The year 2020 marks 260 years since the deaths of both founders of the Daughters of Charity, Saints Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac. Louise had had bouts of serious ill health for much of her life, but the year 1660 saw her receive unction – or last rites – twice in the same year. In her final days, she met with the earliest members of the Daughters and with the lay members of the Vincentian family at the time, the Ladies of Charity. The priest who was by her bedside reported her last words; when he issued his apostolic pardon, she responded simply with “Yes.” She died mid-day on March 15, 1660.
Vincent was ill himself at this time, so ill that he could not be at Louise’s side as she lay dying. For the last months of his life, he was confined to the Paris Motherhouse of the Vincentians on Rue de Sèvres. In July, he managed to give two conferences to the Daughters of Charity on the virtues of their foundress. Unable to talk at length, Vincent instead let the assembled Daughters talk of Louise’s ability to raise her mind to God, to never complain of her ailments, of supporting sick Sisters, her willingness to perform the tasks that others would consider work for servants, her love and concern for the members of her community, and, of course, her humility in her service to the poor.
Before Vincent began to move to the matter of electing Louise’s successor, he added a final admonishment to the Daughters: “Courage! Dear Mademoiselle Le Gras will help you. She has been present for all that we’ve said.”
In Louise’s las months, when she had heard of Vincent’s illness, she sent him notecards with some of her home remedies. By August, he could no longer make it to the chapel for Mass, either as a celebrant or congregant, even on crutches. At last, after members of his community pressed and pressed him, he finally allowed himself to be carried to Mass each day.
On September 26, 1660, Vincent received his last rites and blessed the priests of the Vincentians and the Daughters of Charity for the last time. He passed away on the morning of the 27th seated in a chair by his fireplace.
By Nathaniel Bentz, Mt. St. Mary’s University Class of 2020, Archives Intern/Guest Contributor
My name is Nathaniel Bentz and I am a senior undergraduate student of Mount St. Mary’s University with a history major and English minor; this is my second semester interning at the Daughters of Charity Provincial Archives. During my first project of this Spring 2020 semester, I am processing and numerically labeling documents from Sisters during their service in World War One. I have come across a report about a daring battle and recovery from a German submarine attack. The document transcribes reports of crew members from the attacked oil tanker, known as the S.S. O.B. Jennings, mentioning the first signs of the attack, maneuvers and actions taken to escape the torpedoes and get the crew onto the life boats, interactions with the enemy after the surprise attack, and the events occurring after their rescue and safe return to ally territory.
The Sisters’ service was predominantly on the Italian front of the war. The creation of this report is interesting because—even though the report was typed around late August. The entire document is typed by the captain of the steamboat, S.S. Umbria, Capt. Thomas C. Myers M.R.C., which rescued the soldiers from the bombarded oil tanker. Following Capt. Myers’ transcribed reports of the S.S. O.B. Jennings crew members, he offers an extensive summary about the trip before and after they encountered and rescued those of the S.S. O.B. Jennings; the summary broke down the events day-by-day with some broken down into exact hours. The first crew member of the S.S. O.B. Jennings interviewed is Thomas McCarthy and his statement contains some interesting details about the attack itself, “The first thing [sic] noticed was a torpedo which passed 5 feet astern. A battle ensued continuing two and one half hours with submarine out of sight range 9 miles. Exchange fire, hit the Jennings 15 to 20 times, an explosive shell striking the engine room and causing surrender at 11:15 A.M.”.
Such a siege made by the German submarine sounded impressive—but fortunately there was only one fatality.
The events that occurred next were suspenseful: the Captain of the defeated S.S. O.B. Jennings was able to narrowly escape capture by the German soldiers by disguising himself as a civilian. According to the report, “As the submarine came alongside the German officer asked for the Captain of the Jennings, but was told that he was dead, the Captain having donned civilian attire”.
This daring opportunity for escape did not seem like it would work too well, given that the crew of the S.S. O.B. Jennings was cornered in the sea by their armed enemy with only lifeboats as safety. McCarthy’s report concluded bittersweet; the German submarine decided to record the condition of the S.S. O.B. Jennings following up with more torpedo-firing as the crew of the S.S. O.B Jennings were being rescued by the S.S. Umbria.
The next report was told by a soldier by the name of Fred Lebern, who offered a similar report in comparison to McCarthy’s, but with the addition of, “I, being in charge at the time, ordered the helm a starboard, which brought the vessel parallel to the course of the torpedo, causing to pass 5 feet astern”.
This extra detail is fascinating in knowing how close of a call the S.S. O.B Jennings was in at the beginning of the surprise attack by the German submarine. Lebern’s quick thinking was able to both alarm the S.S. O.B. Jennings of an attack while also alarming others to maneuverer the vessel just to the point of barely dodging the power of a torpedo. The other details before and after this command were the same as McCarthy’s report.
