- Daughters of Charity: Women, Religious Mission, and Hospital Care in Los Angeles, 1856–1927 by Kristine Gunnell
By the mid-nineteenth century, the distinctive cornettes of the Daughters of Charity had become emblematic of Catholic nurses and their work among the poor. From the industrialized cities of France and Germany to the colonies and settler societies of the New World, the Daughters mobilized and structured the impulse of women to serve the poor in the name of God and along the way established the foundation of twentieth-century health and welfare systems. Kristine Gunnell’s history of the Daughters of Charity and their work in hospital care in Los Angeles, 1856–1927, provides a deeply worked case study of that phenomenon and builds on the growing scholarship on women and their historical contribution to social institution building.
Gunnell’s work underlines both the constancy of the story of the sisters, as well as its mutability and responsiveness. In terms of constancy, there is much here that could be said of any of the sisters’ early communities. But other elements of the story are distinctive, and Gunnell’s narrative serves to emphasize the contrasting local color. In Los Angeles the founding bishop was neither Irish nor French, but a Spaniard. The first loyal Catholics were of the Spanish-Mexican elite and the school bilingual. In this foundation being an American-born sister was an asset and being a Spanish-speaking sister even more so. What was rather particular here, too, was the way the relationship with medicine was mediated by the county. Although this system allowed for the early foundation to thrive, it eventually hampered the sisters’ independence and forced them into a relationship with the sick poor and indigent that they felt conflicted with their mission.
As the nineteenth century rolled on and the early foundation gave way to a larger and a more sophisticated operation, the sisters made ends meet by caring for railway workers and sailors, forming partnerships with medicine, and exploring health tourism. Gunnell highlights the adaptable and enterprising nature of these women from their substantial farming operation to their oil and real estate expertise. By the early-twentieth century, the obligation to keep abreast of new developments in the field saw the sisters invest in training for themselves and their school, and in upgrades to their hospital infrastructure.
What comes out most wonderfully in Gunnell’s work is the sophistication of the Daughters of Charity as an organization. It is clear from the records that the motherhouse had a penetrating grasp of the abilities of each sister and a profound understanding of the talents and experience required by each assignment. The initial team sent to Los Angeles was a formidable group of three women, each with the specific skills needed to take the lead on one aspect of the operation: nursing, teaching and establishing the community. Later, when the sisters broke with the county, the Los Angeles sisters were redeployed to wherever they could best serve [End Page 679] the overall mission of the Daughters in the Americas, and a new team with a different set of skills was put in place to lead the next phase.
As Gunnell shows, the success of the Los Angeles Daughters of Charity foundation rested with its community’s enduring nature and vision. Sisters passed through this and other houses in the United States, Mexico, and Latin America. Along the way they gained experience, were mentored by others who had a wealth of wisdom to share, and never lost the long-term goals in the day-to-day struggle to create a lasting social institution to serve the poor. The sisterhood’s story is generations long and deeply intertwined with that of other foundations across the country and region. Gunnell’s narrative provides a rare view of both the individual accomplishments and struggles of the sisters, and the ties that bound the women together into a single sisterhood over the decades...