Florence Nightingale and the Catholic Church

Born 200 years ago this year, the “Lady with the Lamp” continues to inspire.

Henrietta Rae, “Miss Nightingale at Scutari” (AKA “The Lady With the Lamp”), 1854
Henrietta Rae, “Miss Nightingale at Scutari” (AKA “The Lady With the Lamp”), 1854 (photo: Public Domain)

We live in unprecedented times; never before has our way of life been so tested. Yet during such times incredible things happen.

Normally, something that would take years of planning, with inevitably yards of red tape — namely, a new emergency field hospital in the center of London — was built and opened in less than two weeks. The name given to this hospital is Nightingale.

It is an apt name, recalling the 19th-century nurse, born 200 years ago this year, who for many is synonymous with the creation of modern nursing — namely, Florence Nightingale.

What is less well-known is how influential upon Nightingale and her nursing practice were Catholic religious sisters and the applied theology that informed their calling.

In October 1854 as the Crimean War raged the Catholic Bishop of Southwark sent a message to London convents. It read: “I must have five Sisters by seven o'clock tomorrow morning at London Bridge [train station], ready to start for Constantinople.”

The next day Florence Nightingale led a British government sanctioned party of 38 women who were headed for the Crimea; accompanying her were 15 Catholic religious sisters.

In October 1853 the Ottoman Empire declared war on Russia. The conflict stemmed from the ongoing disputes between the two empires over the Holy Places in Jerusalem. The Christian nations of Britain and France joined forces with the Muslim Ottomans, fearful of what they perceived to be Russian ambitions in the Middle East. What became known as the Crimean War was fought on the Crimean Peninsula, then part of the Russian empire.

By the 1850s newspapers had become a global phenomenon. It was during the Crimean War that war reporting by journalists started. Newspaper readers in Paris and London were kept abreast of the battles in the Crimea by the newspaper correspondents then posted at the battlefront. Soon the British public was shocked by the newspaper reports of the care provided for the wounded, nursing care that was shambolic and ineffective and without the proper medical supplies needed.

On Oct. 13 1854 The Times ran the following dispatch:

Not only are surgeons not to be had, but there are no dressers or nurses to carry out the surgeon’s directions and to attend the sick during intervals between his visits. Here the French are greatly our superiors. Their medical arrangements are extremely good, their surgeons more numerous, and they have also the help of the Sisters of Charity, who have accompanied the expedition in incredible numbers. These devoted women are excellent nurses.

The next day the same newspaper carried a letter posing the following question to the British public: "Why have we no Sisters of Charity?"

That same day Florence Nightingale wrote to a friend who was also the wife of the Secretary for War, then in charge of military hospitals. In her letter, Nightingale proposed the idea of a nursing corps to go and tend to the wounded in Crimea, adding, “I do not mean to say I believe the Times accounts but I do believe that we may be of use to the wounded wretches.” Needless to say, the letter soon found a practical response from the Secretary for War.

Led by Nightingale, the British government-sponsored party left England on Oct. 21, 1854. Weeks later the women arrived at the Barrack Hospital in Scutari. Nightingale saw firsthand the reality of the situation: with indifferent medical staff, the hospital was dirty and overcrowded and had few medical supplies. Five days after the arrival of Nightingale’s party, Scutari hospital was further overwhelmed by the influx of injured soldiers from the Battles of Balaklava and Inkerman. Later, Nightingale was to describe this moment as seeing the “kingdom of Hell.”

Although baptized Anglican, Nightingale grew up in a liberal Unitarian family. Aged 16 years old, she experienced a number of what she would describe as “calls from God.” Her vocation, as she understood it, was to help those who were suffering by nursing the sick. Her attempts to become a nurse, however, were thwarted by her family who viewed nursing as socially unacceptable for Nightingale.

She persevered. In 1850 Nightingale enrolled for nurse training at the Institution of Protestant Deaconesses at Kaiserswerth in Germany. Thereafter, she traveled and stayed with Sisters of Charity in Paris. It was there she learned the basics of nursing and, perhaps more importantly, of the need for good organization within a hospital setting. Four years later when Nightingale stood in Scutari hospital she must have been aware that she had been providentially prepared for this moment.

Immediately enlisting the aid of The Times newspaper, Nightingale had medical supplies sent from London to the Crimea. Then setting to work, she and her party began to clean the hospital; basic nursing care was established for the wounded, including the sanitary dressing of wounds, bathing patients, and ensuring regular meals on the wards. Crucially, Nightingale did not just ensure that the physical needs of the patients were cared for. Soon letter writing, educational and even recreational activities were present in the hospital also. During this time, Nightingale’s constant presence on the wards, day and night looking after the wounded, helped to create the legend of the “Lady with the Lamp.” In 1856, when the war ended, Nightingale was credited with helping reduce the mortality rate of those entrusted to her care to just 2 percent.

On returning to England, Nightingale received a hero’s welcome and was feted by the establishment until her death in 1910. Throughout her life she remained a Christian. She was open to Catholic spirituality, drawn to the mysticism of St. Teresa of Ávila and the “soldier’s exactness” of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Although reading and commenting on many works of Catholic piety throughout her life, what impressed her most about the Church was the Catholic religious sisters who nursed and cared for the sick.

From the start of the conflict and her initial recruiting of nurses, Florence Nightingale had been keen to have Catholic nurses with her, not least because of the large number of largely Irish Catholic soldiers then fighting in Crimea. However, in the witness of the sisters she received something more than simply nurses who were of the same faith to their charges. While at the front, in a letter to the Secretary of War, Nightingale described her Catholic nurses as being “the truest Christians I ever met with—invaluable in their work devoted, heart and head, to serve God and mankind.”