SCNs During the Smallpox and Cholera Epidemics

Posted by Kelly McDaniels

May 18, 2020

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.

The Louisville Water Pumping Station. Clean water was essential in the fight against cholera which spread due to inadequate water treatment, poor sanitation, and lack of hygiene.

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.”

Sister Euphrasia Stafford was in charge of the Pest House during the small pox epidemic. She would go on to serve as the first administrator of St. Joseph Hospital in Lexington, KY.

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.

Cartoon depicting negative reactions by the public to a new small pox vaccine made from the cow pox virus.

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.)


  1. Ann Palatty

    I enjoy reading the various historical narratives being presented these days to energise the sisters during the COVID 19 Pandemic. I was amused at the term “pest house”. Thank God, it was eventually baptised as St. Joseph Eruptive Hospital. Thank you, Kathy, for keeping us alive with SCN History and Traditions.

  2. Joel scn

    History is renewed energy!! We have a reason and strong foundation to face new challenges. Thanks for the annals.

  3. Mary Hardesty

    These stories are motivation for us in the coming months and years.

  4. Sr Linda Larkman osb

    Thank you for sharing such a beautiful legacy. You certainly built a strong foundation for all of the work today done my your sisters and those in your ministries, still serving the aged, the poor, the wealthy and those in need.

  5. Sangeeta Ayithamattam

    Recalling the courageous response of Catherine and our sisters in 1831 inspire us to walk in the path and respond to our times with the same zeal and courage. Thanks for sharing this story .

  6. Dona Dickson Gallagher, scna

    Thanks for keeping such complete & meaningful history.

  7. Barbara Joseph Lammers

    Responding to disease has been part of who we are. And we are still doing it in a variety of ways, with special concern for the poor. Thank you for reminding us of our past responses.

  8. Maria Brocato

    This is inspiring to read and remember. Thanks for sending it, Kathy. Hope that you are well.

  9. Nimmie

    Loved this journey into the past with our valiant pioneers. Thank you Kathy.


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