The final portion of this typewritten document is a report by a crew member of the S.S. Umbria (presumably by Capt. Myers himself). The detail is strong, covering main moments of the vessel’s whole trip from the state of New York to their destination in Italy. Near the very beginning of this report is the detail about discovering the stranded men of the S.S. O.B. Jennings, hearing their stories and examining their injuries before they were shipped back to the United States. What caught my attention was a small detail in this portion of the report, before the ship sailed it is reported that “Officers and Enlisted men of Unit 102 came from Gen. Hospital No. 2 Baltimore [along with] …the Nurses and Sisters of Charity”.
Even before they arrived in Italy, the nurses were witnessing war and seeing, firsthand, the power of their enemy. After this highlight, the rest of the report goes into detail about the drills they were running, which islands they saw, and which allied ships they sailed near. One of the more interesting details involves seeing allied ships, “we were told [it] was Spain and that we could soon enter the harbor of Gibraltar. It was indeed a beautiful sight. The harbor was filled with ships from all nations of the Allied and Neutral powers, ships of all kinds”.
In the middle of day-to-day life in a Nurse Corps, full of rule changes and regulations, such a sight to describe helps in showcasing how different this document is in comparison to the rest of the invaluable documents of 1918: telegrams and letters regarding pertinent rule changes and enlistments. All documents of this collection are important because they allow researchers to recognize the routines and responsibilities of roles in World War One that most do not initially think of: the role of the nurse. Also, this collection highlights an important moment in world history, and given this, it emphasizes the dedication the Daughters of Charity has on their mission of caring for others in need no matter the setting.
On official White House stationery, an assistant to President Lyndon Johnson sent a message of congratulations for “the valuable contributions which the Sisters of Marillac House have made toward the progress of our nation’s education and toward the general betterment of living standards in their community.” Sent to Sister William – actually Sister Mary William Sullivan – the letter reflects the priorities of Civil Rights and fighting the War on Poverty undertaken by the Sisters at Marillac House, Chicago throughout the 1960s.
Marillac Social Service Center relocated to its building in the East Garfield neighborhood in 1947. Over the next 15 years, as suburbanization changed the composition of American cities, the neighborhood rapidly changed from largely white ethnic groups of Catholic background to poor African-Americans who had difficulty purchasing their own homes due to rising housing costs.
In an area with high unemployment and death rate, Marillac Center provided a day nursery, held events for teenagers to keep them safe and off the streets, “Chess and Chatter” events once a week, religious counselling, events for senior citizens, and Bible study on Sundays.
In the tradition of the settlement houses as originated in Chicago, Marillac Daughters did not shy away from living within the neighborhood. Marillac sent representatives to the Catholic Inter-Racial Council and Chicago Youth Commission, and they began to hold leadership programs to assist African-American youth with both personal growth and promoting systematic change.
In 1964, Sister Mary William served as the emcee for the leadership dinner of the Catholic Inter-Racial Council, where she had the honor of introducing the recipient of its highest honor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Among the most prized artifacts in the archive is the handwritten note from Dr. King to Sister Mary William that reads, “In appreciation for your devotion to Christ and your love for all mankind.”
Four years later, in the anger and frustration of the aftermath of Dr. King’s murder, Marillac opened its doors and provided food and clothing to those who had lost their homes.
In 1965, Marillac Center received some negative publicity, but for all of the right reasons, when six Daughters of Charity were arrested during a march to end the de facto segregation in the Chicago school system. The Daughters walked into the street singing Freedom songs, and were taken into custody as they knelt in prayer at the corner of Madison and State. By all accounts, they were treated courteously by the police, although they later attested at their unhappiness of being kept in the police station office rather than in the cells with the other prisoners. Among other religious arrested were three priests and 14 Protestant ministers.
Sister Mary William paid the Sisters’ bail, and they appeared in court. The judge sentenced them each to a fine, which they refused to pay. According to the account in the July 10, 1965 Chicago American, “…the nuns had taken vows of poverty and felt they could not use money contributed to their religious order to pay personal fines.” Facing jail time for refusal to pay, two lawyers, Maurice Scott Jr. and Howard Geter Jr., whom the sisters had never met, heard what was happening and paid the fines. Marillac Center suffered as a result of donors withholding their funding after the incident.
In 1968 while serving at Marillac Center, Sister Julia Huiskamp directed the advocacy program, primarily concerned with freeing up aid programs to the poor run by state and federal agencies. Part of this job was educating lawmakers and bureaucrats about the truth of poverty and correcting myths about the poor. Her ultimate belief and goal was to put a human element back into agency and ensuring that the poor have advisors and advocates in the halls of power, those that really understand the nature of poverty.
High-intensity advocacy continued at Marillac into the 1970s, when Marillac led the way in combatting high infant mortality and began to stock infant formula for families who could not afford it, provided a protective home for children who were in abusive situations, and educated for family members to better themselves. Today, the mission of Marillac continues on its old campus in East Jackson as part of the larger Marillac-St. Vincent Family Services, a combined mission with two campuses in the city, featuring a food bank, social workers, opportunities for students to pursue their interests in a secure environment, and a scientifically and spiritually minded daycare centers for children of various ages, abilities, and interests.