Women Religious Answer Call to Serve During 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic

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By Franca Braatz and Michelle Powers

The Spanish influenza was an undetected killer sweeping the globe as the world was in the throes of a deadly world war, a virus so relentless, it infected one third of the world’s population and killed an estimated 50 million people.

Six-hundred-and-seventy-five-thousand perished in the United States alone. 

Author John Barry has written extensively about “the great influenza,” calling its impact lethal.

The 1918 pandemic killed roughly two-thirds of the people in a matter of weeks. “Adjusted for population, that would equal about 220 to 440 million people today,” Barry explained. 

It also concentrated on otherwise healthy young adults. The peak age for death was 28.

With no vaccine or medicines to combat disease, the Spanish influenza – considered one of the worst pandemics in modern day history – quickly overwhelmed the medical community.

As infections soared, Catholic sisters from all over the country were called to serve in new and profound ways.

Sister Margaret Donegan from Mount Saint Vincent Convent in the Bronx has researched the extraordinary efforts of 14 Sisters of Charity who traveled to the rural mining town of Shamokin, Pennsylvania, a tiny community placed under Marshall Law and surrounded by state police because of the high levels of contagion. 

“They saw terrible terrible things,” she explained. 

There were stories so heartbreaking the sisters wrote their Mother Superior to tell her “that they had seen things they could never write about and that they had seen things they could never imagine,” said Sr. Maragret. 

“They gave out medicine and they would bathe the patients. They would hold their hands, they would talk to them, they would pray for them. They would listen to their stories,” she explained.

They were women of faith, doing whatever was necessary to relieve the suffering.

“They went into homes and saw parents who had died and children huddled together. They brought these families food. They listened to fathers saying they were the breadwinners, what was going to happen to their wife and to their children?  They saw mothers pleading to God to cure them because of the children who were at home,” Sister Margaret told Currents News. 

From mining communities in rural Pennsylvania to makeshift encampments in Ohio and Massachusetts, these women cared for the stricken in hospitals, tented clinics and even private homes. Many did so with little or no medical experience. 

In Philadelphia, one of the nation’s hardest hit areas, over 2,000 women religious were called into action. At least 23 of them lost their lives in the fight. It’s a sacrifice the Catholic Historical Research Center of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia wants us all to remember.

“They were putting their lives on the line… not just for Catholics of Philadelphia but for any person of any faith,” said Patrick Shank, assistant archivist for the Archdiocese. 

“It’s really remarkable how quickly they all came together, the Church as a whole, in organizing and having such a cohesive response to this pandemic and making sure that it was limited and didn’t become worse. They were really focused on helping as many people as they could,” he added.  

John Barry describes the situation in Philadelphia as so dire that “priests were driving horse drawn carts down the streets, calling on people to bring out their dead. They were digging mass graves,” he said.  

One hundred years later, their example still shines as a model of courage and sacrifice: sisters putting the needs of others before themselves, remembered by a grateful community and by one of their own.

“They were bringing the compassion of Jesus to these people because they were not nurses,” Sr. Maragret explained, “but what could they do but bring the compassion of Jesus to the suffering.”

These women of faith will forever be remembered on the front lines, answering the call in service to God and country.