Tag Archives: Daughters of Charity

The Chicago Fire Account

Account of Angeline Carrigan, the first 11 pages of her 28 page account of the Chicago Fire, recorded sometime in the 10 years after the event.  Posted this day on the 150th anniversary of one of the greatest natural disasters in American history.

How shall I correspond with your wishes and send an account of that dreadful fire which desolated our city! No descriptions can give a true idea of the rapidity with which it passed from block to block; the whirling about of the blazing wood by an irresistible wind; the crowd hurrying along, they hardly knew whither, only to be out of the reach of the hungry flames, in some reason being dethroned by the appalling catastrophe; all this and much more would have to be seen, to be realized!

The fire had raged about twenty four hours, and though kept somewhat under control, yet refusing to be extinguished when the water works took fire and the defenseless city was at the mercy of the element. You have heard of that early Communion, which to some of us, at least, seemed almost like a viaticum, so little hope was there that anything could survive; then how our dear Sister Mary [McCarty], having sent all but one companion as far as possible from the danger, refused to leave the house until it was actually on fire; and how she finally followed, bearing the precious ciborium containing the Blessed Sacrament confided to her by our worthy pastor, he fearing to take it into danger to which he was obliged to expose himself; and lastly, the anxiety caused by some not being assured of the safety of the others, until at last, all were reunited at St. Patrick’s School.

There we were found by our dear Mother Euphemia [Blenkinsop] who saw something of the necessity for the relief so generously extended by other cities, and saw too how those who knew the Sisters flocked to them to pour into the deeply sympathetic heart of our dear Sister Mary their tale of suffering, those who, a few days before, had been independent and those always poor, alike in need of shelter, food and raiment. Truly, it is rare to meet one “who wept with those that weep,” as she did! How it gratified her when she could relieve the distressed! And on the other hand, how she suffered when powerless to give the needed succor!

Though out of the district in which the fire prevailed, the Sisters at the [Providence] Hospital, alarmed by the reports that the fire was tending that way, removed to the woods such of their sick as could bear removal, Sister Walburga [Gehring] herself remaining with the others, resolving to die with them, if she could not save them. Late in the evening of the second day, rain commenced and the fire ceased, after laying waste over three square miles of the city, and making nearly 100,000 people homeless.

Sister Walburga Gehring

The number of lives lost has never been truly estimated; some have missed friends ever since that fearful night; many, it is supposed, were smothered in their beds, having had no warning of their peril, and many others striving to avoid it, ran into danger and perished. Some rushed to the Shipping in the Lake, but even the vessels took fire; others board the outgoing trains, and left their families in agonizing grief, before tidings could be brought of them.

How then did we all escape? God only knows. May we ever prove worthy children of that Blessed Father who so strongly inculcated both by his words and example a steady trust in Divine Providence; and by our unbounded confidence in the Same, may we everywhere [sic] rejoice in His protection

“The Chicago Fire” commenced on the evening of Saturday, October 7, in a barn belonging to a woman named Mrs. O’Leary. It has been said that the cow while being milked upset a kerosene lamp; hence Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was considered the originator of the “Chicago Fire.” Those however who witnessed it could regard it only as a punishment sent in mercy to a guilty city.

No human agency could produce such a fire. Saturday night and Sunday, through the exertions of the firemen, it was kept under control pretty well. Sunday night, a terrific wind blew up, and then the fire baffled all efforts to extinguish it. During Sunday, the Sister in charge of our dormitory broke a pane of glass in the window near by [sic] bed; the wind blowing upon this made such an unearthly noise, that it woke me up, then the dormitory was all lit up from the reflection of the fire still miles away. I got up and woke the other Sisters in the dormitory; it must then have been about 10 o’clock. We went up in the belfry to watch the fire; the flames seemed to jump from house to house with the rapidity almost of lightning, the sparks were as thick as snowflakes in a storm. While the wind carried them eastward to Lake Michigan, we felt safe, but as we stood watching, the wind changed and blew towards us, and so strong was it that the burning shingles and large pieces of burning wood carried the fire in every direction.

