By Clarion Herald Staff
Photo Courtesy Historic New Orleans Collection
Long before Medicare or Medicaid, women and men religious of the local Catholic church in New Orleans ministered to the sick.
Nearly 300 years ago – one year after their arrival in New Orleans from France in 1727 – the Ursuline Sisters undertook as their ministries education and the care of orphans. The Ursulines were the pioneers, followed by many other religious communities of women and men, who left their charitable mark on the community, especially in caring for the many children orphaned by the virulent epidemics of the 19th century.
The Ursulines essentially were the forerunner of what today is Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, which was formally established in 1924 and continues to serve the homeless, women who need prenatal care and those requiring mental-health counseling.
Congregations of religious women have been on the front lines of health care in New Orleans since its founding. In 1832 and 1833, a severe cholera epidemic overtook the city, and the newly arrived Daughters of Charity nursed many of the thousands of patients. As a result of their dedication, the sisters were asked to assume control of the New Orleans Charity Hospital in 1834-1835.
Sister Stanislaus Malone, who died in 1949, served at Charity for 63 years and founded the school of anesthesiology there. Physicians said Sister Stanislaus helped introduce antiseptics into general use at Charity. She also wheedled money out of the federal government to complete the 20-story, 3,500-bed, $21 million new Charity Hospital in 1939.
In the 1850s, Archbishop Antoine Blanc desired a Catholic hospital for New Orleans. Dr. Warren Stone, Louisiana pioneer in the use of ether, asked the Daughters of Charity to staff a private infirmary he wished to open. Known first as “Maison de Santé,” it opened in 1859 and later became incorporated in larger quarters as “Hotel Dieu” – meaning the “House of God.”
When the Civil War broke out, the Daughters of Charity volunteered to nurse wounded soldiers from both sides in the field. The sisters’ sponsorship of Hotel Dieu lasted for 133 years until the state assumed control in 1992 and renamed it University Hospital.
In 1896, the Daughters of Charity also became legendary for their care for those suffering from leprosy (Hansen’s Disease). Patients were gathered into isolation at a long-abandoned Indian Camp Plantation in Carville, Louisiana, 75 miles north of New Orleans.
The first work of the Sisters of the Holy Family – founded in 1842 as the first Catholic religious order of African-American women in the U.S. – was to teach religion to the slaves and free people of color and also to care for the elderly. They opened the first Catholic nursing home in the United States, incorporated in 1847 as the Lafon Nursing Home of the Holy Family.
The Sisters of Mercy arrived in New Orleans from Ireland in April 1869 when yellow fever panicked the populace. The Sisters of Mercy were the first in New Orleans to make regular and systematic visits to the sick poor who needed help. The sisters nursed black and white patients in their homes and brought food to nourish the sick.
The history of the Sisters of Mercy as nurses goes back to their foundress, Catherine McAuley, who organized the visitation of the sick in Dublin in 1831. In 1924, the Mercy Sisters founded their first hospital (Mercy Hospital Soniat Memorial) and a school of nursing in New Orleans. By 1953, Mercy Hospital more than doubled its size at a more central location at N. Jefferson Davis Parkway and Bienville Street.
Our Lady of the Angels Hospital in Bogalusa is the only remaining full-service, acute care, Catholic-sponsored hospital in the eight civil parishes encompassing the archdiocese.