O'Connell, Mary (1814–1897)

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O'Connell, Mary (1814–1897)

Irish-born American nun, nurse, and administrator. Name variations: Sister Anthony; Sister Anthony O'Connell. Born in County Limerick, Ireland, on August 15, 1814; died in Cincinnati, Ohio, on December 8, 1897; daughter of William O'Connell and Catherine (Murphy) O'Connell; educated at the Ursuline Academy in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

Mary O'Connell devoted her life to helping the sick, the injured, and the orphaned, and was a key figure in the establishment and operation of hospitals and orphanages in and around Cincinnati, Ohio. She was born the elder of two daughters in County Limerick, Ireland, and her mother died when she was twelve; little else is known about her early life in Ireland. At some point she emigrated to the United States, after which she attended the Ursuline Academy in Charlestown, Massachusetts. In June 1835, under the guidance of the Reverend William Tyler of Boston, she became a member of the community of the American Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Not quite two years later, she took her final vows, becoming Sister Anthony. The order then sent her to work at St. Peter's Orphanage in Cincinnati, which was then a young and rapidly growing city on the western frontier.

Over a decade later, organizational changes in the Sisters of Charity led O'Connell and her six associates to request that they be severed from their order, and in 1852 they obtained permission from Archbishop John Purcell to establish themselves as the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. O'Connell was elected procuratrix (financial officer), a position she would hold for a number of years. She was also named superior of St. John's Hotel for Invalids (later St. John's Hospital), which the order founded shortly thereafter. The hospital was affiliated with the Miami Medical College, whose faculty included Dr. George Curtis Blackman, the foremost surgeon in the Ohio Valley. In 1854, the order established a visiting nurse service as a hospital outreach project. Due primarily to O'Connell's efforts, in June of that year the Sisters of Charity acquired a new orphanage, St. Joseph's, in the suburb of Cumminsville. She was appointed superior of that institution as well, a responsibility she relinquished a few years later in order to devote herself to running St. John's.

Shortly after the start of the Civil War, O'Connell and a number of her colleagues traveled to nearby Camp Dennison to nurse the victims of a severe measles epidemic. St. John's grew crowded with sick soldiers from western Virginia during their absence, and the number of patients grew rapidly after their return. Cincinnati was conveniently located on the Ohio River, and the local branch of the U.S. Sanitary Commission developed new evacuation techniques using the local waterways. In 1862, after the Union capture of Fort Donelson in Dover, Tennessee, hundreds of wounded were transported to Cincinnati, nearly overwhelming the city's hospitals. O'Connell received high praise from the commission for her help in training volunteers in hospital routine at this time.

After the terrible Battle of Shiloh later that year, the commission reversed its procedure and hired boats to transport doctors and nurses to the battlefield. O'Connell gained further renown for her tireless work as a field nurse, which included searching for wounded, assisting in surgery, and caring for patients in the floating hospitals. After the battle of Richmond, Kentucky, Governor O.P. Morton of Indiana asked Archbishop Purcell for nurses to care for the Indiana wounded, and as one of those selected O'Connell was officially attached to the Army on September 1, 1862. She worked first at Stone's River, with the Army of the Cumberland, before receiving an assignment at Base Hospital Number 14 in Nashville, Tennessee. When smallpox broke out in nearby camps for refugee slaves, O'Connell provided the sick with medical care there. On March 23, 1864, the Ohio General Assembly voted a commemoration to the wartime services of the Sisters of Charity.

Upon her return to Cincinnati that year, O'Connell resumed her post as superior of St. John's, which was now structurally ill-equipped to keep pace with the demand for its services. In the summer of 1866, a cholera epidemic swept the city, inspiring two wealthy Cincinnati Protestants who admired O'Connell's work and leadership to purchase the former U.S. Marine Hospital, which was presented to the order on her birthday. The new building was renamed Good Samaritan Hospital and opened in October under O'Connell's supervision. Some years later, when she saw a need for a separate institution to care for unwed mothers and foundling children, O'Connell approached one of those benefactors, Joseph C. Butler, for help. He purchased the order a large home in the suburb of Avondale, which opened in 1873 as St. Joseph's Foundling and Maternity Hospital; O'Connell served as superior, and Dr. William E. DeCourcy, an eminent obstetrician, was chief of the medical staff.

In 1880, Bishop William Henry Elder asked O'Connell to retire from her administrative positions at both Good Samaritan and St. Joseph's. Her sudden removal, which was apparently in response to unfounded assertions of friction between her and the college medical staff over hospital policies, was a shock to an admiring public, and raised unflattering speculation and loud criticism in the secular press. O'Connell continued to live at St. Joseph's until her death in 1897, at age 83. Large crowds came to mourn at her pontifical requiem in the cathedral, after which she was buried in her order's cemetery at Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Malinda Mayer , writer and editor, Falmouth, Massachusetts

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