About three o’clock a.m. on Monday, we went to bed to get a little rest before four o’clock bell rang. We were scarcely in bed, before one of the girls in the house came in terror, to say that the water works near us were on fire; then, and only then, we felt our danger. We had so much confidence in our Lord and our Blessed Mother that we did not think the fire would reach us. One of the Sisters took a bottle of holy water up to sprinkle the roof, and hung up a new picture of our Lady of Perpetual Succor in the chapel for protection. Sister had scarcely come off the roof when part of the belfry was blown in. The doorbell rang and our Sister Servant, dear Sister Mary McCarthy answered it. Father Flanigan, one of the assistant priests, at the Cathedral, came to take the Blessed Sacrament and to tell us that we must leave the house, at once. Sister asked him if it was as bad as that; he said yes, that there was very great danger. It was the feast of St. Dionysius. Sister asked him to give us Holy Communion and consume the Blessed Sacrament, which he did. During the time we were at the altar railing, the house shook and the stations [of the cross] on the wall rattled so that it was really terrifying. We made a few minutes thanksgiving and Father purified the Ciborium, as carefully, as ever he did, and then we prepared to take leave of our happy mission. Father often expressed regret that he did not take the little tabernacle key. Each one went to get ready. One Sister put on three habit skirts and two cloth aprons; she tried two chemisettes, but was not so successful. With the conferences in her arms and a heavy shawl worn for the first time, over her cornette and held on by her teeth, she was ready to depart.

Daughters of Charity Home shown on right

We found Dr. [John] McMullen [Sister Angeline notes “Subsequently Bishop of Davenport], our pastor, at the front door, with a buggy and two men to take two Sisters, both in delicate health at the time. It was the only vehicle he could procure, the two men volunteered to be the horses. After being dragged a little way in this novel way of travel, the Sisters began to think it was too much to expect of the poor men and begged them to let them get out and walk. Seeing a man coming with a dray, the men asked him to take the Sisters to one of our houses in another part of the city but out of the direction of the fire. He refused saying that he had to get a load of furniture in the burning district. After going a little distance, he repented and coming back took the Sisters to St. Columba’s School, where they were gladly welcomed by the Sisters. A second band accompanied Father Flanigan, to St. Joseph’s Hospital, a distance of about two miles. Father and a Sister walked first, he having the Blessed Sacrament from the Cathedral. The Sisters walked two and two after them saying the beads. After we had left, Sister Mary asked Dr. McMullen if he had been to the House of Providence, for the Blessed Sacrament. He had forgotten all about it, but ran right away then leaving with Sister Mary the Blessed Sacrament from the Orphan Asylum from which he had just seen the Sisters and orphans safely out. Dear Sister Mary, thinking he would return for the ciborium, waited until the belfry came tumbling down the stairs. Then, she and another Sister started for St. Joseph’s Hospital and had the happiness of depositing our dear Lord in a place of safety.

Sister Angeline [Carrigan], Sister Servant of the [St. Vincent’s] House of Providence, had packed any articles that could be so carried in trunks. A neighbor took them with his own on his wagon, to a place then supposed to be out of the reach of the fire, but all were burned. Sister Angeline herself had been carried by the wind and flames towards the Lake, when an unknown man drew her out of the flames. She received a slight burn on the face and one hand. The procession of Sisters to the Hospital passed the Sisters of St. Joseph with their orphans.

Providence Hospital, later renamed St. Joseph’s Hospital, circa 1870, Lake Hill, IL

All along the streets were those who had left their houses early in the evening and were too fatigued or too discouraged to go further. The people came out of their houses as we passed crying, “Oh! There are the poor Sisters! So the College burned? O God help us! Ah Sisters, is the Church burned? O Glory be to God! The world is coming to an end.” One of our children seeing Father Flanigan cried out “O Father Flanigan, is it the day of judgment?” He told her he thought it was a night of judgment for Chicago. Some of the Sisters were obliged to sit down on the road side, not being able to keep up with the procession (not the one with the three habit skirts).

