- The Washington Times - Friday, October 3, 2003

The decades immediately after the Civil War saw a host of new memorials rise up across the District.

Statues, markers, streets, parks and traffic islands were duly named after Civil War politicians and generals — from the winning side, of course. Some of them, such as Farragut Square, are well-known, while others are almost forgotten.

One of the largely forgotten ones involves neither politicians nor generals — the Nuns of the Battlefield Memorial at M Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW, a small triangle of federal parkland about three blocks north of Farragut Square. It honors 12 religious orders whose sisters served as nurses at Civil War battlefields and hospitals.

The idea originated in 1914 with the Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Hibernia being a name the ancient Romans used for Ireland. Ellen Ryan Jolly was national president of the auxiliary and was attending the national Hibernian convention at Norfolk. It was she who made the original proposal, on July 14 of that year.

The auxiliary successfully lobbied a congressman from Rhode Island, Ambrose Kennedy, to introduce a joint resolution in the House on Sept. 17, 1917, and also Sen. John Wingate Weeks (later secretary of war under Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge), who oversaw it in the Senate. The House passed it on March 18, 1918, and the Senate on March 20.

The auxiliary hired a sculptor named Jerome Connor, who spent several years on the work. The result was a panel rising from a plaza, both made of Stony Creek granite. Overall, the memorial is 20 feet long and 14 feet high. Seated at each end of the panel is an allegorical figure — “The Angel of Peace” and “Patriotism.”

The front of the panel has a large plate made of bronze, showing in bas-relief the 12 orders of Roman Catholic sisters who served as Civil War nurses. These orders were Sisters of St. Joseph, Sisters of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Sisters of St. Dominic, Sisters of St. Ursula, Sisters of the Holy Cross, Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis, Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, Sisters of Charity (White Cornette), Sisters of Charity (Mother Seton), Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and Sisters of Divine Providence.

The unveiling, performed by Jolly, was held on a Saturday afternoon, Sept. 20, 1924. Nearly 6,000 people crowded into the small park. A Sept. 18 Evening Star article previewing the ceremony included a photograph of her, showing a rather no-nonsense white-haired lady. The Sept. 21 Washington Post mentioned her remarks about one obstructive legislator who had remained away on the day of the vote, ending with an aside to Archbishop Michael J. Curley, “He is permanently away now.”

There also was an unexpected minor miracle that helped cap the day’s ceremony.

Lt. Col. C.O. Sherrill, the official then responsible for memorials and monuments on federal land in the city, was present. He is remembered today, if at all, for segregating the audience at the May 30, 1922, opening ceremony for the Lincoln Memorial, to the complaints of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other civil rights advocates.

Sherrill expressed his regrets that none of the surviving Civil War sisters was present. Then an elderly lady slowly walked forward — Sister M. Madeline O’Connor, a Sister of Mercy, age 81 and one of three surviving wartime sisters. Jolly led her to the platform.

The nun was greeted with cheers, applause and even bowing from the officials and audience alike.

As the Washington Post phrased it, “The eyes of Sister Madeline were not the only eyes in that vast throng which glistened with tears.”

John Lockwood is a Washington writer.


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