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As the United States commemorates the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the nation remembers the women religious who provided vital nursing services to Union and Confederate soldiers. Among congregations of women religious serving in military hospitals were the Sisters of St. Joseph of Wheeling, (West) Virginia. The sisters had served as nurses at Wheeling Hospital since 1853, but their lives and responsibilities changed dramatically during the war. While the general story of their work is included in histories of Civil War nursing like those of Ellen Ryan Jolly, Sister Mary Denis Maher, and Barbra Mann Wall, the details of their lives and wartime working conditions have yet to be presented.1

By the Civil War years, the nation had been inundated with 1.7 million immigrants from Ireland and 1.3 million from German-speaking Europe in the previous two decades. Such an influx arriving in Protestant America stirred waves of anti-Catholic and anti-foreign feelings and political movements. [End Page 21] Catholics could expect open hostility as agents of a religion "foreign" to the nation and an alleged threat to its liberties and constitutional order.

While facing such hostility, Catholic leaders coordinated the Church's rapid institutional expansion for a Catholic population of 660,000 in 1840 soaring to 3,100,000 by 1860. The 23 dioceses of 1847 increased to 46 by 1858, and the number of priests doubled from about 1,000 to over 2.000. Catholic women religious began a phenomenal climb from 82 communities (or "orders") in 1845 to 381 in 1860, while the number of women religious in the United States increased from 1,108 to 4,005.2

Given the missionary status of the U.S. Catholic Church, the Church's canon law was not fully implemented. Instead, bishops had largely unchecked authority in their dioceses. Moreover, the status of vowed women religious under Canon Law assumed they were all "nuns," that is, cloistered, required to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, and not performing so-called "active" works outside convent walls such as teaching or nursing. U.S. bishops frequently exerted their authority over the large number of women's religious communities who did "active" work within their dioceses. For the Sisters of St. Joseph of Wheeling, Bishop Joseph Whelan served as a final authority. Accordingly, he decided that the Wheeling Sisters of St. Joseph would remain autonomous instead of joining a federation with other communities of Sisters of St. Joseph.3

Early Years of Catholicism in Wheeling

Wheeling's Catholic history began in 1818 with the arrival of Rev. Charles Bonaventure Maguire, the first priest known to have come specifically to minister to the city's residents. Maguire met Noah Zane, a member of Wheeling's founding family, who agreed to donate land for the city's first Catholic church.4 Wheeling's Catholic community would over the decades of the nineteenth and early twentieth century reflect the communities of western Virginia, largely populated by immigrants seeking employment through public works or other construction projects.5 [End Page 22]

The most important clergyman associated with the growth of Catholicism in western Virginia, the Rev. Richard Vincent Whelan, a Baltimore native, was consecrated the second bishop of Richmond in 1841.6 He moved to Wheeling in 1846 to supply a temporary clerical vacancy; at the time, approximately 1,500 Catholics resided in the city, mostly German immigrants.7 He made Wheeling the center of Catholicism in what became West Virginia with the establishment of schools and a hospital, and, in 1848, invited the Sisters of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary from Baltimore to the city to teach.8 In 1849, at his recommendation, the U.S. bishops in their Seventh Provincial Council of Baltimore proposed the erection of a new diocese; Pope Pius IX accepted the recommendation. On July 19, 1850 the Diocese of Wheeling was created with jurisdiction over the counties in Virginia west of Maryland and the Allegheny mountains—an area equal in size to Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont.9 Wheeling, then with had a population of 11,400, was the largest city and center of manufacturing in western...


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