GSR in the Classroom

Sisters served bravely in past pandemics

Before you read

We hear a lot of praise for essential workers who risk their own health to keep others healthy during the coronavirus pandemic. Alone, or with a partner, consider:

  • Health care workers, pharmacists, law enforcement officials and grocery store workers are just some of the heroes of the pandemic. What do you find inspiring about these people?
  • What’s one role you can’t imagine yourself doing?
  • Is there a role you’d like to be playing in this crisis? 


Foreground: "Portrait of a Pharmacist Nun," by Stefano Gherardini, 1723 (Szépművészeti Múzeum/Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, 2020). Background: A nun works in the pharmacy at Misericordia Hospital (now called Mercy Philadelphia), which opened in 1918.
Foreground: "Portrait of a Pharmacist Nun," by Stefano Gherardini, 1723 (Szépművészeti Múzeum/Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, 2020). Background: A nun works in the pharmacy at Misericordia Hospital (now called Mercy Philadelphia), which opened in 1918, the summer before the worst of the flu epidemic (Catholic Historical Research Center, Archdiocese of Philadelphia).

Keep in mind while you read

More than a century ago, Catholic sisters served quietly but heroically during a worldwide flu pandemic. Consider what motivated them to give and serve so selflessly.

Pioneers of past pandemics: Sisters stepped to the front lines

April 30, 2020

by Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans

"I was always fascinated by the stories," said Sr. Patricia Talone, recalling 1918 flu epidemic tales she heard from older sisters when she entered the Sisters of Mercy community in Merion, Pennsylvania, 60 years ago. It was a history that had touched her own family.

From plague to cholera to influenza, past epidemics were opportunities for nuns to serve society beyond their convents in force. Though sisters, like this community health nurse, still serve in multiple roles in health care, they no longer have the numbers to be the recognized face of compassionate care in the current pandemic.

The role of sisters in nursing the victims of the 1918 pandemic that yielded millions of deaths worldwide is increasingly recognized and lauded. What's perhaps less known is that, for centuries, nuns both in Europe and as immigrants to the United States have been ahead of their time, bringing volunteering fervor and entrepreneurial skill to their mission of tending the sick and preventing illnesses from spreading.

cloistered: living in a monastery or convent with limited contact with the outside worl

niche: a service or trade for which a particular person or group is uniquely equipped

apothecary: a person who prepares and sells medicines

almshouse: a home for poor people

contagion: a disease that can be spread by direct or indirect contact with an infected person

daunted: to lessen the courage of

Dante's Inferno: a part of the poem "Divine Comedy" that describes a journey through hell

commodious: spacious or ample

Jehovah: a Hebrew name for God

beleaguered: in a state of constant suffering or trouble

Continues below

Take the clever, well-educated nuns of Renaissance Italy, for example. These women, often cloistered in a life they had not chosen, "ran commercial pharmacies out of the convent that supplied a considerably big revenue stream for the communities," said Sharon Strocchia, a professor of history at Emory University.

"The evidence is overwhelming that religious women were deeply immersed in commercial culture and applied remedies that were considered extremely valuable," said Strocchia.

Educated in the medicinal arts of their day, many nuns (among others during that time period) carved out a market niche for themselves by creating specialty remedies, she said. That includes medication to ward off plagues. "One of the smart things that consumers could do was to stock up on preventative remedies when they know that a plague is in the immediate vicinity."

One notable example was the astronomer Galileo's illegitimate daughter, a Poor Clare nun and a well-known apothecary in her own right.

Maria Celeste Galilei created a remedy to prevent the plague for her own father. She advised a mixture of dried figs, nuts and the herb rue, bound together with honey in a portion approximately the size of a walnut, followed by some good wine, reported Strocchia.

As sisters launched orders and congregations and engaged the population outside convent walls, nursing and volunteering came into their own with the rise of active orders like the Daughters of Charity, founded in the 17th century by Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac. These communities and others founded in the 18th and 19th centuries, like the Sisters of Mercy, saw it as a fundamental part of their call to care for the poor and the sick.

Members of orders that came over from Europe to North America were often already engaged in ministering to the sick, said Margaret Susan Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University. "Most of the sisters who came here were really devoted to meeting the needs of the time, and this was one of the needs of the time."

Even cloistered or semi-cloistered orders would pitch in when requested. That was true of the Ursulines of the Roman Union.

Upon their arrival in what is now Louisiana in 1727, they were asked to staff a military hospital in New Orleans. There they tended not only to soldiers affected by war and disease, but to orphans whose parents had died from the diseases rife in that period, according to research done by Sr. Thomas More Daly and Sr. Sue Anne Cole.

