History of the Sisters of Charity Hospital, Buffalo, New York, 1848-1900

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In 1848, the Sisters of Charity founded and operated the first hospital in the city, Buffalo Hospital of the Sisters of Charity (Sisters Hospital). The general historical literature has dismissed Catholic hospitals as ethnic hospitals. Too little attention has been paid to the role these hospitals have played in the “new” antebellum commercial cities and in the transition of medicine to its modern practice; nor has the role of women in 19th century hospital management received much attention. This study will analyze how the sister administrators/nurses gained and maintained control of their hospital and exercised “real” authority, within the context of patriarchy, and throughout the 19th century transformation of medical practice. By focusing on the development of Sisters Hospital from 1848-1900, one can trace the transformation of antebellum hospitals from warehouses of the poor sick to the post Civil War emergence of the modern hospital. The story of Sisters Hospital is also the story of changes in the role of physicians, nurses and in medical care, that is, the professionalization and modernization of the health care. By 1900, Sisters Hospital had survived and adapted to the tremendous changes in medical knowledge and the function of hospitals without destroying the orders’ authority over its hospital.


“In her analysis of the rise and development of Buffalo's Sisters of Charity Hospital, Dr. Jean Richardson has written a noteworthy book that tells an important and too-long neglected story at the juncture of the histories of medicine, religion, social welfare, and the city, fields that are seldom studied together by students of the American past ... This is also a story that abounds in a number of ironies that should on reflection cause us to question our categories, concepts, and stereotypes. She plays these ironies lightly, but they are ones that nonetheless present themselves insistently in the mind of a thoughtful person who is conscious of the twists and turns of the political dialectics of both past and present.

In the mid-nineteenth century, when the Sisters of Charity were doing their innovative work in Buffalo, they not only were responsible for the daily management of eighteen of the twenty-five Roman Catholic hospitals in the United States, but they controlled these institutions ... That readers might be surprised by the commanding public roles of the Sisters of Charity that Richardson describes may ultimately be a product of a lack of knowledge of the intricate world of institutional Catholicism. The word 'nun' that lay people use as a general term to describe all Catholic women in orders cannot properly capture the diversity of the experience, aspirations, and affiliations of women committed to a life within the Church. As Richardson points out, the Sisters of Charity called themselves 'sisters,' rather than 'nuns,' in order to suggest a worldly mission of service to the needy, especially the sick poor independent of religious affiliation ...

It is a particular virtue of Richardson's book that she has crafted her analytical narrative around the Sisters active agency in behalf of succeeding in their religious mission, which was also a modernizing mission, in the public sphere. In the late nineteenth century, the Sisters of Charity controlled three hospitals in Buffalo, and their principal facility, Sisters of Charity Hospital was the city's best facility from the standpoint of both physical facilities and the stability of administration ... This is a story, American to its core, that deserves to be widely known. It helps us to understand how American notions of public were formed out of a variety of impulses and inspirations from within a diverse population of ethnocultural groups that included Catholics and immigrants. It introduces us to historical actors too often neglected in our written histories of the city and of medicine. It deepens our understanding of medical practice and medical and nursing education. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to follow the project through its various stages of development, and now to commend its author to readers who will doubtless be well-informed by Dr. Richardson's splendidly conceived history.” – (from the Foreword)Professor David A. Gerber, State University of New York at Buffalo

“ ... The value of this book lies in the windows that it opens to long neglected aspects of American History. It is not a shrill feminist tract but it is excellent women’s history. It is not an apology for the Church, but it illuminates a very important part of the institution’s history by showing how these Sisters responded to the challenges of the society they served at the same time that they preserved their womanhood and their Catholicism. This study works successfully on many levels.” – Nuala McGann Drescher, Distinguished Service Professor (Retired), State University of New York College at Buffalo

"Copious bibliographical notes and biographical sketches of the sisters (1848-1900) and male board of trustess (1850-1860) enhance the author's thesis. The book's main strength is its analysis of the power of ninteenth-century religious women at a time when few women could claim that kind of authority and community leadership. Rejecting the stereotype of submissive, obedient women, Dr. Richardson offers a provocative analysis of the way that Catholic women religious negotiated with physicians, civic leaders, and patients to establish, govern and administer a sizable medical institution ... Graduate students in history, religion, women's studies, and nursing would benefit from reading it." - American Catholic Studies “ ... Dr. Richardson’s deft analysis and narration of this dynamic story of the growth of an antebellum general hospital founded for the custodial care of the indigent sick by the Sisters of Charity, who then successfully transformed that institution into a modern scientific hospital, adds substantially to nineteenth-century women’s history, the history of hospitals, and medical history.” – Ronald E. Batt, MD, MA, FACOG, FRCSC, Professor of Clinical Gynecology and Obstetrics, State University of New York at Buffalo

Table of Contents

Foreword by David Gerber
1. Buffalo and The Sisters of Charity
2. The Buffalo Medical Community of the 1840s
3. The Sisters Take Full Control
4. Early Financial Teething Problems at Sisters Hospital
5. The Sisters Network of Health Care Institutions
6. Buffalo: Economic, Population, Welfare and health Care Expansion, 1870-1900
7; The Modernization of Health Care, 1870-1900
8. A New Era: Sisters Hospital Nurses Training School
9. Sisters Hospital: A Modern Hospital, 1898-1900
10. Conclusion
Appendix A,B,C

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