During the Last Pandemic, Ursulines Answered the Call

By Laurel Wilson, Archivist for the Ursuline Sisters of Louisville

“Schools in the city were closed. Even church services were banned. No public gatherings of any kind were allowed.” [1]

No, this is not a description of the current conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is what life was like in October 1918 during the influenza pandemic. It was during this crisis more than 100 years ago that 15 Ursuline Sisters of Louisville answered the call to serve as nurses to soldiers at Camp Zachary Taylor.

Camp Taylor was located on what was then the southern edge of Louisville, extending from east of the current Poplar Level Road over to Preston Highway. It was the largest military training camp in the country during World War I, with a capacity for 40,000 troops. The base hospital was staffed by more than 150 nurses from the Army and the American Red Cross. But by the end of September 2018, the camp’s hospital was overwhelmed with more flu patients than they could care for. Between 25-40 percent of the military was estimated to be infected. Twenty percent of the barracks at Camp Taylor were converted into emergency hospitals, but there were not enough nurses on staff to care for the patients overflowing into the barracks. Requests for more nurses were placed in local newspapers, but to no avail. [2]

Father Regis Barrett, a Benedictine priest serving as the camp’s chaplain, had the idea to ask religious sisters to help care for the soldiers. The base commanders weren’t sure that nuns would be a good fit and didn’t think Father Barrett could find any sisters regardless.[3] But their concerns proved to be unfounded. Father Barrett recruited 88 sisters from seven different religious congregations in the region to volunteer as nurses, despite the fact that most of them were trained as teachers and had no experience in nursing.

Fifteen of those sisters were from the Ursuline Sisters of Louisville: Sisters Marcelline Bloom, Ignatia Brinker, Louise Budden, Charles Convery, Cosma Coponi, Gertrude Fromhold, Charlotte Heitz, Johanna Hollenkamp, Generose Holtman, Gregory Klemenz, Boniface Lenz, Mary Louis Morgan, Camilla Sommer, Sienna Spaeth, and Joseph Winters.

For more than a month, from early October through early November, the sisters worked seven days a week for 12 hours a day, usually with just one or two sisters assigned to a barrack full of 125-150 men.[4] Their duties included assessing each patient’s temperature, pulse and respiration twice a day. Any soldier whose condition was deteriorating had to be moved to the base hospital, as the sisters were under strict orders not to let anyone die while in the barracks. The sisters also dispensed medication and generally provided for the men’s comfort, often writing letters to their loved ones.

Sister Boniface Lenz wrote an account of her experience at Camp Taylor that is preserved in our archives. Here’s how she described conditions in the barracks:

Patients were brought in from the drill grounds where they were dropping like flies, and laid down on the floor until we found either a bed or a few wooden boxes on which to put a quilt for a mattress. These men were the most pitiful looking human beings I really ever expect to see in my whole life. We had four ambulances assigned to each of these “hospitals,” which will give an idea how fast we had to get them out and how many, in order to be able to say that they didn’t die in the barracks. Though very many were dead before they arrived at the Base Hospital.

At least 22 of the 88 sisters at Camp Taylor became ill with the flu themselves, and one died: Sister Mary Jean Connor, who was a Sister of Loretto.[5] She received a military funeral. Among those who contracted the flu were Ursuline Sisters Marcelline Bloom and Cosma Coponi. Sister Cosma’s condition became so poor that she was sent home to die, but her mother apparently insisted that, “My Patrina is not going to die.” (Patrina was Sister Cosma’s baptismal name.) Indeed, she did not die, but went on to become Mother Superior and lived to be 90 years old.

All the sisters left the camp by November 11, as school resumed the next day. Sister Boniface recounted her experience returning to her convent:

The machine that was to take six of us home broke down before we left the campgrounds. Someone who had some extra room in their car took four of our group, and so it happened that as I was one of the first of the volunteer nurses there, so my companion nun and myself by waiting for the car to be repaired, were also the last of the nuns to leave. There were heartbreaking times, times when all of us felt that we would never come out of it all alive. But the same dear God who brought us there, took us there, took us home. A home we appreciated more than ever before, with companions who were our own.


[1] Gohmann, Sister Mary de Lourdes. Chosen Arrows. 1st ed., Pageant Press, 1957.

[2] Thompson, Mary Ann, and Sara Bolten. “‘They Buckled on the Armor of God’: Kentucky Catholic Sister “Nurses” in the 1918 Flu Pandemic.” American Catholic Studies, vol. 129, no. 4, Winter 2018, pp. 91-105.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

One thought on “During the Last Pandemic, Ursulines Answered the Call

  1. Kathy, I’m grateful to Laurel for the reminder. I knew seven of those fifteen Sisters! “Mother Charlotte was our ‘novice mistress’!!!”

    Stay well,

    me

    Like

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