Bicentennial celebration officially starts on December 3, 2011!

As the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth closed out the first 100 years and started on the second 100, there was much to celebrate, much to be grateful for, and still much to do. As stated in McGill’s “The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth” in 1917: “What a study in contrasts! The log cabin of 1814 and its nine pupils: now, throughout the country, twenty thousand names annually upon the Sisters’ school registers. Three little children, one afternoon eighty-four years ago, received into Mother Catherine’s arms; today numerous motherless little ones under the order’s protection.” The congregation was still responding to the needs of the times, but the times were very different from the early pioneer days. The world was in a state of turmoil in 1917 as the United States finally entered World War I by declaring war on Germany on April 6, 1917 – just 52 years after the end of the Civil War. Woodrow Wilson was President of the United States when, in that same year, the Selective Service Act legalized the draft to respond to the manpower needs of the massive war effort oversees. The draft sparked riots and protests which added to the turmoil of the day.

Closer to home, even though the war effort disrupted many aspects of life for Americans – the war itself was out of sight for most and must have seemed an entire world away. In December of 1917, it was business as usual for the people of Nelson County and the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth who were making preparations for the coming holidays. The daily journals kept in the Archives contain entries about students and Sisters leaving for home visits. The main mode of transportation in 1917 was still the train, and the local L&N passenger train, the Accommodation, often stopped twice a day at the Nazareth depot to pick up and drop off passengers as the train made its way from Springfield to Louisville. It was one of these daily trips for the Accommodation when, On December 20, 1917, at approximately 5:15 p.m., one of the worst disasters to strike this area – and the worst railroad accident in Kentucky’s history – occurred at nearby Shepherdsville. As local shoppers were heading home from Louisville on the old L&N passenger train, the mostly wooden passenger cars were rear-ended by a newer, steel locomotive called “the Flyer,” which was speeding on its way from Cincinnati to New Orleans. The Bullitt County Historical Society offers the following account of the accident:

“It is impossible to know with certainty exactly what happened, but it seems that the “Flyer” struck the rear of the passenger car at a speed of perhaps twenty-five miles per hour; its speed having been reduced by braking action. Its forward momentum and great weight imploded the back of the car sending fragments of wood and glass forward into the car and its passengers. As it continued forward the sides of the car began to buckle and shatter, causing the roof to drop down on the passenger’s heads. Benches and their occupants were thrust forward, or ground under by the forward progress of the engine. Some of the passengers nearest the point of impact were killed instantly, never knowing what hit them. Others were battered about, suffering life-threatening injuries.

“The engine continued forward the length of the car, shattering it completely, and scattering splinters and broken glass debris and bodies to both sides of the track. Other bodies were trapped on the massive engine when it next smashed into the smoker car. No. 7’s momentum stalled about half way through the smoker car, but the whole car was damaged as it was pushed forward into the baggage car which was also damaged as it was caught in a vise between the smoker and the engine. Parts of both cars fell down the side of the track into a small underpass at what is now Second Street near the Ridgeway Library. Later, bodies would be found in this wreckage. Feeble cries for help and others of anguish came from the wreckage, and those who had witnessed the crash moved quickly to help. The town’s three doctors were on the scene in a few minutes and every house and store was thrown open to care for the dead and dying. Poor light hampered rescue along the track, making it difficult to locate silent victims. Christmas dolls, only recently clutched in the hands of children, were scattered about the track; their limbs askew in unnatural postures, much like the young battered bodies of their owners. A supply of Christmas candles found on the ruptured baggage car served to provide a bit of light for rescuers in the gloom.

“The L & N office in Louisville was notified of the tragedy. Immediately steps were taken to organize a relief train. Calls were broadcast for physicians and nurses, and by 6:30 the train left for Shepherdsville with eleven Louisville doctors and several surgeons and within half an hour pulled up at the station at Shepherdsville. The Louisville Evening Post of December 21, 1917 reported, ‘When the relief train reached Shepherdsville the physicians found that much of the preliminary work had been done by the local physicians and by the people of that city, and the doctors and nurses on the relief train applied themselves to completing the preliminary work and to preparing the injured to be removed to the hospital in Louisville.’

“The first relief train arrived back in Louisville at 11 p.m. It backed into the siding near SS. Mary and Elizabeth’s Hospital and ten policemen were required to hold back the frantic kinspeople who had rushed there, seeking word on their loved ones. The injured were carried on stretchers by soldiers from nearby Camp Taylor from the train to the waiting hospital. Thirty-nine injured persons were admitted to the hospital, while many persons who were in the wreck and who were brought there on the relief train, called for taxicabs and were taken to hotels. About midnight a second train was dispatched to bring the dead to Louisville. It returned at 3:45 a.m. with the bodies which were taken by army ambulances to the undertaking establishment of Lee E. Cralle at Sixth and Chestnut streets. …”
The handwritten record from the journal in the Archives states:

“…This evening great uneasiness and sorrow are caused by the terrible accident. The southern train (“a fast flyer”) ran into the rear of the Bardstown train, split in two the last two and a half coaches, which were completely wrecked and smashed causing the instant death of 43 persons. Yes, the poor souls were killed and not a moments warning was theirs to prepare themselves to meet their Judge and God. … Besides these, there were 38 wounded. All belonged in this vicinity. Truly, this will be a sad Christmas to many hearts. … A relief train came to the rescue. Fifteen policemen were detailed to go to the scene of the wreck near Shepherdsville. Not until 10 or 12 did the wounded reach SS. Mary and Elizabeth Hospital. There 50 doctors from each of two divisions at Camp Taylor awaited the arrival of the sufferers to minister to their wants.”

A number of SCNs were serving at SS. Mary and Elizabeth Hospital when the tragedy occurred. SS. Mary & Elizabeth Hospital was well-known for its care of train-wreck victims at that time. Sister Martina Moynihan was serving as Superior of the hospital in 1917, and a description of the incident in the Archives states:

“…The dreadful wreck at Shepherdsville has saddened many a home at Christmas time and taxed the capacity of the new Annex, when thirty-eight patients were carried in that night. The kind ministrations and efficient work done by Doctors, Nurses, and Sisters won the hearts of the injured and their relatives, friends they became, and these now quickly turn to their second home, as they term SS. Mary and Elizabeth’s…Life and limb were saved, and only two of the thirty-eight died…”

Although no SCNs or students were on the train when the accident occurred, Nazareth lost a good friend, Father Eugene Bertello, who had just boarded the train minutes before the accident to travel from Shepherdsville to his home in nearby Chapeze. Father Bertello was a “well-known and beloved public figure, riding throughout the county on his little pony ‘Keno.’” The Nazareth Archives record states:

“Father Eugene Bertello had been on the train but about three minutes when the accident occurred at 5:19. He was carrying the Blessed Sacrament to some sick person. When attention was attracted by his groans, he was found clinging with his arm to the hot boiler…his face was much disfigured as he was badly scalded….Deo Gratis that none of Nazareth’s pupils were on this car….”

Father Bertello is buried in the Nazareth Cemetery.

The Shepherdsville train wreck was and still is the worst train accident in Kentucky’s history – killing 51 and badly injuring another 36 people. The fatalities ranged in age from 7 months to 65 years old; 22 of the 51 were from Bardstown. The accident investigation led to many improvements in Railroad communications and the construction of safer passenger rail cars.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

All the ends of the earth have seen the saving power of God.

Ps 98

Join in the mission of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. Stay up-to-date on news from the Sister's daily life of prayer and work in ministries around the world in Belize, Botswana, India, Nepal, and the United States.

Thank you!