"If I only touch her cloak": The Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph in New Orleans' Charity Hospital, 1834-1860

Hyejung Grace Kong, Ock Joo Kim

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This study is about the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph in New Orleans' Charity Hospital during the years between 1834 and 1860. The Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph was founded in 1809 by Saint Elizabeth Ann Bailey Seton (first native-born North American canonized in 1975) in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Seton's Sisters of Charity was the first community for religious women to be established in the United States and was later incorporated with the French Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul in 1850. A call to work in New Orleans' Charity Hospital in the 1830s meant a significant achievement for the Sisters of Charity, since it was the second oldest continuously operating public hospitals in the United States until 2005, bearing the same name over the decades. In 1834, Sister Regina Smith and other sisters were officially called to Charity Hospital, in order to supersede the existing "nurses, attendants, and servants," and take a complete charge of the internal management of Charity Hospital. The existing scholarship on the history of hospitals and Catholic nursing has not integrated the concrete stories of the Sisters of Charity into the broader histories of institutionalized medicine, gender, and religion. Along with a variety of primary sources, this study primarily relies on the Charity Hospital History Folder stored at the Daughters of Charity West Center Province Archives. Located in the "Queen city of the South," Charity Hospital was the center of the southern medical profession and the world's fair of people and diseases. Charity Hospital provided the sisters with a unique situation that religion and medicine became intertwined. The Sisters, as nurses, constructed a new atmosphere of caring for patients and even their families inside and outside the hospital, and built their own separate space within the hospital walls. As hospital managers, the Sisters of Charity were put in complete charge of the hospital, which was never seen in other hospitals. By wearing a distinctive religious garment, they eschewed female dependence and sexuality. As medical and religious attendants at the sick wards, the sisters played a vital role in preparing the patients for a "good death" as well as spiritual wellness. By waging their own war on the Protestant influences, the sisters did their best to build their own sacred place in caring for sick bodies and saving souls. Through the research on the Sisters of Charity at Charity Hospital, this study ultimately sheds light on the ways in which a nineteenth-century southern hospital functioned as a unique environment for the recovery of wellness of the body and soul, shaped and envisioned by the Catholic sister-nurses' gender and religious identities.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)241-283
Number of pages43
JournalKorean Journal of Medical History
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Apr 2015


  • Catholicism
  • Charity Hospital
  • Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul
  • Elizabeth Seton
  • Gender
  • History of medicine
  • New Orleans (Louisiana)
  • Nursing
  • Religion
  • Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph
  • The American South


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