After reaching the Hospital and putting the Blessed Sacrament away, we asked Sister Walburga, Sister Servant, to give us her carriage and we would go back for Sister Mary and companions and perhaps save something. As soon as it was ready and Father had a cup of coffee, Sister Anastasia and myself, accompanied by Father started for the Holy Name School, when within two blocks of it we could only see the place where it stood, the Cathedral too was gone. The Orphan Asylum, on the opposite side of the street, was a massive stone building; the flames were going through it, as if it were so much paper. Not meeting the Sisters we thought they must have been burned, for it was reported that two Sisters were seen in the house when it was on fire. We started to St. Columba’s School, hoping they had gone there, but we were disappointed, then not finding them there, we were inconsolable. Back to the Hospital we steered our course where our dear Sisters had arrived safely by another road just after we had left.

School of the Holy Name, circa 1870

Then Sister Mary’s anxiety for us was terrible, she imagined a hundred things that might happen to us. About noon, we returned in safety to the Hospital every one pronounced me sick and I had to go to bed. The Hospital, and every spot belonging to it, was filled with furniture and people coming there out of the reach of the fire, and every arrival told a nearer approach of the fire. The last comer said there was only one bridge left and those who wanted to go to the west side ought to start, so we prepared to go to St. Columba’s School.

This time our route was across the prairies. None of us knew the way, so we followed the crowd. “The one bridge left” was so crowded that we were obliged to walk under the horses’ heads. When we had gone about half the distance, worn out by fatigue, dust, heat and smoke, a poor Irishman named Pat O’Brien came towards us with an express wagon. He hailed us with “Oh! Sisters, where are you going? Aren’t ye from the College!” Having told him where we wanted to go, he begged us to get into his wagon, which we did most willingly and rode in state. I sat on the driver’s seat between Pat and a half grown boy. Every minute, the poor man would jump down to look at his wheel, which he thought would come off, and I was in mortal terror that I would be thrown from my exalted position. The poor man lost that day all that he had earned in eighteen years; but, “sure he had the best load now that ever he carried! (Eight sisters and six girls all carrying bundles.)”

As we went along, we passed several Sisters of other Communities sitting on the road side. We reached St. Columba’s about half past five, p.m. there we found the Sisters of St. Joseph and their orphans, and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd and their children. About six o’clock, the Jesuit Fathers came and took the Sisters and children to their Schools.

St. Columba’s School, circa 1870

The fire was still making progress north, and our Sisters of the Hospital had to move their sick to the woods; the fire came so near, that even there they were obliged to move again. They had at the time, several patients that could not be moved, and who would certainly have been burned, had the fire gone so far. Sister Walburga Gehring, Sister Servant, sent the Sisters away further, to a place of safety, but she could not be prevailed upon to leave her poor sick, saying that if they died she would die with them. Our Lord did not require that sacrifice, for towards midnight rain began and checked the progress of the fire; then all returned to the Hospital. The new Hospital in course of erection was also spared. All through the night, good Father [Thomas] Burke, pastor of St. Columba’s[,] kept us informed of the progress of the fire. At one time the wind changed and they thought it would come west. We did not feel safe until Father came in and told us that we might sleep now and not be afraid, as it was raining and the fire would go out, which it did after burning three and a half square miles of the city and rendering 95,000 persons homeless. Tuesday morning, the Sisters of the Holy Name School went to St. Patrick’s School which had been opened a few weeks before. The people of the burned district on the north side of the city flocked to us for help.

Sister Mary McCarty through Mr. [Reverend] Kinsella applied to the Relief Fund and obtained abundant supplies of provisions and clothing for hundreds, every day. The School house was turned into a sort of hotel and for about two weeks several hundred were fed and obtained relief.