During the cholera epidemic of 1832, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, an African American community in Baltimore, were asked to nurse residents at a local almshouse, according to an account written by Oblates co-founder Fr. James Hector Joubert.

Joubert asked the women if four of them would be "disposed to sacrifice themselves to this good work." All 11 stood up, he recalled, "and filled with joy and happiness, they all cried that they were ready to undertake it."

Of the four who went, one even took her vows early — so that if she died of contagion, it would be as an Oblate Sister of Providence. All four returned in good health, said Oblate archivist Sharon Knecht.

But a few months later, one of the four, Sr. Anthony Duchemin, who had nursed the local archbishop through his bout with cholera, fell ill and died suddenly after returning to the house to nurse the archbishop's housekeeper. Her daughter, Sr. Theresa Duchemin, was not allowed to visit her mother for fear she too would fall ill, Knecht reported.   

Innovators in social equality

Nuns did not seem to be daunted, either by geography or bigotry.

Sister of Mercy Mother Mary Baptist Russell already had experience as a crisis nurse during an Irish cholera epidemic when she sailed for San Francisco in 1854, a time of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish bias, said Talone. In 1855, when a cholera epidemic broke out, she added, "the rich escaped the city, but the nuns stayed and nursed the sick and dying. Then the public attitude toward them changed radically."

Nuns were also prominent caregivers during the Civil War, in which soldiers' encampments could become the site of epidemic diseases like typhus and malaria. (Two-thirds of the deaths during that conflict were caused by illnesses such as dysentery, typhoid and tuberculosis.) Of the 20,000 women who volunteered to help treat soldiers, approximately 500 were nuns, said Barbra Mann Wall, a nursing professor at the University of Virginia.


A Sister of Mercy attends patients in a ward at Misericordia Hospital opened in 1918, just before the worst of the flu outbreak. (Catholic Historical Research Center, Archdiocese of Philadelphia)
A Sister of Mercy attends patients in a ward at Misericordia Hospital opened in 1918, just before the worst of the flu outbreak. (Catholic Historical Research Center, Archdiocese of Philadelphia)

Most Catholic hospitals were started after the Civil War by women religious, she said.

"When epidemics hit, it was a crisis situation, and they just did it," said Mann Wall. "The nuns would volunteer, making a name for themselves and becoming the image of the Catholic Church."

Epidemic over, she said, sisters would return to their prior ministries in health care and other fields.

In fact, said Thompson, Civil War nurses were mostly drawn from the ranks of teaching rather than nursing orders. "That volunteering helps them with their spiritual mission: to take care of the poor, of the sick, of the least of these."

Whether in education or health care, she said, sisters didn't limit their ministries to Catholics. "They defined Catholicism for most Americans."    

Talone, the Sister of Mercy, had reasons for asking the older sisters about their pandemic experiences. Her family was deeply affected by the tragedy: Her father, only 5 at the time, lost his mother and older brother. Talone, who worked at the Catholic Health Association as director of ethics and then vice president of mission services from 2003 to 2016, researched the period extensively.

Patricia Talone .jpg

Mercy Sr. Patricia Talone (Provided photo)
Mercy Sr. Patricia Talone (Provided photo)

Lessons from a century ago

That certainly seemed to be the case during the flu epidemic of 1918.

Philadelphia, which sponsored a parade on Sept. 28, 1918, that drew hundreds of thousands to stir patriotic fervor and encourage the purchase of war bonds, became the American epicenter of the epidemic. It was a time seared on the memories of the older Mercy Sisters, as it was among many local residents.

As thousands became ill, the city began to resemble a scene out of Dante's Inferno. Public gatherings were canceled. Hospitals overflowed, and emergency medical facilities had to be assembled in hotels, garages and schools. Bodies were left in the streets to be taken away by wagons.

When Philadelphia Archbishop Dennis Joseph Dougherty, like many of his peers in afflicted cities all over America, requested help from religious communities in 1918, he lifted the restrictions that kept women religious within the bounds of schedule and cloistered life.

The nuns, who normally operated under strict social constraints, could now get on public transportation. Some worked the night shift. If they weren't caring for the sick, they were cooking hot meals for the seminarians who were digging graves in local parishes.

The older sisters in Talone's own community reminisced about practices that sound strikingly modern. Arising around 5:30, nuns would attend morning prayers or Mass, if a convent chaplain was available, before going out to their nursing assignments. Arriving home after a long day, "they would be instructed immediately to take off their habits. In the old days, these were commodious outfits. I can't even imagine this."

Only after they had bathed in hot water and put on their clean nightgowns and bathrobes could they receive dinner, she said. After a meal and a blessing, they were each given a glass of whiskey ("This was an Irish order," Talone said) and sent off to bed.

