During 1918 flu pandemic, religious sisters stepped up to help

By Nicki Gorny - The Toledo Blade

TOLEDO — Houses of worship are quiet these days, but the same cannot be said of the faithful: They’re still praying, still volunteering, still delivering groceries and guiding patterned-face mask fabric under the rhythmic needles of sewing machines.

Their actions in some ways recall those of Toledoans in 1918, who were similarly adjusting to wide-sweeping orders shutting down schools, churches, movie theaters and more in effort to curb the spread of Spanish influenza.

Then, too, the faithful — particularly the region’s habited nuns — leaned into their ministries.

Women religious live into legacies of service to their communities, their histories tracing countless instances where sisters have pivoted their ministry models to meet needs as they arise. For the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, also known as the Grey Nuns, health care presented itself as an early need in the swampland to which they arrived in the mid-1800s.

They established Toledo’s first hospital in 1855.

The Sisters of Mercy ministered similarly when they arrived in the early 1900s, establishing hospitals in Lima in 1913 and in Tiffin and Toledo in 1918. Crisis nursing was a need that presented itself early and often in their order, which was established in Dublin, Ireland, in 1831, just before a cholera outbreak in 1832, said Sister Paula Diann Marlin, a Sister of Mercy in North Carolina who as an archivist has researched how her order responded to Spanish flu.

In northwest Ohio, they would live into this legacy again, hastening to open their hospitals in time to care for patients afflicted by the Spanish flu in 1918.

The Sisters of St. Francis of Sylvania were new to the region at the onset of the pandemic. They had established their motherhouse only in December, 1916. For them, the outbreak would prove formative: With the classrooms where they usually ministered empty of students, they were called instead into informal nursing roles in the hard-hit town of Gypsum, near Port Clinton.

Sylvania Franciscan Sister Nora Klewicki credits their experience with laying the groundwork for new ministry outlets in health care — a legacy continues to the present-day.

“Ministry isn’t doing what you want to do or even what you’re trained to do,” Sister Nora reflected. “It’s about doing what’s needed. And so that’s what they did.”

1918: Sisters step up

Several orders of women religious were ministering in and around Toledo by October, 1918, when city officials issued a shut-down order that largely parallels those currently in effect at the state and federal level. The earlier order, too, ordered churches and schools shut, as the Sisters of Notre Dame recorded of the parish schools where they were teaching in the region.

In Cleveland and to a lesser extent in Toledo, after their schools closed, they recorded instances where they were called into nursing roles in private homes and in hospitals.

At Notre Dame Academy in Toledo, which was then on Bancroft Street, sisters described in their annals the measures they took to care and isolate the sisters who came down with influenza. In some lighter lines of the account, they described staying in touch with “the Flu-ites” through “a novel system of telegraphing through the ceiling.” But the effort apparent went unappreciated, “as the patients at this stage of their convalescence were not at all in a merry mood.”

The Grey Nuns and the Sisters of Mercy were already serving in hospitals at the onset of the epidemic, requiring less of a pivot in the way they ministered to an increasingly ill community. The Grey Nuns had decades earlier established what is today Mercy Health-St. Vincent Medical Center, Mercy Sister Dorothy Thum said.

Today St. Vincent Medical Center is co-sponsored by her order. She’s senior vice president for mission and values integration at Mercy Health-Toledo.

The Sisters of Mercy were newer to the region in 1918, she said. After successfully establishing what is today Mercy Health-Tiffin Hospital in 1913, they were invited by Bishop Joseph Schrembs to set up hospitals in Toledo and Lima.

Plans for the hospitals were in place before the onset of the Spanish flu, she said, but they sped up because of it. They utilized the same architect and effectively the same plans in Tiffin as in Toledo, for example, and ultimately began treating patients in a mansion across the street in Toledo, when it became clear that they couldn’t afford to wait on the hospital any longer.

Mercy Hospital of Toledo has since closed.

“Some of it was coincidental, and some it was just very providential,” Sister Dorothy said, reflecting on how each hospital opened at a time of great need. “From my perspective, that’s what the Sisters of Mercy and the Grey Nuns have done all through the years — to meet the needs of the people. And then as things happened, they were there right at the right moment at the right time to provide the resources that were needed.”

Sister Paula Diann said the Sisters of Mercy were operating 64 hospitals in the United States by 1918, each of which would have treated influenza patients. That outbreak was one of many to which the sisters had responded over the years, including regional epidemics in the United States beginning in 1843, when they arrived in Pittsburgh, she said.

Health care was not and is not the exclusive focus of the Sisters of Mercy, she said, but one that reflects the order’s commitment to meeting needs as they arise in each community.

“Wherever they went in a new mission,” Sister Paula Diann said, “they would try to meet the needs of wherever they were.”

The Sylvania Franciscans brought a similar spirit in 1918, according to Sister Nora, who researched the congregation’s history for a book published at their 75th anniversary. She serves as director of mission integration at Rosary Care Center in Sylvania.

The young congregation was a province of the Sisters of St. Francis of Rochester, Minn., and only numbered about 25 in 1918, she said. They were teachers “by both training and inclination.” Like the Sisters of Notre Dame, though, when the pandemic forced them to close their schools, they pivoted to be of service in another way.

Five sisters were sent to Gypsum, a hard-hit small company mining town just outside of Port Clinton, at the request of Father Raphael Kinnane of Port Clinton’s Immaculate Conception Church. The priest had sought help from Bishop Schrembs, who in turn looked to their mother superior. About a quarter of the residents were infected, 98 individuals, and the sisters did what they could to care for them in their homes and in a makeshift clinic.

Remarkably, no one died. Just one of the informal nurses, 19-year-old Sister Eugenia, took ill. She never recovered her health and died in 1930, with a doctor citing conditions caused by influenza as the cause of death, Sister Nora said.

Sister Nora said the success of their ministry during the epidemic encouraged the young congregation to consider health care as a new ministry outlet. It’s one that took root, with a third of Sylvania Franciscans serving in health care ministry by 1950.

Their legacy continues in sponsored health care ministries today.

“That was kind of this religious community getting its foot in the door,” Sister Nora said. “After that sisters were sent to receive formal training and we began a hospital ministry shortly thereafter [in 1921].”

2020: Sisters still serve

Sister Dorothy is not alone as a professed nun still in an active role at Mercy Health, although she acknowledges that the average sister isn’t on the hospital floors today. In a contrast to 1918, or even to 1950, they’re today an aging community of women, many of whom are retired and considered in an at-risk category in the current coronavirus pandemic.

But Sister Dorothy said their impact continues in the hospitals and health care ministries that they continue to sponsor, which carry their values to the front lines of the coronavirus response. She also sees it in the individual interest among sisters in their long-lasting ministries.

“Prayerful support” is one role with which she credits the sisters.

Another is at their sewing machines, where some women religious join the ranks of numerous others in stitching and donating cloth face masks. Sister Nora sees a sewing crew at Rosary Care Center, for example, as well as individual sisters sewing at off-campus residences.

“You do what you can,” Sister Nora said.

Their roles look different, but they’re still doing what they can to meet a need.


By Nicki Gorny

The Toledo Blade

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