Nurses of Mercy Sacrificed Lives in 1848 Epidemic

Article excerpt

When a group of nuns opened the city's first hospital in their Downtown convent on New Year's Day of 1847, anti-Catholic sentiment, spurred by waves of poor Irish immigrants fleeing famine, roiled Pittsburgh and most other U.S. cities.

Hospitals, then chiefly for the poor, also were not popular. In a time of cholera, typhus and smallpox epidemics, few wanted to be near a place housing the diseased.

The nuns of Mercy Hospital of Pittsburgh had their serenity quickly put to the test when their first patient, a riverboat worker named John Coghill, revealed that he had helped burn down a Catholic church in a Philadelphia riot.

In 1843, Bishop Michael O'Connor recruited seven women from the Sisters of Mercy in his native Ireland to help build schools, an orphanage and a hospital in the new diocese of Western Pennsylvania.

The first American to join the order, Eliza Jane Tiernan, was the daughter of a Pittsburgh bank president.

Lauded in newspapers as a humane replacement to the coal shed then used to shelter the city's ailing poor, the new hospital was served by a rotation of local doctors who worked for free. …