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1890 Smallpox Epidemic

Answering the cry for medical aid: 1890 Smallpox Epidemic

by Sister Ann Taylor, CSJP (Congregation Archivist)

The year was 1890. The fledgling Congregation consisted of 28 Sisters in the UK and New Jersey. Sisters Teresa Moran and Stanislaus Tighe left New Jersey in August to open a hospital for the miners in Fairhaven, Washington. The health care ministry was beginning in earnest.

Meanwhile, another cry for medical aid was raised in Paterson, New Jersey. By all accounts, the developing urban areas in the East became more and more prone to serious epidemics. Industrialization was primary and forced the inhabitants to live in squalor. There was little or no concern for public health. Cities had minimal processes to dispose of waste, and the streets were open sewers.

In 1890, a smallpox epidemic broke out in the poorer section of Paterson and spread like wildfire. People fled the city. No hospitals would accept the sick, so they were nursed in their homes. Appeals to trained nurses went unanswered. City officials then turned to the Catholic sisters.

The Sisters of Charity, who taught in the local school, volunteered to go and act as nurses, but the children's education carried equal weight. They could not be released. The last hope was the six year-old Community, then called the Sisters of St. Joseph.

At a subsequent meeting with Monsignor Sheppard, Dr. Carroll and Mother Evangelista, one of the founders of the order, all the Sisters present offered themselves for this dangerous mission. Mother Evangelista selected Sisters Vincent Duncan and Catherine Derby as the most suitable. They received minimal training regarding the care of smallpox patients at Snake Hill, an institutional complex that included the county's almshouse, the penitentiary, an asylum and tuberculosis and smallpox hospitals. Three days later the Sisters were welcomed into the Convent of the Sisters of Charity. Throughout the epidemic, the Sisters of Charity provided food for the nursing Sisters and patients.

The "hospital" was little more than a shack erected on the outskirts of the town. The two Sisters were the only nurses. When they arrived at the building they found 48 patients sleeping on crude cots or pallets of straw. Death was a regular visitor. Beds were filled as soon as they were vacated. Gradually, the hospital was enlarged to accommodate more of the sick and dying. No other nurses ever arrived to render care.

Besides direct nursing care, the sisters sewed bedding, made garments for the poverty stricken, taught the Catechism to those who were anxious to learn, and even helped the undertakers in their nightly task of disposing of the dead. Their one consolation was the opportunity to receive Holy Communion when the pastor or curate visited the sick.

When the epidemic was over and the last patient returned home, Msgr. Shepperd accompanied the sisters back to their convent. At their leave-taking there was no fanfare, no thanks. Msgr. Shepperd later presented a bill to the City Council for a few hundred dollars for the services of the sisters. The Council refused the petition. The Community sought no reward.

1890 Smallpox Epidemic

"The important thing is that we remain open to God as he reveals himself to us in the circumstances of life and do everything possible to bring the body of his Son to completion."

Catherine O'Connor, CSJP