“How Could We Turn a Deaf Ear?”—Sisters of Mercy and the 1918 Flu Pandemic

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By Betsy Johnson, archivist at Mercy Heritage Center

During the Year of Mercy, Mercy Heritage Center is highlighting stories of the works of mercy found in our historical collections. In our first piece, we look at sisters who cared for the sick during the flu pandemic of 1918.

In 1918, as the United States mobilized soldiers to fight in World War I, the influenza pandemic struck. The disease was unusual in that it hit younger, healthier populations especially hard—in particular, young soldiers crowding into camps for military training. Military training camp Camp Zachary Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, was quickly overwhelmed by the number of flu cases. In desperate need of nurses, one Catholic chaplain turned to local religious communities for help.  

One Sister of Mercy, Mary Agnes McCarthy, wrote about her recollection of this moment: “He had called the day before on the phone, but not receiving a decided answer he made a stormy appeal in person … [he] tore the door open and stalked into the hall, calling loudly for the superior. Father announced that he was Chaplain Barrett from Camp Taylor and for the love of God and humanity to give him nurses … ”

Despite the fact that the sisters at the convent were teachers, not nurses, they were moved by the chaplain’s description of the sick soldiers and resolved to send ten volunteers to serve as nurses at the camp.

The next day, the sister volunteers arrived at the camp to find hundreds of desperately sick men.

Also responding to the call were the Sisters of Charity, Sisters of Loretto, as well as Ursuline, Franciscan and Dominican Sisters. Together these sisters cared for the sick in shifts, taking temperatures and pulses and providing consolation and comfort for soldiers far from home and loved ones.

Sister Mary Agnes wrote, “The racking cough, the hemorrhage, the fever and delirium, prostrated these strong men and rendered them utterly helpless … a constant going from one bed to another was necessary in order that no boy be overlooked or neglected …”

The Sisters of Mercy provided volunteer nursing services throughout the fall of 1918, returning to their convent to resume teaching duties on Armistice Day, November 11. Although exhausted by their time as army nurses, Sister Mary Agnes noted, “… the fact that we were permitted to nurse in the Great War will, during all our future days, be a motive for sincere and heartfelt gratitude.”

For more information on this story and many others, contact the archivists at Mercy Heritage Center