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Catholic care for the sick in the U.S. has a long, impressive history

As long as Catholics embrace the gospel, they will surely be prominent among caregivers—during pandemics and always.

Nurse Jessica Juliano receives a chocolate bar from physician liaison Allison Damiano as she arrives to begin her shift on Easter, April 12, 2020, at Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip, N.Y. Hospital administrators distributed the treat to employees as a simple expression of appreciation for their efforts during the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)

The first coronavirus patient in the United States was treated in a Catholic health care system in the state of Washington. Catholic institutions account for a large percentage of medical services in many states and are therefore a key force on the front lines of the fight against the pandemic.

This is not the first confrontation with serious disease in the long history of Catholic health care. Not by a long shot.

It was Christianity that introduced into Western civilization the institution of the hospital, an outgrowth of the new religion’s focus on the sick as a group deserving of attention and care. Religious orders have been the main providers of such care through most of Christian history. Through the Middle Ages and early modern period, it was mostly male saints and religious communities: St. Benedict and the Benedictine monasteries whose hospitality included medical care; St. John of God and his Brothers Hospitallers; St. Camillus de Lellis and the Ministers of the Infirm. Joseph Pearce has written eloquently about Saint Charles Borromeo’s dedication to priestly ministry during Milan’s plague in the sixteenth century.

Later, women’s religious orders came to predominate in the health care sphere. English Sisters of Mercy accompanied Florence Nightingale in her pioneering nursing service during the Crimean War. The French Daughters of Charity heeded the admonition of their founder, St. Vincent de Paul, to see Christ in the infirm. “When you leave your prayers for the bedside of a patient,” he said, “you are leaving God for God. Looking after the sick is praying.”

As Catholic immigrants poured into the United States in the nineteenth century, this ancient health care tradition was imported as well. Histories such as Christopher Kaufman’s Ministry and Meaning: A Religious History of Catholic Health Care in the United States and Sisters Ursula Stepsis and Dolores Liptak’s Pioneer Healers: The History of Women Religious in Health Care have documented the integral Catholic role in building the nation’s health care infrastructure.

In 1823, the University of Maryland opened the first modern hospital in the United States, the Baltimore Infirmary; on the staff were five Sisters of Charity from Emmitsburg. The same congregation supplied sisters when the Mullanphy Hospital in St. Louis opened its doors as the first hospital west of the Mississippi in 1828. In June of 1858, Sisters of Providence from Quebec founded St. Joseph Hospital in Vancouver, Washington—the first permanent health care institution in the Northwest. (It was a Providence hospital where the first American coronavirus victim was treated.)

This pattern was repeated countless times across the shifting American frontier as the country grew. Catholic sisters established the first hospitals in Chicago, Milwaukee, Boise, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, and many other places. By 1875, there were 160 Catholic hospitals across the country. The staff at these hospitals were no stranger to disease.

Epidemics stalked nineteenth-century American cities relentlessly. Catholic clergy and sisters distinguished themselves during the nation’s many disease crises. The Ursulines of New Orleans treated slaves during the city’s many yellow fever and malaria outbreaks. This was but one example of sisters’ willingness to help those in need, regardless of religion or social status. This was a striking witness to non-Catholic Americans of the day, many of whom knew little about convents beyond what they read in scurrilous anti-Catholic literature.

The cholera pandemic of 1832 spread terror across the nation. In Louisville, a city of 10,000, it peaked at ten fatalities per day. “At that gloomy period,” a sister wrote later, “nurses for the sick poor could not be obtained at any price.” The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, a new congregation in mostly non-Catholic Kentucky, stepped into the gap, and in the process bolstered the reputation of Catholicism by their edifying service. During the same pandemic, Daughters of Charity in Philadelphia had to walk miles to and from railroad camps to assist sick Irish rail workers because stagecoach drivers wouldn’t go near.

