Charity Presence in Disasters

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

CHARITY PRESENCE IN DISASTERS

Regina Bechtle, SC (originally posted on website of Sisters of Charity of New York, Winter 2005)

In 2004, the world watched in horror as a thundering tsunami devastated the lives of millions in Southeast Asia. In 2005, a massive earthquake hit Pakistan and landslides buried villages in Guatemala. Closer to home, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita slammed into the U.S. Gulf Coast with staggering violence. We witnessed the breaking apart of families, neighborhoods, and cities, and the uprooting of a population on a scale unlike anything we have ever known within our own borders.

In their night prayers, Sisters of Charity have traditionally called on Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception for protection from “pestilence, fire and water, from lightning and tempest, from robbers, schisms, and heresies, from earthquakes and sudden death.” But whenever those disasters did strike, the Sisters were at the forefront of ministering to the victims.

A few instances from our history:

• In 1639 St. Louise de Marillac sent Daughters of Charity to open a hospital, their first, in Angers, France. Even though plague had broken out, sisters went without hesitation to serve.

More than two centuries later, in New York in 1866, a virulent outbreak of cholera led Dr. Stephen Smith, the city’s top public health authority, and the City Council to ask Sisters of Charity to take over the Cholera Hospital on Ward’s Island. From the many sisters who volunteered, five were selected and worked there for several weeks until the epidemic subsided.

• As our world faces the threat of an avian flu pandemic, comparisons are made with the 1918 flu that infected one-third of the world’s population, and killed 500,000 in the U.S. alone (including Sr. Anita Rosaire Meade, a Sister-pharmacist at St. Vincent’s Hospital, New York).

The history of the early Sisters of Charity is interlaced with epidemics that regularly menaced the crowded cities of the Northeast. As always, the immigrant poor were hit hardest. With a water supply polluted by sewage, a meager diet, and crowded living conditions that bred infection, the poor fell victim to wave after wave of cholera, yellow fever, and dysentery. During her years as a young wife and mother in New York, Elizabeth Bayley Seton herself wrote of the fear that gripped New York when yellow fever hit. While she and her children were fortunate to be able to escape to the country air of Long Island or Staten Island, she feared for her husband William, whose work kept him in the hot, mosquito-ridden city until he could join the family on weekends.

• Among those who fell victim to “pestilence” was Sr. Mary Angela Hughes. Missioned to St. Louis in 1833, she cared for children left orphaned by the sweeping cholera epidemic of the previous year. In 1846 she was sent to New York, and helped to found St. Vincent’s Hospital in 1849 to respond to another cholera outbreak. In 1861, after her second term as Mother of the New York community, she returned to St. Vincent’s. During the 1866 yellow fever epidemic, she was making her usual rounds in a contagious ward of fever sufferers (against the advice of the Sister in charge). A few days later she fell gravely ill of the fever, and died.

• Fire strikes fear into the heart of any teacher. Since 1822, the Sisters of Charity had taught in St. Patrick’s Cathedral Free School in lower Manhattan. One March day in 1834, fire destroyed the girls’ department and consumed almost a whole block of houses. Many of the 128 girls there at the time were being prepared for Confirmation. The girls were scattered in other schools and their teachers moved with them. For two years Sr. Mary Teresa Green taught groups of these girls in a makeshift room across town in the basement of St. Joseph’s Church, Greenwich Village.

• Wartime makes heroic demands on caregivers. Special headstones in the Mount St. Vincent cemetery of the Sisters of Charity of New York mark Sisters who nursed in the Civil War, right within the confines of Central Park. In Sr. Anne Courtney’s words, “When New York needed a hospital for wounded returning soldiers, the city offered the old McGown’s Pass buildings [first home of Mount St. Vincent] and requested the sisters to undertake its operation.” Sr. Mary Ulrica O’Reilly was named to head St. Joseph’s Military Hospital. As one of the founders of St. Vincent’s Hospital, she had a wealth of experience in crisis management. One of her greatest challenges came from a tight-budget, government bureaucracy that curtailed her ability to provide adequate food for her patients. Another was a threatening mob during the 1863 Draft Riots; Ulrica faced them down with amazing coolness.

• Prior to 9/11/01, the event that symbolized disaster for New Yorkers of a certain vintage was the sinking of the S.S.Titanic on its maiden voyage, April, 1912. Sr. Maria Isidore Morgan, St. Vincent’s Hospital administrator, told officials of the White Star Line that our hospital would treat, free of charge, up to 150 of the survivors, who were being brought home on another ship. Four Sisters joined the delegation of doctors, priests, and members of the hospital’s Auxiliary who met the exhausted survivors at the pier.

Fourteen nationalities were represented among the 117 who were cared for at St.Vincent’s; many could not speak English. A Women’s Relief Committee contacted relatives, arranged for transportation, provided clothing and gifts to these stricken people, many of whom were far from home.

• In the fall of 2005, severe rains from Hurricane Stan caused landslides that buried entire villages in Solala, Guatemala, near where several Sisters of Charity of New York minister. Early in 1976 a series of earthquakes left many of the 35,000 Mayan Indians in the same area homeless. As she sent a generous donation, Sr. Margaret Dowling, then President of the Congregation, noted that over $1 million was needed for even minimal rebuilding of just the small village where our sisters served. Sisters Immaculata Burke & Doris Pagano, who were fully involved in the national rescue effort, wrote that for the first time they encountered damaged mountain roads that their jeep couldn’t navigate. Even in this time of “trial and terror,” they were inspired by the “courage and fortitude” of their people, and marveled, “everyone who can walk is involved in helping others.”


Times of violence always call us to counter Nature’s fury and peoples’ wrath with God’s compassion. Many sisters and associates from the Sisters of Charity Federation and their ministry colleagues have given, and continue to offer, heroic service to victims of recent disasters here and abroad.

In the end, the most powerful response to victims of disaster is compassionate prayer that entrusts the pain of the world to a loving God who weeps with all who suffer.

SOURCES: Anne Courtney, SC, “Pioneer Sisters” M. Elizabeth Earley, The Sisters of Charity of New York, 1960-1996 Marie de Lourdes Walsh, The Sisters of Charity of New York, 1809-1959 ____________________, With a Great Heart: The Making of a Hospital