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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