Heroic Sisters during Spanish Flu

On March 20, 2020, The New York Times published an article with this title: “We Should All Be More Like the Nuns of 1918.” The caption reads: “The sisters of Philadelphia were lifesavers during the Spanish flu epidemic. They are an inspiration today.”

What did Catholic nuns do in 1918 that inspires people even today?

The author, a writer and journalist called Kiley Bense, was researching her grandmother’s childhood in Philadelphia. Her grandmother, born in 1917, survived the “Spanish Flu,” the terrible pandemic which hit many countries between 1918 and 1920. It was far more devastating than the current COVID-19. It came towards the end of World War I, multiplying the suffering of people who had already suffered and lost much during the War. The number of victims was incredibly high: About fifty million deaths worldwide! To give you an idea of what that number means, it was thirty-four million more than those killed in World War I.

The writer found harrowing descriptions of life during the Flu-businesses, schools, churches and theatres were shut. At times whole families were seriously ill. Dead bodies were found piled up in basements and porches of houses, since the morgues did not have enough coffins. In just one day (October 16, 1918), over 700 people died in Philadelphia alone. In the midst of this desperate situation, an inspiring response brought much solace. The Red Cross found there was a serious shortage of nurses, partly caused by the First World War. “Now it is a matter of life and death,” an official said.

Generous and Courageous Response.

At this point, the archbishop of Philadelphia asked the Catholic Sisters to come out of their convents and care for the sick. Most of the Sisters had no medical training, and, living under the strict convent rules of the day, very little exposure to the world outside. Yet they signed up for medical service—twelve-hour shifts caring for the sick and the dying, many of whom were poor, and belonged to different races. The patients were dirty, and at times violent. In some homes, the Sisters found parents dead, and children crying. In the wards, the call “Sister!” could be heard repeatedly. Many sisters felt deep fear at the start, since they had never treated the dying, but they put their heart into this service of the sick.

The Flu killed 12,000 people in Philadelphia alone. Twenty-three Sisters died from their exposure to the disease. The mayor said this about the service of the Sisters, “I have never seen a greater demonstration of real charity or self-sacrifice than has been given by the Sisters in their nursing of the sick, irrespective of the creed or colour of the victims, wherever the nuns were sent.”

The author notices that pandemics make people fearful and mistrustful. Some panic and attack others. Some blame particular groups. (This is happening, sadly, in different places, including India.) In the midst of such negativity, we need, as the article says, the type of loving dedication the Catholic nuns of Philadelphia demonstrated a century ago. “The Sisters’ quiet, determined selflessness is what is needed now, and what we will need more of in the weeks and months to come.”

The article, which appeared not in a Catholic publication, but in the world’s most influential secular newspaper, concludes: “One hundred years on, the work of the Sisters provides us a model to follow and aspire to in this uncommon time: one that presses us to look for ways to support our neighbours rather than shrinking from them, to acknowledge our fears but to find courage in the strength of our communities, and ultimately to put others before self.”

(Published in MAGNET 45, May 2020)

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