A History of Health Care
The Sisters of Mercy have a tradition of healing. Catherine McAuley gained knowledge of medical practices while caring for the Callaghans, the elderly couple whom Catherine lived with up until their passing. She also looked after her many nieces and nephews. Catherine’s experience in medical care was the basis for one of the notable ministries, or works, of Mercy: caring for and visiting the sick.
The sisters’ resolve to care for the sick was first seriously tested in 1832 during the Dublin cholera epidemic. During the Crimean War of the 1850s, Britain looked to Irish nuns for skilled nurses. The government sent two parties of Sisters of Mercy to the Crimea. One group of sisters accompanied Florence Nightingale. Nightingale made several written remarks about the superiority of the sisters’ medical practice even over her own knowledge.
In 1843, the first Sisters of Mercy traveled from Carlow, Ireland to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Within a few days of their arrival, the sisters began visiting the sick and poor in their homes, offering simple medical treatment and spiritual consolation. In 1847 the Pittsburgh sisters opened the first Mercy hospital in the world. Small groups from Ireland further settled in other areas of the country. Their numbers increased as young American women and newly arrived immigrants swelled their ranks. These sisters nursed the sick during epidemics of cholera, typhoid, smallpox, yellow fever, and influenza. By the 1860s, the Sisters of Mercy had already established a history of healthcare within their order.
The Civil War and Beyond
During the American Civil War many Catholic sisters volunteered to serve as nurses. Of the 640 sisters who joined, over 100 were Sisters of Mercy. Initially, the sisters faced anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant prejudice, along with ignorance about their religious life from citizens and soldiers. But the sisters’ response was to go quietly about their duties with kindness and devotion. For the sisters’ efforts, recovered soldiers left the hospital with gratitude and respect. Not only did the Catholic sisters make enormous strides to ease anti-Catholic tensions during their service, but they also helped to advance the nursing profession in the country.
The sisters’ actions included nursing the wounded, organizing housekeeping, cooking, distributing food, and providing laundry services. Often they risked death by tending to patients with contagious diseases and traveling through unsafe areas. They cared for Union and Confederate soldiers alike: officers and enlisted men, rich and poor, no matter their religion or heritage. Motivated by love of God, the Sisters of Mercy compassionately cared for the sick and prepared the dying for eternity. Mercy Hospitals across the nation today continue this tradition of compassionate service.
Several digitized archival artifacts from the Mercy Heritage Center and other repositories are located below.