Aftermath of the Chicago Fire viewed from Michigan Avenue. Courtesy Library of Congress

There is a second account of Sister Walburga Gehring written as she departed St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chicago that details the fire.  Both are available to the public at the Provincial Archives.

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The Daughters of Charity and the Women’s Suffrage Movement: Part 2

This is part 2 of our three-part series on the Daughters of Charity and the Women’s Suffrage Movement throughout the 1910s, leading up to the Presidential Election of November 1920.  The year 2020 marks 100 years since women in the United States won the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920.  Part 1 can be found here.  Part 3 will run next month.

James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, delivered the commencement address to the young women graduating from the tutelage of the Daughters of Charity of St. Joseph’s College in Emmitsburg four times between 1911 and 1917.  In two of his four addresses, he used his platform to express his opposition towards the rise of the women’s suffrage movement on the grounds that it distorted the proper role of a woman, who, in his opinion, was that of a wife and mother in the home (See part 1 of this series).

In 1918, Father Edward J. Walsh, former President of Niagara University, offered a contrasting view.  In his commencement address, Father Walsh agreed Cardinal Gibbons about the role of women as caretakers and educators, he also supported women and their right to vote as they had possessed it a majority of states at the time (although not Maryland).  And while the priest never fully endorsed the suffrage movement in his speech, he recognized that times were changing, and women would no longer be content to remain on the sidelines of society or denied a place in the workforce. 

Although calling for women to “hold strong to the old traditions” and “keep the old ideals,” Father Walsh also recognized the need for feminine strength and courage in combining old roles with new ones; a small opening in the evolution of women’s rights and status rather than an immediate dismissal toward the movement that Cardinal Gibbons had previously espoused. 

However, a second development in 1919 showed that even Cardinal Gibbons opposition to the suffragists could be changed given the right incentive.  In the Provincial Annals for the year 1919, the shift in support is sudden and clear: 

Cardinal Gibbons cared very deeply about the role of Catholic parochial schools as a means of education, advancement for immigrant families, and a method of instilling faith and values.[1]  In Michigan women could already vote after an amendment to the state constitution in 1918.[2]

Just as Father Walsh’s comfort with women’s greater involvement with the world came at the heels of World War I, where women had entered the industrial workforce in ways not seen before, so too, did another.  In many part of America, anti-German and anti-immigrant sentiment was growing.  A strong portion of this was a resurgence of old anti-Catholic sentiment.  Newsletters like The Menace spread across the country, depicting Catholic schools as places where children were victimized, and proper Protestant families were broken up by shadowy anti-American figures.[3]

Masthead of The Menace, November 11, 1911.  The menace. [volume] (Aurora, Mo.), 11 Nov. 1911. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn89066178/1911-11-11/ed-1/seq-1/

Although these newspapers were often published in rural areas, they proved the most popular in the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest, where urban and immigrant Catholics had the highest level of visibility.[4]  The movement to ban parochial education in the State of Michigan began with the Wayne County Civil League – Wayne County being the location of the multi-ethnic city of Detroit.  Their bill really was as clear-cut as the Provincial Annals described, requiring attendance at public school and outlawing all private schools for children up to age 16. Although the Michigan Legislature defeated the bill, the  anti-Catholic group campaigned for a similar ballot initiative twice more in the next five years.[5]

When similar movements began to pop up in his own Archdiocese of Baltimore, Cardinal Gibbons made a very quick turnaround.  Realizing the need to organize and the potential for women to have a say in the direction of the country, references in the Daughters archives in 1920 and 1921 look very different from the decade beforehand.  In part three of this series, we will look at the accounts of the Daughters of Charity voting for the first time.


[1] John Tracy Ellis, The Life of James Cardinal Gibbons, ed. Francis L. Broderick, Popular edition (Milwaukee:  The Bruce Publishing Company, 1963), 47.

[2] Library of Michigan, “Woman’s Suffrage in Michigan:  A Timeline of the Movement,” June 10, 2010, accessed September 15, 2020, https://www.michigan.gov/libraryofmichigan/0,9327,7-381-88854_89996-518343–,00.html.

