The United States was never a center for leprosy, but cases occurred. The medical solution was to isolate patients. Since no cure or treatment was available, isolation almost invariably was for life.
The government decided to build a facility, in which patients from across the country would be confined. Plans were made, and it was constructed in Carrville, Louisiana. Everyone assumed that no one, once inside the hospital, ever would leave. All would die.
It was a prison for all practical purposes, and a house of death, without hope. No one could come and go, especially patients — birds in an antiseptic cage.
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The Carrville facility was an antiseptic cage, with all modern conveniences, clean, comfortable, providing what care that was known, good nutrition and so on, even a post office. Try as it did, however, the government could not get anyone to work in the facility. Doctors would not go. Neither would nurses. Authorities could not hire people just to cut the grass on the lawn.
No amount of money was enough to offset the risk of contagion. So chronically ill patients, with a progressive illness, in effect doomed to die, were going to be left on their own.
At this point, just before the turn of the 20th century, the Daughters of Charity in New Orleans, that great congregation of religious women founded in France by St. Vincent de Paul to nurse the sick and care for the needy, such as orphans, stepped into the picture. They volunteered to go to Carrville.
They went, and for generations they operated the hospital, offering the best care that was available. Most of all, they brought to the patients a precious gift. They made the patients feel that they were special, because the sisters insisted that the patients were children of God. Most of all, the sisters reassured patients that they had reason to hope. God had a great reward awaiting them.
The government maintained the hospital. The sisters were government employees. They were paid salaries, but, in addition to excellent nursing skills, they brought to the hospital a commodity money could never buy: a sense of worth, trust and hope regardless of what came, and the security of feeling the presence of Christ, with all the strength and love abiding in that presence.
For generations, Daughters of Charity were at Carrville. God was with them. Throughout all the years, not one of them contracted Hansen’s disease.
The Sisters left the facility when in effect it no longer was needed. Medicine advanced to the stage in which this disease, which had provoked terror among people literally since biblical days, could be managed, and persons diagnosed with the disease, if treated, could live ordinary lives undisturbed.
Several years ago, a bishop of a diocese asked me to organize a seminar for his diocesan seminarians about Catholic ministries. Several people spoke — a parochial school principal, a priest in charge of a shelter for the homeless, the director of a retreat center, and a Daughter of Charity from a local Catholic hospital.
The sister from the hospital, justifiably, noted the excellent medical care her facility provided, state of the art in every respect. It was good to know, and something in which Catholics in the area could take pride, but I said, “Tell the seminarians about Carrville, Sister, tell them about your community, the Daughters of Charity. Tell them about the risks that they freely took to bring Christ to desperate and anxious human beings.”
With her eyes gleaming, she told the story. My eyes also gleamed, as I remembered that the history of the Catholic Church has been a long, long story about loving God’s sick people.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.