August 2020 marked 75 years since the end of the Second World War, the entry of the world into the atomic age with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the start of the Nuremburg trials to confront the horrors of the Holocaust.
While the American Daughters of Charity were not as active in nursing on the front as they were during the First World War, they, like everyone else, were still attuned to events happening in the war. On August 15, 1945, the Daughters in Emmitsburg, Maryland held a feast and high Mass with the announcement of the surrender of the final Axis power. On August 18, another Mass at Holy Hour gave thanks for the end of the conflict. Portions of the text of Father Francis Dodd’s Mass survives.
Back in 1943, in occupied Paris, Superioress General Laura Decq was taken prisoner and held for approximately a month. Although Mother Decq was released, four Daughters were forced to stay behind until American troops liberated the region. In addition to this crisis, much of the international Community had no communication with the Motherhouse at 140 Rue du Bac in Paris during the war, due to the German occupation of Paris. News that did arrive was chaotic and relayed through whispered networks. The silence lasted for five years in the United States, until it was finally broken with a letter dated April 18, 1945 from Father Eduard Robert, CM, Vincentian Director General of the Community.
Significant accounts of these immediate post-war days come from the correspondence of Sister Madeleine Morris, an American Daughter from the St. Louis, Missouri Province. In 1945, she traveled to the Motherhouse to begin her service as the Secretary for all English-speaking provinces. Her letter of June 12, 1945, written shortly after her arrival, contains the most comprehensive summary of France’s attempts rebuild.
She describes meeting Mother Decq and learning of her experience in prison
* Sister Helene Studler, aka Sister Elaine, was a known supplier of resistance fighters and assisted prisoners in escapes from the Gestapo. For more information see https://via.library.depaul.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1072&context=vhj
Perhaps most importantly, she begins to describe the next steps. For even though the war took six years, winning battles was the easy part. The next, more difficult steps were to put the pieces of life back together.
Attached to this letter is a commendation from Sister Isabel Toohey, Visitatrix of the Province in Emmitsburg, to encourage even more gathering of aid packages and how to send them.
Sister Isabel’s request for aid was not the first of its kind. Father Patrick O’Boyle, director of the War Relief Services wrote to Sister Madeleine on May 1, before the war had even ended, to inform her of 200 tons of food and 6,500 cans of dried milk on its way to Paris for distribution.
Schools and hospitals joined in the Daughters’ contribution.
Sister Madeleine wrote to Sister Isabel Toohey in July, her last surviving letter to the United States before her sudden death 11 days later on July 23.
As this war and the memories of it fade, let us remember its lessons and those who served, such as Sister Helene Studler or Sister Agnes Walsh, the British Daughter recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations (https://righteous.yadvashem.org/?search=Agnes%20walsh&searchType=righteous_only&language=en&itemId=4042610&ind=1)
Let us continue to remember the refugees of all wars and catastrophes, just as the Daughters of Beirut have recently experienced, or as the Holy Family once did thousands of years ago as refugees of human conflict.
And then let us ask, the ultimate question which the Vincentian charism teaches us, What must be done?