[3] Justin Nordtstrom, “A War of Words:  Childhood and Masculinity in American Anti-Catholicism, 1911-1919,” in U.S. Catholic Historian 20 (1), Winter 2002:  57-58; 67.

[4] Nordstrom, 61-62.

[5] Timothy Mark Pies, “The Parochial School Campaigns in Michigan, 1920-1924:  The Lutheran and Catholic Involvement,” in The Catholic Historical Review 72 (2), April 1986:  223-224.

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The Daughters of Charity and the Women’s Suffrage Movement: Part 1

The year 2020 marks 100 years since women in the United States won the right to vote.  This is the first of a three-part series on the Daughters and their relationship with the suffrage movement throughout the 1910s, leading up to the election of 1920.  Part 2 will run in October.  Part 3 will run in November.

One of the longest movements in American history was that of women’s suffrage, which reached its greatest triumph with the passage of the 19th Amendment.  Having received passage by Congress on June 4, 1919 and ratification by the states on August 18, 1920, women voted for the first time in every state in the November elections of that year.

Despite the movement’s status in American history, the Daughters’ archives remain largely silent on the rising women’s suffrage movement throughout the 1910s and 1920s.  After thoroughly searching, we have found no record of Daughters of Charity advocating for their own right to vote in any city, nor offering their support to the movement prior to 1918.

There is, however, an individual that makes repeated appearances before this time in the Annals of the Province, the record of day-to-day life at the Daughters of Charity Provincial House on the campus of St. Joseph College in Emmitsburg, Maryland – James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore.

Cardinal James Gibbons, 1917.[1]

Gibbons, with the benefit of hindsight and remembrance, has a mixed and complicated historical legacy.  He became Archbishop of Baltimore in 1877 and served in the position for 44 years.  Prior to this position, he had been Apostolic Vicar for North Carolina, a position he accepted at age 34, making him the youngest bishop in the United States and one of the youngest in the world.  His long service introduced him to many political and cultural figures, and he was a strong unofficial advisor on the Catholic community in the United States to (Protestant) President Teddy Roosevelt.  A statue of him stands outside the Shine of the Sacred Heart in Washington, D.C., erected by the Knights of Columbus in recognition of his service when the two cities were one Archdiocese.  The James Cardinal Gibbons Medal is still awarded by the Catholic University of America, of which Gibbons was the founder and first Chancellor.

Theodore Roosevelt and Cardinal James Gibbons in a friendly exchange.[2] 

As early as the 1880s, Gibbons made it a priority to support, collect, fund, and fundraise for African-American parishes in his archdiocese, as well as the parishes with new immigrant populations from Ireland and Germany, and Eastern Europe.  His support never extended to support for desegregation during his tenure, but he believed that allowing ethnic and racial communities their own traditions under the church would ensure their continued adherence to the faith, and, particularly as related to newly-arrived immigrant groups, a gradual Americanization.[3]  Even when newer immigrant groups began to arrive from Eastern Europe and Latin America – which faced even greater hostility from nativist groups stemming from the belief in their perpetual “otherness” – Gibbons considered them merely a new phase of American immigration deserving of respect just like those from the earlier phase.[4] 

On the issue of race, however, he believed a certain level of African-American education was required before talk of rights could begin; when pressed by black Catholics on this matter throughout his career, he continued to kick this can down the road.[5]  Nevertheless, after 1909, Gibbons opposed any measures in the state of Maryland to bar African-Americans from the ballot box, and throughout his time as Archbishop, he could be seen walking the streets with individuals of all races.[6]

Gibbons was most outspoken on the rights of labor.  While he decried the violence of anarchist groups and of the Haymarket Square Bombing in 1887, he came to the defense of the Knights of Labor, and of the necessity of unions to secure a decent living for its members in the face of uncaring industrial business.  This particularly extended to the immigrant communities that worked under poor conditions in the late 19th century.[7]

