SCN archivist Kathy Hertel-Baker shares the following on World War I and the Influenza of 1918:
During the fall of 1918 as Europe was engulfed in the first World War, the so-called Spanish Flu reached epidemic proportions in the United States. The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth were called upon to care for the sick and dying in military camps, hospitals, and private homes. Calls for volunteers were met with ready enthusiasm by Sisters serving in schools, hospitals, and orphanages alike.
In Louisville, the Sisters were called to serve as nurses at the sprawling Camp Zachary Taylor. Sister Josella Conlin, an RN who had also nursed during the Spanish American War, came from St. Joseph Hospital in Lexington and was put in charge of all the Sisters nursing at Camp Taylor. All the schools in Louisville were closed due to the epidemic, so many teaching Sisters volunteered to help nurse the sick. When they arrived at Camp Taylor, the Sisters were assigned to a barracks, usually two Sisters and one nurse-manager. If a Sister had exceptional nursing skills she might be assigned to her own barracks – Sister Idalie Geoffrion served alone in a barracks housing one hundred and twenty men. The Sisters were treated with great respect and some officers even gave up their own quarters to house them.
The Sisters cared for more than 10,000 troops during their time at Camp Taylor. One officer remarked that he always knew where there was a Sister on the ward because the men would be especially well behaved. After being there a month, Sister Josella told the major in charge that the Sisters would be leaving because the epidemic had abated and they were no longer needed. The major replied that he has no intention of letting the Sisters leave, even if all they did was fold their arms and walk amongst the men. Even so, Sister Josella made arrangements for the Sisters to depart and by November 10, 1918, all SCNs had returned to their regular posts.
The flu raged across the country and the SCNs helped wherever they could. Sisters nursed students, soldiers, and other Sisters in Newport and Bellevue in Northern Kentucky. Sisters missioned in Lexington went out to the eastern mountain villages and saw “the struggling populations in the mountains of Kentucky and changed the ideas the mountain people had concerning sisters and Catholics in general…” In Ohio, the Sisters converted the school in Barton into a hospital as well as going out to treat the sick in their own homes. The Sisters in Massachusetts volunteered to nurse in military camps and in the neighborhoods around their convents. In Maryland and Virginia, schools were closed, as they were all across the country, and the Sisters who were not ill themselves offered their services to all in need.
Although many Sisters were stricken with the flu during the epidemic, only three died of the disease: Mary Isabel Alvey in Richmond, VA; Eutropia Campbell in Bellevue, KY; and Crescentia Kilkenny in Leonardtown, MD.
(Featured image at the top of the story shows the interior of barracks at Camp Taylor in Louisville, KY, 1918.)