Profiles In Nursing

Mother Mary of St. Angela (1824-1887), Civil War Hospital Administrator

Mother Angela stepped up to care for Union soldiers during the Civil War

Mother Angela in a habit sits stoically looking at the camera

Many people dedicate their lives to an ideal larger than themselves. Few do it with the intensity and competence of Eliza Marie Gillespie, better known as Mother Mary of St. Angela or just Mother Angela.

Best remembered today as a leader of her Catholic order, Mother Angela was also an exceptional lay nurse, a wartime nursing administrator, a teacher, a publisher, a textbook writer and an organizer of charitable causes. Her unwavering commitment to any project she started — especially educational opportunities for women — enriched both her congregation and the larger world.

From Lay Nurse to Nun

From an early age, “Lida,” as Mother Angela was known as a child, appeared fearless, precocious and ever in search of adventure. She was once described (in a paraphrase of Matthew 10:16) as having “the wisdom of the serpent and the innocence of the dove,” characteristics that would serve her well in adulthood.

Her first experience with nursing came during a cholera outbreak in Lancaster, Ohio, where her family had moved when she was 14. Her uncle, a community doctor, took the girl with him as he visited the homes of stricken families. Some of the more severe cases had been abandoned by their relatives and left to die alone.

Today, we would question the uncle’s judgment in bringing a young girl to call on patients suffering a virulent bacterial infection. However, young Lida tended these patients skillfully, not looking for a chance to rest until the outbreak had subsided. She also absorbed a great deal of medical knowledge. When she turned 18, Lida studied at a convent in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and then went to work as a schoolteacher.

An attractive and socially prominent young woman, she was also a skilled, persistent fundraiser for causes like Irish famine relief and was active in other charitable work. In the early 1850s, while teaching at the state-funded St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland, she again worked as a lay nurse, accompanying the local priest on sick calls. Her earlier experience with her uncle had left her adept at dressing wounds and even diagnosing illness.

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In 1853, she decided to become a nun, joining the Congregation of the Holy Cross, the U.S. chapter of a French order, and taking the name Sister Mary of St. Angela. After completing her novitiate in France, she returned to Bertrand, Mich., to become the superior of St. Mary’s Academy, a school for young women. Under her guidance, the school moved in 1855 to Notre Dame, just north of South Bend, Ind., and later became St. Mary’s College.

Wartime Nursing

The outbreak of the Civil War brought new challenges. In October 1861, just six months after the hostilities began, the sisters received a request for nurses from Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. By the next morning, Mother Angela and five sisters were on their way to Grant’s headquarters in Cairo, Ill., where she agreed to immediately begin nursing duty at an Army hospital in Paducah, Ky.

Throughout the war, Mother Angela recruited a growing number of sisters to serve in Union military hospitals (and on the hospital ship Red Rover), bringing skill, dedication and order to those chaotic environments.  In those days, nurses were expected to clean, wash linens and prepare food as well as caring for patients. Mother Angela’s nurses did all that and more, also scouring neighborhoods for food and supplies and even lobbying for additional funding for Army hospitals.

One of her most remarkable achievements was in Mound City, Ill., where she led the conversion of a collection of unfinished warehouses along the Ohio River into a 1,500-bed military hospital, the best in the United States at that time. According to illustrious wartime nurse Mary Livermore, Mother Angela ensured that in the hospitals where her sisters worked:

Nursing Education

[T]here was an exact time and place for everything. Every person was assigned to a particular department of work and was held responsible for its perfect performance. If anyone proved a shirk, incompetent or insubordinate, he was sent off on the next boat. Shaker-like cleanliness and sweetness of atmosphere pervaded the wards. The sheets and pillows were of immaculate whiteness, and the patients who were convalescing were cheerful and contented.

While Mother Angela was a master of delegation, she never shied away from strenuous work. At times, she was seen scrubbing floors, assisting in surgery or cooking meals. If no bed was free, she would sleep on the floor. Despite her insistence on cleanliness, she remained cool and collected even when literally splattered with blood.

A Street With a Name

At war’s end, Mother Angela turned her attention to new projects, including a series of academic readers for Catholic students and a magazine for Catholic families, entitled Ave Maria, which survived until 1970. The military pay and pension of the 65 sisters who had served as nurses during the war also allowed the order — which had been struggling 15 years earlier — to establish many new buildings and institutions.

Many still exist today, as does Ave Maria Press, which is now a leading publisher of Catholic books. In 1869, Mother Angela presided over the separation of her order from the French congregation. As a result, she is often considered the founder of the Sisters of the Holy Cross in the United States, although she was not its first superior. A street in South Bend, Angela Boulevard, was later named after her.

This work took its toll on Mother Angela, who eventually stepped down and returned to St. Mary’s Academy. She died about six months later, in early 1887.

Ulysses Grant, who was elected president of the United States in 1868, once described Mother Angela as “a woman of rare charm of manner, unusual ability and exceptional executive talents.”  The bishop who delivered her funeral mass said, “She has lifted up the weak and made stronger those who are strong; soothed the wounded, directed all to nobler and higher aims … It is difficult for those who have not known her to realize the extent of her labors.”

ELIZABETH HANINK, RN, BSN, PHN,  is a Working Nurse staff writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

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