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  • Who Shall Take Care of Our Sick? Roman Catholic Sisters and the Development of Catholic Hospitals in New York City
  • Barbra Mann Wall
Who Shall Take Care of Our Sick? Roman Catholic Sisters and the Development of Catholic Hospitals in New York City. By Bernadette McCauley. [Medicine, Science and Religion in Historical Context.] (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2005. Pp. xiv, 146. $45.00.)

In 1849 the Sisters of Charity opened St. Vincent's Hospital, the first Catholic hospital in New York City. It was the third in the city and the first to be established by a religious congregation of women. In Who Shall Take Care of Our Sick?, Bernadette McCauley analyzes the prominent role of religious women in the development of Catholic hospitals in New York City in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These sisters served as administrators, nurses, supervisors, heads of departments, and board members. Today, Catholic hospitals are the largest single group of not-for-profit health care sponsors, systems, and facilities in the United States, making McCauley's history particularly important. 1 She not only examines how and why hospital development and nursing were so important to sisters but also what made Catholic hospitals distinctive from their secular counterparts. In this regard, she argues that hospital work and spiritual pursuits were inseparable. Indeed, Catholics claimed their hospitals were different because religious women cared for them in a special way.

Using primary historical documents from the sisters' and archdiocesan archives and secondary sources in the histories of women, religion, medicine, and nursing, McCauley weaves together a fascinating story of the sisters' foundations, their lives in the United States, the nursing care they provided, their financial activities, and the modernization of their hospitals in the early twentieth century. In so doing, her main thesis is that it was Catholic sisters, rather than priests and bishops, who placed their church as central to the hospital landscape in New York City. At the same time, sisters created institutions that were distinctive not only from secular facilities but also from each other. Ethnic connections were central: the Sisters of Charity established St. Vincent's Hospital, where Irish patients predominated; the Dominican Sisters, originally from Germany, founded St. Catherine's in Brooklyn; an Italian immigrant sister established Columbus Hospital in Manhattan for the Italian population; and sisters from Quebec developed Misericordia Hospital. Indeed, cultural and ethnic differences are major themes of the book.

McCauley also delineates a specific regional difference between New York hospitals and those established by sisters in other parts of the country:namely, that in New York City, Catholic hospitals received money from the state legislators. The power of Catholic votes in New York State, particularly in the city, gave the Church a significant political voice there.

Of the many interesting facets of this book, McCauley's analysis of the modernization of Catholic hospitals and their efforts to attract new patients is particularly [End Page 352] insightful. By the early twentieth century, patients favored location rather than religious affiliation as the criterion for choosing a hospital. McCauley argues, "The large Catholic populations reflected a location with a high percentage of Catholic residents, not necessarily the patients' choice to be treated in a Catholic institution"(p. 85). As a result, Catholic hospital promoters needed to show that they were up-to-date with, rather than different from, other hospitals, and they no longer emphasized their facilities as "sisters' hospitals"(p. 88). What was most critical was whether or not hospitals could provide quality care. Thus, sisters established nurse training schools, while others obtained further education as laboratory or x-ray technicians and administrators. They continued to manage and nurse in hospitals in New York City, but rather than claiming expertise based on religious identity, they worked as educated professionals.

Who Shall Take Care of Our Sick? adds to understandings of the integration of religion and medicine in the social history of hospitals. This book is well written and well researched. It is appropriate for scholars in the history of medicine, nursing, labor, religion, and women and should be required reading for students in each of these disciplines.

Barbra Mann Wall
University of Pennsylvania




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pp. 352-353
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