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  • “Say Little, Do Much”: Nursing, Nuns and Hospitals in the Nineteenth Century
  • Margaret Preston
“Say Little, Do Much”: Nursing, Nuns and Hospitals in the Nineteenth Century by Sioban Nelson , pp. 237. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. $55.

Any discussion of nursing and nuns in the nineteenth century will feature Irish women, and Sioban Nelson's study is no exception. Real struggles are at the heart of this story: besides traveling to far-off, rugged lands. Working with great poverty and during epidemics, nuns also faced difficulties in dealing with the men of the church who, more often than not, sought to control almost every aspect of these women's lives. Nevertheless, through patience, perseverance and often, chutzpah, these women and their orders often survived the worst of times. Some of the stories were extraordinary: as Sister Mary Jesus traveled across the American west, Nelson, reports that, "After tying the horses to the wagon, she would . . . say her night prayers, take out her pistols, and placing one of them at each side . . . sleep as if she were in her bed."

Nuns' near invisibility both in the archival records and in history books has left the misconception that these women spent most of their days cloistered in prayer. But research on nuns has proven that not only were they not cloistered: they were frequently forging new paths in the wildernesses. Epidemics often spurred nursing nuns into action; many of nearly three hundred hospitals opened in the United States by 1900 had their origins in such outbreaks. As nurses and administrators, nuns continued to face obstacles, particularly in the order's efforts to control hospital administration. The women frequently found their work hindered by priests and medical doctors whose agendas differed. The history of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul—the largest Catholic nursing order, established by Elizabeth Seton in 1809—is exemplary. When New York Bishop John Hughes decided that the Daughters' work did not meet his needs, he sought to change some of the limitations of the order's rule, which included a restricting them from working with boys over the age of seven. The mother house in Maryland, declined, and when Hughes would not budge the order in New York split; half remained to form a separate community, while the other departed the state.

When Sydney's Bishop John Polding, who had begged for the "Irish Charities" to come to Australia, received the money from their dowries, he used it for other purposes and "the sisters struggled in desperate poverty and actual hunger." From their arrival in Australia in 1838 until their hospital was founded almost twenty years later, "the Charities" had no permanent residence, and the bishop never sought to assist them in procuring one. Finally, a donation by a wealthy non-Catholic gave the women an opportunity to buy land for a convent and hospital. [End Page 149]

Ironically, religious prejudice could be easier to overcome than could clerical meddling. In Ireland, England, and Australia, these women won over Protestants who had stereotyped them as proselytizers seeking to convert patients. Again, St. Vincent's Hospital in Sydney is a good example: it earned more support from local Protestants than it did from the bishop. When in the Sisters accepted a gift in 1857 that allowed them to open St. Vincent's hospital, the bishop sought to refuse it. Nevertheless, the hospital opened and throughout its early years Protestant doctors and patients particularly supported the institution. By opening their hospitals to all, nuns acted as a bridge between denominations for whom disease saw no boundaries.

Fiscal survival was no easy feat. Nuns on America's frontier were often sent out to beg for the money to keep their institutions going; one can imagine the scene Nelson relates when, "In Minnesota a six foot, 200-pound Sister Amata Macket toured the cowboy camps and lumberjack mills . . . to raise revenue for St. Mary's Hospital." By the late nineteenth century, however, begging had given way to business acumen, and the nuns often proved to be smart businesswomen. In Australia as elsewhere, as nuns faced increasing demands for service particularly from the poor, they learned...


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