The Patients could not make them out

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXV (5) start of chapter

At first, the soldiers did not know what to make of them, and could not comprehend who they were, or what was their object. And when the patient learned that the Sister with the strange dress belonged to the Catholic Church—that Church of which so many vile stories had been told him from his childhood—a look of dread, even horror, might be observed in his eyes, as he instinctively recoiled from her proffered services. This aversion rarely continued long; it melted away like ice before the sun; but, unlike the ice, which the winter again brings round, this feeling never returned to the heart of the brave man whom the fortune of war placed under the care of the Sister. Once gone, it was gone for ever. How the prejudice, deep-seated and ingrained, yielded to the influence of the Sisters, may be best exemplified by a few incidents, taken at random from a vast number of a similar nature gathered in many parts of the country.

Seven Sisters of Mercy, belonging to the Houston Street Convent in New York, were sent to an hospital attached to a Federal corps. When they first entered the wards, which were crowded with sick and wounded, the soldiers regarded them with amazement. One of the Sisters, a genial Irishwoman, referring to this her first visit to the hospital, told with much humour how the bewildered patients took the Sisters for seven widows, who were looking for the dead bodies of their husbands!

Among the patients, there was one mere lad—indeed almost a child, scarce fit to leave his mother's guardianship—and he lay with his face on the pillow, as an hospital attendant, not eminent for humanity, carelessly sponged a fearful wound in the back of the poor youth's neck. The hair had been matted with the clotted blood, and the rude touch of the heartless assistant was agony to the miserable patient. 'Let me do it,' said the Sister, taking the instrument of torture from the unsympathising hand; and then, with tepid water, and soft sponge, and woman's delicacy of touch, the hideous sore was tenderly cleansed. 'Oh, who is that?—who are you?—you must be an angel!' cried the relieved youth. The hair was gently separated from the angry flesh, so that the grateful patient could turn his head and glance at the 'angel;' but no sooner did he cast one rapid look at the strange garb and the novel head-dress of the Sister, than he shrieked with terror, and buried his face in the pillow. 'Do not fear me,' said a voice full of sympathy; 'I am only anxious to relieve your sufferings.' The work of mercy was proceeded with, to the ineffable comfort of the wounded boy, who murmured—'Well, no matter what you are, you're an angel anyhow.'

At times there were as many as eighty Sisters in or near Richmond, in active attendance in the hospitals, giving their services alike to the wounded soldiers of both armies. In one of the Richmond hospitals the following took place.

A sick man, looking steadily from his pillow at the Sister, who was busy in her attentions to him, abruptly asked—

'Who pays you?—what do you get a month ?'

'We are not paid: we do not receive salaries,' replied the Sister.

'Then why do you work as you do?—you never cease working.'

'What we do, we do for the love of God—to Him we only look for our reward—we hope He will pay us hereafter.'

The wounded man seemed as if he could not entirely comprehend a devotion so repugnant to the spirit of the Almighty Dollar; but he made no further remark at the time. When he became more confidential with the Sister, the following dialogue was held—

Patient. Well, Sister, there is only one class of people in this world that I hate.
Sister. And who may those be?
Patient. The Catholics.
Sister. The Catholics! Why do you hate them?
Patient. Well, they are a detestable people.
Sister. Did you ever meet with a Catholic that you say that of them?
Patient. No, never; I never came near one.
Sister. Then how can you think so hardly of persons of whom you don't know anything?
Patient. All my neighbours tell me they are a vile and wicked people.
Sister. Now, what would you think and say of me, if I were one of those Catholics?
Patient (indignantly). Oh, Sister! you!—you who are so good! Impossible!
Sister. Then, indeed, I am a Catholic—a Roman Catholic.

The poor fellow, whose nerves were not yet well strung, rose in his bed as with a bound, looked the picture of amazement and sorrow, and burst into tears. He had so lately written to his wife in his distant home, telling her of the unceasing kindness of the Sister to him, and attributing his recovery to her care; and he was now to disclose the awful fact that the Sister was, after all, one of those wicked people of whom he and she had heard such evil things. This was, at first, a great trouble to his mind; but the trouble did not last long, for that man left the hospital a Catholic, of his own free choice, and could then understand, not only that his neighbours had been, like himself, the dupes of monstrous fables, but how the Sister could work and toil for no earthly reward.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

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