On Veterans Day, it’s good to remember that veterans come from many different backgrounds. Such a veteran is Sister Chrysostom Moynahan (1863–1941), a member of the Daughters of Charity religious order that has a long history of caring for the sick and vulnerable. Its record includes distinguished service during the Civil War by American Daughters of Charity and during World War I by some 15,000 French Daughters of Charity and the only U.S. nuns to work in the European theater.
Born in Ireland as Hannah Moynahan, Sister Chrysostom immigrated to the United States with her parents in 1879, and they resided in Massachusetts. According to the History of American Red Cross Nursing, Sister Chrysostom, after graduating from the seminary of the Daughters of Charity in 1889, was sent to Carney Hospital in Boston. Sister Chrysostom then entered the Daughters of Charity’s school for nurses, graduating in 1894. During the Spanish American War, she cared for the Spanish who were injured after the Maria Theresa attempted to run a U.S. blockade and was fired upon. She had subsequent assignments at Fort Thomas (KY), in Evansville (IN), and in Birmingham (AL). In Birmingham, she served as administrator of St. Vincent’s Hospital and founded the hospital’s school of nursing—the first nursing school in Alabama. In 1916, Sister Chrysostom became the first registered nurse licensed in Alabama. In 1918, she was appointed chief nurse of Base Hospital 102 (aka the “Loyola Unit” or the “New Orleans Unit” because the personnel mainly was from Loyola University in New Orleans) and set off for Italy on the Umbria from Baltimore in August. Along the way, the Umbria rescued survivors of the torpedoed oil tanker Jennings, who received medical attention from the hospital staff. Said Sister Chrysostom in the El Paso Herald prior to their departure:
We are all registered nurses and are anxious to go across and get to work. . . .We will have charge of the operating rooms and hope to do our full duty to bring the American boys back to health and happiness. . . .The sisterhood feels keenly the desire to be of the utmost service in caring for the soldiers of Italy or any of the other Allies of America. War makes its demand upon the woman power of America as well as upon the man power, and all who can do so, no matter what the sacrifice, should serve the interest of America’s part in the war.
The Herald account noted that the nuns were unaccustomed to having their photograph taken and only consented so “they might serve as an example for others to follow.” The Daughters of Charity nurses were permitted to wear the garb of their order but also wore a device and a cap while on duty to indicate that they were members of the Army Nurse Corps (see The Medical Department of the United States Army in the World War 297). From September 1918 to the end of March 1919, Base Hospital No. 102 in Vicenza cared for a total of 3,000 patients, which included nearly 400 Americans. Twenty-eight deaths occurred. The Daughters of Charity Provincial Archives blog notes that the hospital was located 15 miles from the Italian front, and its cases included burns from mustard gas, pneumonia, malaria, and influenza. Sister Florence Grace Means, one of Sister Chrysostom’s colleagues, provided some harrowing glimpses into their environment in her diary, describing stoves that “blow up at regular intervals” and 2000 lying wounded and dying at a field hospital that had only 10 nurses in attendance. A 21 June 1919 Literary Digest account of the unit’s work at the front provided equally sobering details on air raids, lack of heat, and patient conditions, and stated:
The entire detachment, including the nurses and officers, was also mentioned in the order of the day issued to the Sixth Army on December 12, and awarded the Italian service ribbon with the Monte Grappa medal commemorating that memorable campaign… (76)
Sister Chrysostom returned to the United States in April 1919, going on to administer hospitals in St. Louis, St. Joe (MO), and Mobile. When she died in 1941, she was accorded a funeral with full military honors and was buried in Mobile’s Catholic Cemetery. Sister Chrysostom was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in October 1982.