Written by: Linda Spalding
The early Constitutions of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth named the first object of the Congregation as “to honor our Lord Jesus Christ, as the source and model of all charity, by rendering to him every temporal and spiritual service in their power in the persons of the poor, either sick, or children, prisoners, or others…Accordingly, the care of the poor, of all descriptions and ages, sick, prisoners, invalids, foundlings, orphans, and even insane…shall be the solicitude of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth…” The ink was barely dry on the Constitutions when in 1832 the first of many epidemics of cholera swept through Kentucky. At the time, little was known about the cause of the dreaded disease, how it was transmitted, or how to treat it. Often, those who contracted the disease died within 24 hours. Many times those who survived the disease never fully recovered their strength. An early historical account of the disease paints a vivid picture of the fear that spread along with the disease:
“…Life changed drastically for the towns infected. It was noted that wills were drawn up, medications purchased, farewell letters written to loved ones. People who had been living a sinful life fled to the church for confessions and prayers. Towns were vacant, business was stopped, fields were left to grow with weeds. Steamboats were docked, stores, taverns and hotels were closed. Police stopped walking the beat, many physicians fled in terror and left their patients unattended. Those remaining were in a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. Newspapers were seldom printed except to list the latest fatalities. Coffin making was so in demand that many people were buried in trunks and boxes, or wrapped in the bed linens upon which they had died. Special carts made the rounds of the city streets to try to collect the coffins or enshrouded bodies. No clergy performed the funeral, and it was reported that at one town cemetery, the coffins, boxes or bodies were dropped inside the cemetery gate and just left for fear of contamination. Many in the south central KY area were just pushed into a shallow trench and the decaying flesh could be smelled for miles. Since cholera lowered the heart beat and body temperature, it is feared that many people were buried prematurely…”
This is the environment into which the early SCNs were beckoned when Rev. Robert A. Abell recommended that the Board of Health in Louisville ask that the Sisters of Charity attend the sick. In her booklet on the life of Mother Frances Gardiner, Sister Agnes Geraldine McGann notes that: “…On October 17, 1832, Sisters Margaret Bamber, Martha Drury, Martina Beaven, and Hilaria Bamber were sent from Nazareth to Louisville… They were led and assisted by Mother Catherine Spalding and remained going from house to house, wherever they were needed especially among the poor, until the scourge passed away.” As the Sisters went from door to door caring for the sick, they often found children whose parents had died leaving them alone. The orphans were also taken in by the Sisters and cared for during this difficult time. S Agnes Geraldine further states that, “…three sisters, Sister Patricia Bamber, Joanna Lewis, and Generose Buckman, who attended cholera patients in the vicinity of Nazareth also died of the disease in 1833” and that “Mother Frances and several of the Sisters were almost incapacitated for life” because of their exposure to the dreaded disease.
When cholera reared its head in Kentucky in epidemic style for the last time in the 1870’s, Mother Frances Gardiner was once again serving as Mother of the Congregation. The Annals state:
“Doctor Ford from Louisville comes in the name of the Mayor and Board of Health, with the approbation of the Bishop to ask the Sisters to take charge of the new hospital or ‘Pest House’ opened (in Louisville) for those attacked by the disease (cholera).” Four Sisters (Andrea Riley, Mary George Maher, Valentine Cogan, and Boniface Boyle traveled to Louisville the next day and were joined later by Sisters Antonia Gibbons and Joachim O’Brien…” The Catholic Advocate reported, “The readiness with which the good Sisters of Nazareth answered the appeal of the city authorities and the wishes of their Bishop, is a bright leaf in their crown of immortality. As soon as the unenviable position was offered them, they embraced it without taking time for reflection or deliberation.”
With their act of courage and faith in a time of great adversity, the early SCNs set the bar very high for future generations of SCNs who would answer the call time and time again to, “…risk our lives and resources both personally and corporately as we engage in diverse ministries in carrying out this mission.”
Note: A common treatment for cholera during the early epidemics was: Calomel, opium and performing a lancet. Calomel was a mercuric chloride compound used to treat other diseases. Opium was added to relieve muscle spasms and cramps and to calm the stomach. Lancet was what is also known as bleeding the victim…believed to reduce the congestion in the blood vessels. Hot packs were used to retain the body heat since body temperatures dropped drastically.
Some physicians prescribed the following:
1 ounce opium
60 gr of musk
1 oz. gum of myrrh
2 scruples of flower of Benzoin [a scruple is approximately 20 grains]2 scruples of camphor
1 scruple of Incense of Irodine [iodine]5 pints of French Brandy
One teaspoon was to be taken 2-3 times a day as a preventative. This was followed by a ½ glass of wine every 15 minutes!