebrated Memorial Day, it's important to remember the women as well as the men who have sacrificed for their country. Through their healing ministry, the Catholic Sisters helped dissolve prejudice, preached by quiet example, and helped make nursing a respectable profession for women from all walks of life. Theirs is an inspiring story that deserves to be remembered and cherished by all Americans.
Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.