By Sister Margaret Ann Gainey, archivist, Daughters of Charity Province of the West, Los Altos Hills, CA. Images courtesy of Sister Estela Morales, D.C.
In October 1864, Sisters Frederica McGrath, Elizabeth Russell and Xavier Schauer left San Francisco and journeyed by steamer, train and stage to Virginia City, Nevada Territory. Sisters arrived in Virginia City five years after silver was first discovered and it was amid this young mining community that they opened St. Mary’s School and Orphan Asylum (and later, St. Mary’s Hospital).
It was with fondness that the Sisters remembered their days in Virginia City and with a sense of history that they preserved them for future generations through their writings. It is with gratitude and pride that we share an excerpt from the Annals describing the Sisters’ journey to Virginia City:
“On the fifth of October 1864, Sisters Frederica, Xavier and M. Elizabeth were missioned to Virginia City, Nevada Territory. . . . To describe the trip hither would exhaust more wit than I have at my command. Eastward from Sacramento there was then but thirty miles of the Central Pacific Rail Road complete, so that the principal part of the journey was made in stages. Our coach was a great swinging and swaging stage drawn by six handsome horses. Our journey was a remarkably safe one, for once only did the axle-tree snap in twain; and well for us it occurred on the level road, for had we been on or near the summit of the Sierras, we might never have seen Virginia City. It was nothing unusual in those days to hear of stages and their occupants being precipitated from the dizzy heights, hundreds of feet below.
When we reached Strawberry Station in California, we were obliged to remain there three hours in a dilapidated cabin. And passing from its entrance to the rear some two yards to partake of some refreshments, we stepped over three men who were sleeping soundly on the softest plank in the floor, wrapped up in their blankets. It gave us no very pleasant anticipations of mining life at our destined home!
We got into Virginia City about two o’clock. . . . . Virginia City is situated midway up the steep side of Mount Davidson, seven thousand two hundred feet above the level of the sea and in the clear Nevada atmosphere is visible for many miles. At the time of our arrival it claimed a population of some fifteen thousand; and all day long half or nearly half swarmed the streets, whilst the remainder was down among the drifts and tunnels of the Comstock hundreds of feet down. And often have we heard the faint boom of a blast down in the bowels of the earth.” . . . .
Over fifty Sisters served the people of Virginia City between 1864 and 1897. They were loved and respected in this mining community where they taught the children of the miners, nursed the men who were wounded in the mines and cared for the orphaned children when the miners died. Through the years, miners and their families generously supported the orphanage, school and hospital.