Continued from above

motherhouse: the house in which a congregation of sisters was founded and where its leader lives

novice: a person admitted to initial membership in a religious community. Novices spend a year or more deepening their relationship with Jesus.

postulant: a person admitted to a religious order as a probationary candidate for membership

panoply: something that forms a protective covering

cadre: a solid, unified group

charisms: unique gifts from the Holy Spirit that inspire the creation of religious congregations 

habited: wearing the distinctive clothing of a religious congregation

altruism: unselfish concern for the welfare of others

Between 13,000 and 16,000 area residents died (some accounts say 20,000), according to a 2018 exhibit created by the Catholic Historical Research Center of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that commemorated that tragic year.

In early October, as illness spread through city and suburbs like wildfire, Dougherty, who had been on the job just a few months, banned public Masses and closed parochial schools as well as Charles Borromeo Seminary. Seminarians provided support for staff at local hospitals and were enlisted to dig graves at the overwhelmed Catholic cemeteries.

The archbishop called a meeting of major superiors, asking them to encourage sisters to join the swelling ranks of non-Catholic volunteers working in hospitals and homes. More than 2,000 sisters volunteered to help, according to diocesan records. That included many sisters who were not trained nurses, as well as Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, who at the time ran three city hospitals.

"While we live in a different century, as we engage in pandemic preparation, there is still much for us to learn from those who have so courageously gone before us," wrote Talone in a 2007 article, "All God's Sick Children." 

Caring for all

In one instance, according to an October 19, 1918, Catholic Standard and Times account featured in the exhibit, sisters were asked to turn the headquarters of a Catholic club (the Catholic Philopatrian Literary Institute) into an emergency hospital for sick soldiers.

"The sisters promised to have the building ready for patients the following Friday morning, but the physicians were incredulous," reads the clipping. "It could not be done in so short a period, they said. The sisters were equally positive it could be accomplished."

In fact, the building was ready for occupants by late afternoon the next day, according to the story.

"It really is a fascinating story," said Patrick Shank, assistant archivist for the Catholic Historical Research Center of the Philadelphia Archdiocese. "They weren't just caring for Catholics. They were caring for everyone."

That work was documented in the Philadelphia region by Francis Tourscher in the book "Work of the Sisters During the Epidemic of Influenza, October, 1918." 

At Mount Sinai (a hospital built for Jewish and other immigrants in South Philadelphia now abandoned), Sisters of St. Joseph were called in as nurses, but ended up doing some baptisms as well. "Eight Sisters went to Mount Sinai Hospital," as Tourscher described it. "One detail went early in the morning. When the second detachment arrived, the Superintendent said: 'The Sisters are upstairs and working very hard. It's quite a change from the society ladies who were here last week.' "

Helene Connolly.jpg

Sr. Helene Thomas Connolly (Provided photo)
Sr. Helene Thomas Connolly (Provided photo)

A Jewish man asked the sisters to pray for him. "I in return will always ask the Great Jehovah to bless you for all you have done for us here," he said.

Approximately 300 Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, one of the larger religious communities in the Philadelphia area, volunteered to serve as nurses or in whatever capacity was needed, said Sr. Helene Thomas Connolly, archivist for the congregation. They traveled from their many mission convents and the motherhouse to beleaguered areas of the city, and out to the boundaries of an expansive diocese.

When the pandemic came to their doorstep, the IHMs set up two emergency hospitals, one on the motherhouse grounds and the other at a school they ran, where they treated members of their own community as well as student boarders.

In several locations, "the sisters worked 12-hour shifts, but often in the evenings, so that the trained nurses could go home and get some rest," she added. They visited the homes of the sick, washed soiled linens, cleaned, cooked and cared for the children, in addition to preparing dinner for seminarians.

Nine sisters, including one novice and one postulant, succumbed to the epidemic, noted Connolly. Remarkably, the toll included just one nurse.

"We had in our wards Greeks, Italians, Jews, Armenians, Negroes, Poles and even East Indians," wrote an anonymous Immaculate Heart sister. "They were all God's sick children and I loved them."

In the Philadelphia area, where tales of the epidemic are still passed down from generation to generation, the memory of these sisters' sacrificial behavior still seems fresh. "We have a great devotion to our deceased sisters, and remember them in our prayers," said Connolly. She credited it to "a great belief that God calls us to the emerging needs of the church and of the world. I don't know how they did it, but it's a source of inspiration to many."

Foreshadowing a pandemic response

Medical professionals have been sounding the alarm about future pandemics for a long time. Talone concluded her article about the 1918 sisters on a note that sounds, in retrospect, eerily prophetic: 

"Scientific and medical prognosticators warn that we may soon face another such pandemic. Even our modern panoply of pharmaceuticals may not prevent many untimely deaths. In 1918 there was a ready, willing and able cadre of volunteers arising from the many religious orders throughout the country. Today, while the charisms of these orders remain vital, there are not the numbers of religious who will, this time, be able to work directly with the sick and dying."

