Prejudices conquered

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXV (10) start of chapter

A Federal doctor was at first inclined to be rude and uncivil to the Sisters in a crowded Southern hospital, then in possession of the forces of the Union, and occasioned them no little anxiety by his manner, it was so full of evident dislike and suspicion. They wisely took no notice of it, but devoted themselves the more sedulously to their arduous duties. At the end of a few weeks, by which time his manner had become kind and respectful, the doctor candidly confessed to one of the Sisters what his feelings had been, and how completely they were changed. 'I had such an aversion to Catholics,' said he, 'that I would not tolerate one of them in an hospital with me. I had heard of the Sisters, but I was resolved not to have anything to do with them in any place in which I had control. I confess to you my mind is entirely changed; and so far from not wishing to have Sisters in an hospital where I am, I never want to be in an hospital where they are not.'

The officials were, if possible, still more suspicious, still more prejudiced.

'I used to be up at night watching you, when I should have been in my bed. I wanted to see what mischief you were after, for I thought you had some bad motive or object, and I was determined to know what it was. I could find nothing wrong, but it was a long time before I could believe in you, my prejudice against you was so strong. Now I can laugh at my absurd suspicions, and I don't care telling you of my nonsense.' This speech was made by the steward of an hospital to Sisters to whom he had given much trouble by his manner, which seemed to imply—'You are humbugs, and I'll find you out, my ladies! clever as you think you are.' He was a good but prejudiced man; and once that he was convinced how groundless were his suspicions, he not only treated the Sisters with marked respect, but became one of their most strenuous and valuable supporters.

A doctor of the Federal service, who was captured at the battle of Shiloh, said to a Catholic Bishop,—'Bishop, I was a great bigot, and I hated the Catholics; but my opinions are changed since this war. I have seen no animosity, but fraternal love, in the conduct of the priests of both sides. I have seen the same kind offices rendered without distinction to Catholic soldiers of the North and South. The very opposite with Protestant chaplains and soldiers.'

'What conclusion did you draw from this?—these Catholics are not Freemasons,' said the Bishop.

'Well,' replied the doctor, 'I drew this from it—that there must be some wonderful unity in Catholicity which nothing can destroy, not even the passions of war.'

'A very right inference,' was the Bishop's rejoinder.

An officer who was brought in wounded to an hospital at Obanninville, near Pensecola, which was under the care of Sisters, asked a friend in the same hospital what he would call 'those women'—how address them? 'Call them "Sisters,"' replied his friend. 'Sisters! They are no sisters of mine; I should be sorry if they were.' 'I tell you, you will find them as good as sisters in the hour of need.' 'I don't believe it,' muttered the surly patient. Owing, in a great measure, to the care of his good nurses, the officer was soon able to leave the hospital strong in body as well as improved in mind. Before he was well enough to leave, he said to his friend,—'Look here! I was always an enemy to the Catholic Church. I was led to believe by the preachers that these Sisters—both nuns and priests—were all bad. But when I get out of this, I be God darned if I don't knock the first man head over heels who dares say a word against the Sisters in my presence!' He was rough, but thoroughly honest.

During the war, a number of the Sisters were on their way to an hospital, to the care of which they had been urgently called, and, as the train remained stationary at one of the stopping-places on the route, their dress excited the wonder and ridicule of some thoughtless idlers, who entered the car and seated themselves opposite to, but near, the objects of their curiosity, at whom they looked and spoke in a manner far from complimentary. The Sisters bore the annoyance unflinchingly. But there was assistance nearer than they or their cowardly tormentors supposed. A stout man, bronzed and bearded, who had been sitting at one end of the car, quietly advanced, and placing himself in front of the ill-mannered offenders, said, 'Look here, my lads! You don't know who these ladies are; I do. And if you had been, like me, lying sick and wounded on an hospital bed, and been tended night and day by those ladies, as I was, you'd then know them and respect them as well as I do. They are holy women. And now, if you don't, every one of you, at once quit this car, I'll call the conductor, and have you turned out; and if you say one word more, I'll whip you all when I have you outside.' The young fellows shrank away abashed, as much perhaps at the justice of the rebuke as at the evident power by which, if necessary, it would have been rendered still more impressive.

It was a touching sight to witness the manner in which soldiers who had experienced the devotedness of the Sisters to the sad duties of the hospital, exhibited their veneration for these 'holy women.' Did the Sisters happen to be in the same car with the gallant fellows, there was not one of them who did not proffer his place to the Sister, and who did not feel honoured by her acceptance of it. Maimed, lopped of limb, scarcely convalescent, still there was not a crippled brave of them who would not eagerly solicit the Sister to occupy the place he so much required for himself. 'Sister, do take my seat; it is the most comfortable.' 'Oh, Sister, take mine; do oblige me.' 'No, Sister! mine.' Sweet was the Sister's reward as, in their feeble but earnest tones of entreaty, and the smiles lighting up pale wan faces, she read the deep gratitude of the men who had bled for what each deemed to be the sacred cause of country. Wherever the Sister went, she brought with her an atmosphere of holiness. At the first sight of the little glazed cap, or the flapping cornet, or the dark robe, or at the whisper that the Sister was coming or present, even the profane and the ribald were hushed into decent silence.

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:

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