Colonizing Leprosy: Imperialism and the Politics of Public Health in the United States

By Michelle T. Moran | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
Sacred Duties, Public Spaces

Workers on the Mississippi River levee in New Orleans paused briefly on 16 April 1896 when four Daughters of Charity approached the steamboat Paul Tulane. As they boarded, according to a reporter with the Daily Picayune, onlookers murmured “in hushed whispers the words which sealed their fate, ‘They are bound for leper land.’ “ These Catholic women had agreed to work as administrators and nurses at the Louisiana Leper Home, a state institution established in 1894 on an isolated bend of the Mississippi River. The newspaper coverage depicted the sisters’ mission as one of otherworldly nobility and sacrifice, suggesting that only women who had already “left all to follow Christ” could so willingly work among “the loathsome diseased beings whom the world had shunned.” The reporter cast the sisters as “heroines, every one of them … taking up with willing hands and of their own volition a work at which the heart of the strongest man might quail.” He also emphasized the reputation of the religious order as able and devoted caregivers, whose presence—it was hoped—would convince people with leprosy to voluntarily submit themselves to the institution. A state health official acknowledged, “The very name of the Sisters of Charity [sic] implies confidence—and that is what we need in our work. The [Leper Home] Board alone could not inspire this.”1

The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul (often mistakenly called the Sisters of Charity) played an instrumental role in the development and the preservation of the Louisiana Leper Home, a role that complemented the aims of state public health officials and medical practitioners. State officials enlisted the Daughters of Charity to assume administrative authority over the institution in 1896, and the sisters imposed upon the home a moral and religious framework that continued to shape the institution even after it became a federal facility in 1921. The sisters sought to endow medical treatment with a religious sensibility that ultimately would improve conditions for patients.2 Their efforts meshed with those of state administrators who

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