One of the reasons the sisters had such an impact, says Villanova University professor of historical theology Massimo Faggioli, is that they acted on behalf of the Catholic Church in ways that benefited everyone. "If the church looks only to itself, that's not going to help in the long run. The church needs to act on behalf of the whole society."

During this current pandemic, when physical presence at the Mass isn't possible, but service is, the institutional church has a lot to learn from the leadership of women, Faggioli suggested.

But where habited sisters once served on wards and battlefields, visible signs of Catholicism in the public square, Talone now finds reason for hope in the actions of Catholic lay medical professionals on the front lines. Those doctors and nurses, she said, demonstrate a similar kind of altruism, the fruit of Catholic formation programs that train medical staff how to respond. "I feel confident in much of our lay leadership in that regard."

misericordia002 CROP 650.jpg

A nun works in the pharmacy at Misericordia Hospital, opened in summer 1918. (Catholic Historical Research Center, Archdiocese of Philadelphia)
A nun works in the pharmacy at Misericordia Hospital, opened in summer 1918. (Catholic Historical Research Center, Archdiocese of Philadelphia)

After you read

Sr. Helene Thomas Connolly says the sisters of her congregation believe that "God calls us to the emerging needs of the church and of the world." Alone, or with a partner, consider:

  • How flexible are you when situations change or crises arise? Do you go with the flow or do you draw the line when things get too intense?
  • What kind of emotions do you think the sisters wrestled with during the 1918 pandemic? What values or practices helped them respond as they did?


Scripture spotlight

In John's gospel (chapters 13-17), Jesus shares many important teachings with his followers during the Last Supper. He is not only preparing them for his own death, but also for the new lives they’ll live in continuing his ministry. Among the most essential challenges is what Jesus says about love:

"As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love.If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends."

John 15:9-13

Alone, or with a partner, consider:

  • Jesus doesn't just ask us to love each other. He commands us to love each other, just as he loves us. Why does Jesus speak so strongly about this?
  • What does it mean to lay down your life for a friend? What kinds of sacrifices do you make for the people you love? How have others given of themselves to show love for you?
  • How did the sisters in the article respond to this command?

The church’s call

There are many words for love in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written. There's a word for the love a parent shares with their child, another for the love between friends and relatives, and still another for romantic love. 

The Greek word "agape" describes a special kind of love, with no conditions or expectations. It's the way we love God above all things. It's also the way we love our neighbor above ourselves, which is a way of showing our love for God. Agape's source is God. Jesus shows us agape and, through the Holy Spirit, we can share it with others. You can read more about this type of love in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1822-1828.

Agape is translated into Latin as "caritas," from which we get the word charity. Faith, hope and love (or charity) are the three theological virtues, which deepen our relationship with others and with God. They flow from God and back to God, becoming a constant source of strength as we grow as God's children. St. Paul tells us that love is the greatest of these virtues, saying "So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love." (1 Corinthians 13:13)

Alone, or with a partner, consider:

  • We often hear charity used to refer to something freely given, such as food or medical care, to a person who can't afford it. Why do you think some people have a negative outlook on charity?
  • How might our outlook on charity change if people understood its connection to love?
  • What can you learn from the sisters in this article that might change the way in which you help others?

Synergy with sisters

About 300 members of the congregation known as Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, volunteered to help however they were needed during the 1918 flu pandemic in Philadelphia. This congregation focuses on teaching the Catholic faith in schools and parishes. 

Their charisms – unique gifts from the Holy Spirit that inspired their congregation's creation – are love, creative hope and fidelity. Love helps the sisters respond to a big heart to people’s needs. Creative hope helps them make a way when there seems to be no way. Fidelity helps them remain committed and courageous, not matter the challenge.

Learn more here about the congregation’s mission today and how you can support it.


Much of the information that helps limit coronavirus transmission comes from lessons learned during previous global health crises. You can make a difference in this pandemic by promoting responsible practices. Consider:

  • Developing a simple message to share with others – in person or through social media – about the importance of maintaining social distancing and wearing a face mask.
  • Encouraging people you know to remain isolated as much as possible. Efforts to re-open businesses might help the economy but they increase risk of spreading the virus.
  • Affirming the owners and employees of stores you support for their commitment to social distancing and other practices. Find constructive ways to suggest improvements.

Be positive and share the facts, found in this infographic, when you communicate. 


God of love,

help us to be courageous,

let our spirit be contagious.

Help us to love others

as you love us.