Irish Nuns of Cincinnati
By: Remy Nering
Irish citizens began to pour out of Ireland after the potato famine in the 1840s and many made their way to the United States in hopes of a better life. Among the many destinations of Irish immigrants was Cincinnati, Ohio. The Queen City’s provision of unskilled jobs along the riverfront, digging canals, and on the railroad lured many of these immigrants.
With the influx of the Irish came the introduction of their culture, values, and ideals to Cincinnati. Belief systems play a significant role in many cultures, and for the Irish, the predominant religion was Roman Catholic. Discrimination was no stranger to the new immigrants – Cincinnati was a predominantly Protestant region and the new Catholics faced blatant opposition. Churches provide a place of refuge and spiritual, as well as financial, support to their followers and in a time when “No Irish Need Apply” signs could be seen hanging on the average shopkeeper’s door, members of the church required strength and determination to keep up their spirits and their pursuit of a good life in America.
It is vital to commemorate those who worked so hard to strengthen the community, especially the women who are too often overlooked in history. The Irish nuns of the greater Cincinnati area created a vast network of charities, hospitals, and schools which greatly benefitted the community.
Analysis of death records from the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections and Repositories shines some light upon the Irish nuns of Cincinnati. A total of fifty-eight Irish nuns were identified using the digitized death records from 1865-1912. These records show most nuns lived to be 58 years old, though the average life span was 48 years, and nearly half died of tuberculosis (27 deaths). Inflammation of various body parts was the next most frequent cause of death (8 deaths), followed by old age (5 deaths), pneumonia (2 deaths), and cancer (2 deaths). Remaining causes of death included, but were not limited to, kidney disease, heart attack, chronic bronchitis, and, one certificate lists “scalding by falling in waiter of hot water” as the cause of death. No explanation was found for the circumstances surrounding a nun falling into a waiter of boiling water.
Locations of occupation or residence were listed for all but twelve nuns. Convents, hospitals, and asylums listed were:
Covenant of Good Shepherd, Price Hill (12 nuns)
Convent Good Shepard, 77 Baum St. (2)
Convent of the Good Shepherd, Bank St. (5)
Little Sisters of the Poor (3)
Betts St. Hospital/ St. Mary’s Hospital (2)
Convent of Mercy (5)
Convent of Mercy, 4th Street (2)
Convent of Notre Dame (6)
St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum (5)
Good Samaritan Hospital (2)
St. Francis Hospital (1)
Convent of St. Francis (1)
The Convent of Good Shepherd in Price Hill was originally established as Mount St. Mary Seminary of the West and the first Roman Catholic institution in Price Hill. It wasn’t until later that the Seminary became Mt. St. Mary’s Training School for Girls, Convent of the Good Shepherd. The school’s purpose was to educate girls who were underprivileged or orphaned. The Convent of Good Shepherd at Baum Street was officially known as the School of Reform of the Good Shepherd and was for children and women who had met unfortunate circumstances. The roots of the Convent of Good Shepherd on Bank Street may be traced back to Sarah Worthington King Peter. Peter worked in association with John Baptist Purcell, an Irishman and the archbishop of the Cincinnati diocese, to recruit women from Ireland to join the Sisters of Mercy in Cincinnati. The convent on Bank Street was the first convent of the Sisters. Causes of death for Sisters of Mercy are split evenly between typical old age (inflammation, arthritis, senility, etc.) and tuberculosis. No sisters from the Bank and Baum Street locations died of tuberculosis, suggesting the Price Hill school was home to the poorest souls.
As bishop of the archdiocese, John Baptist Purell was once again aided by Sarah Worthington King Peter to create The Little Sisters of the Poor Foundation in Cincinnati where a small number of Irish nuns served the community. Tuberculosis was not a curable disease in the 1800s and spread furiously among cities’ poor people, which may be the cause for the three Sisters of the Poor dying from consumption.
The hospital located on the corner of Linn Street and Betts Street was more formally known as St. Mary’s Hospital and was administered by the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis. Both Sister Eustachia and Mary Theresa lived to their fifties and died of kidney disease and a tumor, respectively, leaving these sisters as presumably, the healthiest of the nuns in healthcare.