Cholera also ran rampant through St. Louis in 1849, during which Jesuit priests sallied forth every day from St. Louis University to minister to the sick and dying. It also hit Pittsburgh, where Sisters of Mercy had opened a hospital a year earlier. Five years later it returned with a vengeance, overwhelming the capacity of the hospital. With more patients than beds, the sisters “relinquished theirs, since they were not using them. Their services were required night and day, and whatever rest they could get was taken in a chair.”

In Mishawaka, Indiana in 1882, the Sisters of St. Francis took smallpox victims into their hospital, causing city officials to declare the grounds off limits to everyone else. The local priest was forbidden from saying Mass at the hospital, but he snuck in every morning to bring the sisters Communion. Smallpox also plagued Houston in 1890; there the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word served heroically at the city’s “pesthouse.” They erected tents for the overflow of patients and, with few others willing to work at any wage in proximity to the fearsome disease, they also helped bury the dead.

Many of our American saints were distinguished by their care for the sick. Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton’s Sisters of Charity have already been mentioned. In New York in the early nineteenth century, Venerable Pierre Toussaint braved deserted streets to tend abandoned victims of yellow fever. In the same city, Venerable Felix Varela worked among the suffering during the 1832 pandemic. As a young woman in Italy, Francesca Cabrini nursed smallpox victims and contracted the disease herself. Later, as foundress of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini oversaw the creation of hospitals across the United States and beyond. Saints Damien of Molokai and Marianne Cope both walked the path of sanctification through their selfless service in the leper colonies of Hawaii.

The number of Catholic sisters and brothers working in nursing homes and hospitals has plummeted in recent decades, but the institutions they founded remain a prominent feature of the American health care landscape, and countless Catholic laity labor as health care providers in these institutions and others. They, along with the priests and other ministers who continue to provide the Anointing of the Sick and other sacraments to the ailing, are witnesses to the truth of Christ’s words: “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me.”

This long tradition of caregiving has not unfolded without opposition. One contemporary threat is government edicts, such as the contraceptive mandate resisted by the Little Sisters of the Poor, that force Catholic institutions to compromise Catholic moral teaching in return for public funding or even legal existence. More insidious is the voluntary abandonment by Catholic institutions of orthodox moral principles and practices on matters such as illicit reproductive technology or assisted suicide—a capitulation to secular culture that undermines the beautiful witness of genuine charity that the Catholic caregiving tradition displays.

Though the Catholic health care future is thus in some sense uncertain, it is in other ways assured. For as long as Catholics embrace the gospel, they will surely be prominent among caregivers—during pandemics and always.


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About Kevin Schmiesing 7 Articles
Kevin Schmiesing is director of research at the Freedom and Virtue Institute and an instructor of Church history in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s Lay Pastoral Ministry Program. He is the author or editor of three books on the history of Catholicism in the United States and is a regular guest on the SonRise Morning Show on the EWTN global Catholic radio network.

7 Comments

  1. [The number of Catholic sisters and brothers working in nursing homes and hospitals has plummeted in recent decades, but the institutions they founded remain a prominent feature of the American health care landscape, and countless Catholic laity labor as health care providers in these institutions and others. ]

    [More insidious is the voluntary abandonment by Catholic institutions of orthodox moral principles and practices on matters such as illicit reproductive technology or assisted suicide—a capitulation to secular culture that undermines the beautiful witness of genuine charity that the Catholic caregiving tradition displays.]

    Catholics have let their institutions be subverted from within. It is time to create alternatives.

  2. The charitable works are fine, but I do wish Catholics would get to know their Bibles better. The “least ones” of Matthew 25 are the same as the “little ones” of Matthew 10 — they are Christ’s disciples. In both passages Jesus is promising a reward to those who go out of their way to treat Christians well. Matthew 25 is not a mandate for Christians to engage in a generalized philanthropy. There’s nothing wrong with it, and it could certainly prove useful to the church’s public image, but it is not what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 25. He’s saying “Treat my boys well, and I will treat you well in return come Judgment Day.” It is his needy brethren that he is identifying with, not needy people in general. It’s “Whoever receives you receives me.”

