Category Archives: Refugees

Mexican Refugees, 1875

January 8, 1875:  “Today we received the sad intelligence that our dear Sisters are to be driven from their homes in Mexico by a Godless government.  Not less two hundred and fifty of them torn from the poor, the sick and the dear orphans.”

-Provincial Annals, Province of the United States

The Daughters’ Archive details a number of dramatic events in national and international history alongside those of the Community.  In 1875, international and Community history collided in the Restored Mexican Republic and made refugees of the Daughters of Charity themselves.  Their American sisters took them in and provided them with the chance to maintain their lives and vocations.

Since 1857, Mexico had been a Republic with no official religion.  After a brief intervention by the French Empire and the defeat of Emperor Maximilian in 1867, the republican nature of the country was restored.  Attempts to seize land of those who had collaborated with Maximilian, however, led to protests and uprisings in the years afterward.  Among those considered allied with Maximilian was the Catholic Church. 

In 1875, President Lerdo seized the property of the Daughters of Charity in Mexico under the Law for the Nationalization of Ecclesiastical Properties. Over 400 Daughters were deported, most of them citizens of Mexico.  Most notably among the institutions the Daughters were forced to abandon were the hospitals of the capital city, and their departure saw crowds turn up and weep on the fateful day they left.  About 80 Daughters came to the United States, with others going to Spain and France.

Much of the correspondence between the American Visitatrix – Sister Euphemia Blenkinsop – and her counterpart in Mexico has been lost.  The Provincial Annals provide the most detailed dates of the arrival of the Sisters to the U.S., with the first group of 21 sisters having arrived in New Orleans on February 2 and the second group of 45 arriving in San Francisco on February 19.  Based on the surviving letter of February 5, this was not exactly in the plan, as Mother Blenkinsop asked that “the greater number…be sent by New Orleans.” 

Sister Ignatia Bruce described the arrival in San Francisco, where the Daughters on mission there, along with about one hundred students of their schools, went to see and show how to welcome refugees:

In compliance with the Archbishop’s wish, we, with about one hundred of the larger day scholars went to meet them.  We were on the wharf nearly an hour before the steamer made its appearance.  By special request several officers were on the spot to see that everything was attended to.  They were indeed very kind and had everything taken out of the way, so the children might stand just where the steamer would land.

Letter from Archbishop Alemany of San Francisco

Sister Ignatia went on to describe the comedic scene that took place as everyone present ran against the language barrier, as the Daughters from Mexico did not speak English.  They did, however, have carriages arranged, which took them to the School in order to give the Mexican sisters their first meal on shore and to make sure they had warm clothes for the San Francisco cold.  With only two of the American sisters present speaking Spanish, they found that they easiest way to communicate was sign language: 

Meantime the Sisters were getting acquainted with each other.  None of the Mexicans understood one word of English and of the Californians but two spoke Spanish.  But some of them had a smattering of the language and though they might count the words they knew, even so much was not to be lost.  And then, some three or four had acquired a slight knowledge of the language of Deaf-mutes.  This was brought into service too, and as the signs were of the simplest nature they were intelligible to all.  Laughable mistakes were sometimes made.  One of the California Sisters for instance sympathetically inquired “if they were married?” instead of “if they were tired,” the words of the Spanish being similar.  But, their gentle courtesy understood the proper question and graciously answered “No.”

Sister Candida Brennan at St. Simeon’s School in New Orleans offered her own account of the arrival of the refugee Daughters there:

Ere this arrives you will have heard that our dear Mexican Sisters, twenty two in number, are with us.  Mother, Sisters Agnes Slavin, Andrea Gibbs and myself went as far as Algiers to meet them yesterday evening.  The train arrived at four o’clock p.m.  The last car contained the long expected guests.  When they caught sight of our cornettes they nearly jumped out of the cars.  Then, such a silent conversation!  The eyes spoke what the tongue refused to utter.  Sister was able to speak some Spanish and I said all the Spanish words I knew regardless of sense or connection, so between us, we made them feel quite welcome.  Of all the sights you ever saw, none surpassed them!  They had worn their cornettes for three weeks, through all kinds of weather and in all places.  Their blue aprons were patched, pieced and padded with all the shades of blue that ever born the name.  Their shawls were not only unlike, but of all colors white, black, grey and I think one was yellow.  As to the bundles, bags, band boxes, tin cans, baskets, you can forme no idea, some of which were so heavy that it required two Sisters to carry one of them. 

Many of the foreign Daughters were missioned to Paris or to Panama by mid-summer of 1875.  A few stayed around for a few more years serving in some of the missions in California.  In 1880, Sister Carlota Gazea wrote back to the United States from Panama:

I have kept silence a long time, but it was only the month that ceased to speak for want of time, but my heart is always full of gratitude towards you and I have you all present in my poor prayers.  You know my dear Sister, the confidence I always have had in you, and that I have chosen you to be my interpreter with our esteemed Mother Euphemia, and as the principal object of my letter is to wish her a happy feast.  I beg you to do it for me choosing the most affectionate and energetic words of the English language and all that your loving and grateful heart may dictate to you. 

Four sisters served in California until 1880 when they were missioned to Ecuador.  In 1882, the last sisters who had been exiled were missioned to El Salvador.  They, too, wrote in their gratitude for their American sisters’ fulfillment of the demand to help those in need and in exile.

Our colleagues at the Archives of the Province of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Los Altos, CA have their own accounts of this event in their collections.  They recently posted some of them here.

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