The Sisters of Mercy had two convents in Cincinnati: one on Western Avenue and one on Fourth Street. Information relating to the purpose of the convents was not found, though three Sisters of Mercy died of tuberculosis, so it may be reasonable to assume those nuns looked after poor patients with consumption.
On Sixth Street was the Notre Dame Convent, home to the Young Ladies’ Literary Institute and Boarding School, the first Notre Dame School in America. Three of the six sisters of this convent died of tuberculosis and at younger ages than the other three. Those who did contract tuberculosis may have worked in hospitals as well as the school, as it was not a place ridden with the sick and poor.
In 1829, two Sisters of Charity founded the St. Peter’s Benevolent Association to care for poor and orphaned children, which became the St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum when it was moved to Cumminsville (Northside). Among the women who worked at the orphanage was Sister Anthony O’Connell – a woman of marvel on numerous levels. She provided medical aid on the battlefield during the Civil War; earned membership into the Grand Army of the Republic as well as praise from Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, and lived to the age of 83 – longer than any other Irish nuns listed in the death records.
Good Samaritan Hospital was the federal government’s Marine Hospital before being gifted to the Sisters of the Poor by two men who valued Sister Anthony’s commitment to helping ill patients. Sister Loyola of the Good Samaritan hospital is among the youngest Irish nun deaths at 25 years old. Her cause of death was cholera, which wasn’t unusual for the 1870s, but past the peak cholera outbreak, raising the question of how she caught it.
St. Francis Hospital was opened by the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis and housed terminally ill and elderly patients, most of whom could not afford to pay for their treatment. It was also the only hospital in its day west of the Alleghenies which housed facilities capable of treating cancer. A majority of the patients being poor and incurable was most likely the cause for Sister Fortunata dying of tuberculosis after working at the hospital.
The work of the Irish nuns of Cincinnati is not something that may be quantified. Their legacies remain in the memories of those whom they helped when they were hungry, cared for when they were sick, and gave comfort to in a new and often unfriendly city. A select few, like Sister Anthony, will be remembered for their service to the needy, while others such as Sister Mary Buckley of St. Boniface caught the consumption before seeing the age of 30 – perhaps not long enough to make famous in the city’s history, but long enough to leave an impact.
“Cincinnati Birth and Death Records, 1865-1912.” Digital Collections and Repositories. University of Cincinnati. 27 Mar. 2017. <Cincinnati Birth and Death Records, 1865-1912>.
“Cincy.com.” Price Hill: History. 22 Mar. 2017. <http://cincy.com/home/neighborhoods/parms/1/hood/price-hill/page/history.html>.
Cincyhistoryluvr. “St. Joseph’s Catholic Orphan Asylum.” Blog post. Digging Cincinnati. 20 Mar. 2017. <http://diggingcincinnati.blogspot.com/2013/09/st-josephs-catholic-orphan-asylum.html>.
Grace, Kevin. Irish Cincinnati. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2012.
“History.” Little Sisters of the Poor Cincinnati. 20 Mar. 2017. <http://www.littlesistersofthepoorcincinnati.org/history/>.
“Hospitals 3.” Cincinnati Views. 24 Mar. 2017. <http://www.cincinnativiews.net/hospitals_part_3.htm>.
Ross, Matt Hunter. “Mount Adams’ Reformation.” Cincinnati Revisited. 23 Mar. 2017. <http://acincinnatihistory.blogspot.com/2008/03/mount-adams-reformation.html>.
“St. Mary’s Hospital, Betts and Linn Street.” Greater Cincinnati Memory Project. The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. 21 Mar. 2017.
Spencer, Bernie. “Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd.” Northern Kentucky Views. 24 Mar. 2017. <http://www.nkyviews.com/campbell/text/ryan_good_shepherd.html>.
“The Early Years.” Sisters of Notre Dame De Namur. 20 Mar. 2017. <http://www.sndohio.org/sisters-notre-dame/The-Early-Years.cfm>.
 Cincinnati Birth and Death Records
 Price Hill: History
 Grace, page 21
 Little Sisters of the Poor Cincinnati
 St. Mary’s Hospital, Betts and Linn Street
 St. Joseph’s Catholic Orphan Asylum
 Grace, page 22
 Grace, page 23
 Hospitals 3