SCN archivist Kathy Hertel-Baker shares the following on the Smallpox and Cholera Epidemics:
Responding to the need for Catholic education in Louisville, the Sisters opened Presentation Academy in 1831. Shortly after the school was established, an epidemic of Cholera devastated the city. Reverend Robert Abell suggested that the Louisville Board of Health ask the Sisters if they could help nurse the increasing number of sick and dying. The Sisters agreed and risked their own lives to help those in need, regardless of race, religion, or class. On the 17th of October, 1832, Sisters Margaret Bamber, Martha Drury, Martina Beaven, and Hilaria Bamber were sent from Nazareth. They were led and assisted by Mother Catherine Spalding, and remained in Louisville, going from house to house, wherever they were needed, until the scourge had passed from the city.
Cholera raged all along the Ohio River, and many children were orphaned when their parents died of the dread disease. Many of these orphans were left to fend for themselves on the wharf in Louisville. Mother Catherine and the Sisters cared for these children in their own house next to Presentation Academy. In 1832, they formally established the St. Vincent Orphan Asylum to fill the need to care for Cholera orphans. It was said it was a common sight during this time to see Mother Catherine returning to the orphanage with a child in her arms, another in her apron, and another holding her hand. By the end of the plague twenty-five orphans were living with the Sisters.
In the early days of 1873, the dreaded Small Pox descended upon Louisville and St. Vincent Orphan Asylum. According to Sister Marie Menard, fifteen children were taken with the disease. The Annals from January 29th continue the story: “Doctor Ford from Louisville comes in the name of the Mayor and Board of Health, with the approbation of the Bishop, to ask the Sisters to take charge of the new hospital, or Pest House, opened for those attacked by the disease. Four leave (Nazareth) the next morning, Sisters Andrea (Riley), Mary George (Maher), Mary Valentine (Gogan), and Boniface (Boyle). The last is to replace Sister Euphrasia (Stafford) at the Infirmary. Sister E. is to head the little Colony. The enthusiasm manifested by the community on this occasion is beautiful.”
A witness to the situation in Louisville wrote: “The disease is raging here as bad as ever, but we have a new pest house now, and the attention of the Sisters you sent us to take charge of it has made a great change in the public opinion here. People do not look on the pest house as certain death as was the case under the old arrangement, and I am told that all classes go now, both rich and poor, which is a great deal in praise of your noble order.” The Sisters remained at the Pest House until the epidemic subsided in April 1874.
The SCNs returned to the Pest House, now called St. John Eruptive Hospital, in 1890. Sisters Albina McCall, Mary Josephine O’Connor, Waltrude Clark, and Francis Xavier Nolan made up the first group. The Sisters nursed victims of various contagious diseases including erysipelas, the flu, and “Old Lady Itch.” Political strife and infighting among the Mayor and the Louisville City Council compelled the Sisters to withdraw from the Eruptive Hospital in 1896.
(The featured image at the top of this story is a view of downtown Louisville in the 1830s.)