    • No, GF Poulin, Jesus has come as the Divine Physician for those who are sick, all the sick – if we do not make or offer His Love – ‘His sun and rain – fall upon the unrighteous as well, we have failed Him and sinned against Him and WE ARE NOT HIS CHILDREN OR BRETHREN’ – we are the rigid pharisee and sadducee whose ‘holiness’ will, as the goat, keep them from Heaven – if our holiness does not surpass that of the pharisee and sadducee, we will be the goats who will enter His Heave either.

      This is what happens when one does not hear what the Holy Spirit says about what Sacred Scripture means – interpreting outside of the Holy Spirit in the Magisterium and the Full Content and Context of Scriptures leads to false understanding and teaching; in It’s Totality. Please in joyful humility, know that the ‘Lord says what when we fail to make, to give His Love, His graces, to anyone, friend or foe, we are not His Children and we will if unrepentant, be the goat and not the sheep’. It is not either/or, it is both/and – this is why Jesus was so angry with the pharisees and sadducees – it is mercy, not sacrifice, that He desires…

      The Beloved did not come just for the House of Israel but for the gentiles in all nations – He did not say: “do not serve Me, do not love and serve as I have loved and served, but go out and do not make disciples of the nations, but only of My House of Israel Brethren”. The Divine Charity of the Triune Physician is for everyone, when we fail to witness This we are the goat, we have failed to give it to the Lord. Jesus, the Good Samaritan, gives the sinner, mankind, His Divine Charity while we still His enemies’ – don’t fall for the lie and temptation to cross over to the other side as a goat in refusing to give the care of Jesus the good Samaritan to the sinner, in hopes especially, that they enter into His Covenant Life and Love, by His Example In-deeds in us who live His Resurrected Life and Love – He who is Truly Risen Indeed must be Truly Risen In-deeds of charity to each and all or we will not be the sheep but the goat. Easter blessings, mercies and graces!

  3. No, GF Poulin, Jesus has come as the Divine Physician for those who are sick, all the sick – if we do not make or offer His Love – ‘His sun and rain – fall upon the unrighteous as well, we have failed Him and sinned against Him and WE ARE NOT HIS CHILDREN OR BRETHREN’ – we are the rigid pharisee and sadducee whose ‘holiness’ will, as the goat, keep them from Heaven – if our holiness does not surpass that of the pharisee and sadducee, we will be the goats who will enter His Heave either’.

    This is what happens when one does not hear what the Holy Spirit says about what Sacred Scripture means – interpreting outside of the Holy Spirit in the Magisterium and the Full Content and Context of Scriptures leads to false understanding and teaching; in It’s Totality. Please in joyful humility, know that the ‘Lord says when we fail to make, to give His Love, His graces, to anyone, friend or foe, we are not His Children and we will if unrepentant, be the goat and not the sheep’. It is not either/or, it is both/and – this is why Jesus was so angry with the pharisees and sadducees – ‘it is mercy, not sacrifice, that He desires’…

    The Beloved did not come just for the House of Israel but for the gentiles in all nations – He did not say: “do not serve Me, do not love and serve as I have loved and served, but go out and do not make disciples of the nations, but only of My House of Israel Brethren”. The Divine Charity of the Triune Physician is for everyone, when we fail to witness This we are the goat, we have failed to give It to the Lord. Jesus, the Good Samaritan, gives the sinner, mankind, His Divine Charity while were still His enemies’ – don’t fall for the lie and temptation to cross over to the other side as a goat in refusing to give the care of Jesus the good Samaritan to the sinner, but give This in hopes especially, that they enter into His Covenant Life and Love, by His Example In-deeds in us who live His Resurrected Life and Love: He who is Truly Risen Indeed must be Truly Risen In-deeds of charity from us to each and all or we will not be the Resurrected sheep but the dead goat. Easter blessings, mercies and graces!

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