From his position in America, he advocated for the righteousness of the separation of church and state long before Vatican II endorsed his beliefs.[8]  He stood against the war hawks calling for American involvement in World War I but navigated the political debate without losing friends.  At the same time, Gibbons catastrophically – even with the level of public knowledge of the events at the time – underestimated the destruction of King Leopold and defended his atrocities in the Belgian Congo.[9]

Cardinal Gibbons was a frequent guest and speaker on the campus of St. Joseph College and Academy, the Daughters-run institution founded by Mother Seton.  Gibbons served as a commencement speaker in 1911, 1913, 1916, and 1917.[10]  In the accounts of his talk in 1911, the annals describe him making the arguments that were common at the time that women already had the vote – through their husbands, fathers, and sons.[11] 

In his 1916 address, he called it “strange that women who were so deservedly honored under the influence of Christian civilization and who have been deservedly honored down to our present day should become suffragettes and thereby soil their garments.”[12]

Gibbons was influential in both the American and global Church, but his beliefs on the subject were not solely his.  During the 1912 graduation, Archbishop Corrigan of Buffalo, who decried that “Women are making a great stir in Chicago,” calling for society to “Let her be pure and chaste in family life, true to instincts of Christian womanhood.  Her most natural place is at the head of her family; let her not desert it.”  At the same time as he acknowledge that the Church had not made a decision on the matter, he also stated that “If she had this privilege she would not be happier, nor would she enjoy more peach than she does now.”[13] 

In this same year, Father Patrick McHale Provincial of the Eastern Province of the Vincentians, seemed to try and split the difference, praising an accomplished woman as a mathematician and chairholder at a university, while also praising in the same sentence “the true woman [who] fulfills her mission and returns home.”  Ultimately, his assessment of the cause seems to land on “The tendency today is to take woman from her position; “Woman Suffrage” for example.  A word here will suffice.  If there is need to vote, let woman cast the ballot and then return where she belongs.”[14]

Commencement of 1917 was the last time Cardinal Gibbons gave the commencement at St. Joseph’s College.  Beginning in 1918, however, the Provincial Annals begin to show a more positive turn towards the idea of women’s suffrage, along with a turn the Cardinal himself made on the issue.  Stay tuned for part 2 of this story in October! 


[1] Cardinal James Gibbons, -1921. , ca. 1917. Oct. 18. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2004670749/.

[2] Theodore Roosevelt and Cardinal James Gibbons in a friendly exchange. ca. 1921. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2009633765/.

[3] John Tracy Ellis, The Life of James Cardinal Gibbons, ed. Francis L. Broderick, Popular ed. (Milwaukee:  The Bruce Publishing Company, 1963), 63; Thomas W. Spalding, The Premier See:  A History of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, 1789-1989 (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 252.

[4] Spalding, 269-271.

[5] Spalding, 288.

[6] Thomas J. Shelly, “Biography and Autobiography:  James Cardinal Gibbons and John Tracy Ellis,”  U.S. Catholic Historian 21 (2), Spring 2003, 41.

[7] Ellis, Life of James Cardinal Gibbons, 80-90.

[8] John Tracy Ellis, “James Gibbons of Baltimore,” in Patterns of Episcopal Leadership, ed. Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J. (New York:  Macmillan Publishing Company, 1989), 137.

[9] Ellis, Life of James Cardinal Gibbons, 294-295.

[10] Provincial Annals, 1911, 60; 1913, 39-40; 1916, 102; 1917, 87, Emmitsburg, MD – St. Joseph’s Provincial House [Hereafter “Prov. House”], Boxes 241 and 243, Daughters of Charity Archives, Province of St. Louise, Emmitsburg, MD [Hereafter APSL].

[11] Provincial Annals, 1911, 60.

[12] Provincial Annals, 1916, 102.

[13] Provincial Annals, 1912, Prov. House, Box 241, APSL, 102-103.

[14] Provincial Annals, 1912, 105.

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