While working with researchers, we often find that their research interests can help us shed additional light on the history found in our own collections. Recently we worked with a researcher who had done extensive study of Sisters’ nursing service in both the Spanish American War and World War I. To our delight, she shared with us information which filled in the gaps to a particularly moving story connected with our current exhibit, “Over There”. In her wartime diary, Sister Catherine Coleman eloquently recorded the death of a young solder who passed away in October 1918 at Base Hospital 102 in Vicenza, Italy. She wrote:
“An American boy from New York by the name of Holden died of Pneumonia. He leaves his parents and a brother and sister in New York. He was baptized before his death. When asked what message he would like to have sent to his people, he said that is a hard thing to have to talk about, and asked Sister what she would say. The subject was dropped for the present, and as he grew weaker, he was asked the second time and he said: Tell my people I have fought hard against death, but it must be. Tell them I am glad to die for my country. He was a lovely boy, just 21 yrs. Old. While in New York he posed for the Arrow collar for three years. Many remembered having seen his picture in the papers wearing the Arrow Collar. His Regiment took charge of the body. He was taken from the hospital to the cemetery. Six of the Sisters and a number of Nurses attended his funeral. His body lies at the foot of the Alps on a little mound, a very beautiful spot. He was buried with Military Honors. One of his comrades read the burial services at the grave. Sister Chrysostom wrote his mother a gave her an account of his death, also pressed one of the flowers from his grave and sent it in the letter.”
Our researcher shared with us articles from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle which provided a picture of Holden and verified his full name, age, rank, and hometown. Private Charles H. Holden, age 21, of Brooklyn, New York, was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Holden. He had joined the Army as an ambulance driver. One of the articles quoted the complete text of the letter written by Sr. Chrysostum Moynahan to Holden’s parents after he died. We were pleased to see this letter, as it does not survive in our collection. It reads:
Somewhere in Italy
October 11, 1918
Mrs. Harry Holden, Brooklyn, NY
Dear Mrs. Holden and Family,
The object of this note is to tell you something of the last illness and death of your dear boy, as I am sure you will appreciate a word direct from the hospital where he passed away.
He was admitted to our base hospital on September 31 (sic) a very ill boy, having been sick with pneumonia four days previous. From the very beginning he seemed to realize that he was not going to recover. The only thing that seemed to worry him was the grief it would cause his family. He said to tell you that he loved all; parents, brother, and sister, and that he hoped to see you again. He was glad to die a soldier and for his country, and though he was most anxious to get well and fight with our boys, he was perfectly resigned to do God’s holy will.
His death on October 4 caused grief and sorrow among his comrades, who said so many lovely things about him. He was buried October 6, with all military honors. His funeral procession was formed of the officers and enlisted men of his regiment, followed by some officers and enlisted men of our unit, also six Sisters of Charity and forty nurses. Many of the inhabitants of the town also followed to pay respect to the American soldier. Some of them have passed through many bitter trials during this war, and could truly sympathize with your loss. He had many beautiful floral pieces, each design being tied with long wide streamers of our national colors.
One of the nurses who nursed him secured a piece of ribbon for you, and I took one of the flowers, which you will find enclosed. The services at the grave were performed by a minister of your own faith. After the service he spoke beautifully of your dear boy, and, judging from all that he said of him, he must certainly have been a dear good young man. Our Sister de Sales had charge of him during his illness, and he was most grateful to Sister and the nurses for any little attention he received.
Trusting that our dear Lord will give you and all his dear ones all the grace and strength necessary to bear up under this great trial our dear Master has been pleased to send you in the death of your darling boy, and with the heartfelt sympathy of the officers, sisters, and nurses of Base Hospital #102, I remain,
Private Charles Holden no longer rests in the beautiful spot at the foot of the Alps that Sr. Catherine described in her diary. During World War I it was common practice for soldiers and Army nurses who died to be buried in temporary cemeteries near the battlefield or military hospital. After the war permanent sites were selected for cemeteries. Depending upon the wishes of the next of kin on record remains were either sent back to the US or re-interred in a permanent American cemetery. Today, Holden’s grave can be found in the American Cemetery at Suresne, France.
“Over There” is on display in the Provincial Archives through October 30.