Many thanks to Sisters of Charity archives for the information below. This is a first hand account by Sister Mary Clare Connolly when the S.S. England was quarantined off McNab's Island during the ships cholera epidemic.
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"...The next event was the arrival of the Ship ENGLAND, April 13,1866, with Asiatic cholera on board. The ship was quarantined off McNab's Island and the reports from there alarmed the whole city. The Archbishop learned that many of the immigrants, of whom there were about a thousand on board, were Catholics. He hastened to the scene and found their condition even worse than reported. The Captain sailed from Limerick with 1300 emigrants on board. Two days before they arrived in Halifax cholera had broken out. After a storm in which the poor people were closed down without a breath of air and the contagion kept spreading, by the time they reached Halifax, they had thrown 300 bodies overboard. The Government had the poor people removed from the fatal ship and placed under tents on the island where they suffered much from the cold Four doctors were sent from the city at $8 per day each. Father Alexander McIsaac went to His Grace for permission to go there on Saturday, the day following their arrival. His Once accompanied him and both went round and heard Confessions among the dying. On Sunday evening His Grace was announced at St Mary's and in a few moments the Community was summoned to the parlor. His Grace told of his visit to the Cholera station and the suffering and distress of the poor people. All of them were in a state of fear and excitement and many poor children, whose parents had been carried off by the pestilence, had no one to cart for them. His Grace then wanted to know how many Sisters would volunteer to go and take care of those children. He began with the postulants and asked all around and was delighted to hear that each and all begged to be sent. He then selected two, SisterMary Clare and a novice, Sister Mary Vincent a cheerful generous soul, before whom difficulties disappeared; she embraced this work with the same earnest generosity, while her sunny spirit made her see and enjoy the ridiculous no matter when it appeared.
His Grace advised the Sisters to make some preparation in the way of sewing materials, buttons, etc., and all the little necessaries they could carry for they were going to some little cabin in which His Grace was not quite sure there was a chimney. They were to be very warmly clad and ready to start at 8:30 next morning. Accordingly at the appointed time the Archbishop was at the door and the Sisters were in readiness. Accompanied by Mother and another Sister all the party, including His Grace, walked to the Market Wharf. He would have this expedition as public as possible for he knew that this courageous charity would give proof of the Catholic faith and elevate religion before the Protestant mind, that at that time so dreaded the fearful scourge, the Asiatic Cholera.
The greatest fear and excitement prevailed in the city and all the daily papers that evening commented in terms admiration on the spirit that led the priests and Sisters so ready to risk their lives in the cause of charity. No protestant minister volunteered to go there and the one who was a passenger aboard the fatal ship shut himself in his room and was not seen after the cholera broke out.
On the arrival of the party on the Market Wharf they found a crowd of gentlemen, Protestant and Catholic, awaiting them. The Sisters said good-bye to Mother and the Sister who accompanied her, then stepped into the rowboat with all their bags and bundles and the Archbishop. The men plied their oars and soon they were off leaving the crowd looking after them, some in admiration, others in surprise at the ease with which they rushed to death. The wind was high and the sea very rough but once outside the harbor soon they came in sight of the fatal ship. The Archbishop bade the men row up to it The Captain was awaiting the boat and the Archbishop introduced the Sisters, and heard from the Captain that the last of the sick were removed to the island and now the work of fumigation was going on board.
As the Sisters looked toward the Island, the first thing that attracted their attention was a line of men carrying coffins on their shoulders. They were sent from the city and had they been filed there would have been no one to carry them The dead remained for days on the field, the number constantly increasing, a canvas sail thrown over the pile, until the labors of the doctors abated a little. Then they, each evening, covering themselves with disinfectants, buried the dead in one common grave or pit.
When the Sisters landed they met the caretaker with a horse and cart at the door of his small house, from which he was hurrying away with a few valuables, and offering the Sisters the house, and all the rest, for which they were thankful, as it was the only house on the island. Fortunately in this kitchen that was a little cooking stove, a table, two chairs, a dresser, with a few dishes, and an old sofa. Next to this was a small bedroom containing a large bedstead with a straw mattress on it and a small table and chair. Upstairs was one attic room which contained three bedsteads, on each one a straw mattress which was a luxury to the Sisters. They used their cloaks and clothing as coverlets. Through the roof the stars might be seen at night and on the floor the boards were only laid not nailed which meant cautious stepping. Dr. Slayter, the city Health Officer, who had been on the island from the arrival of the ENGLAND came to welcome the Sisters which he did very cordially. He spoke cheerfully and told His Grace not to be uneasy about the Sisters, that he would take care of them and see them every day. He then left us. But the poor doctor never saw them after; he was stricken with cholera that evening and died before morning. About twelve o'clock His Grace with the Sisters partook of a lunch he had brought, after which he gave them his blessing, telling them his boat and man would be there each morning to get the news each day from them. After His Grace's departure, the Sisters set to work to sweep up the place. The floors were filled with straw that had been pulled out of the mattresses for packing purposes and the broom fortunately was left behind the door. Doctor Garvey came in at that moment and insisted upon the Sisters leaving that work for a couple of girls he promised to send. In a few moments two fine Irish girls appeared who were glad to help; they went to work with a will, made a fire, swept the place and would have moved the stove, fire and all, had not the Sisters been on the spot. Soon the little place looked clean, Doctors and Ship officials were constantly coming in and out, one of them brought four Irish children, who had lost their Mother. They cried with all their might, the four together. So we decided, as we had to put up with the noise, we would give them a bath which we managed to do. But clean clothing! There was none. Sister Vincent tried to wash some for them but the Doctor saw the performance when he came in and ordered the clothing to be buried, theirs was too filthy and besides, the washing was too dangerous. There was no alternative but to send home by next morning's boat for clothing. Other children were brought in, two died, one of cholera. A Doctor carried her away to the tent while she writhed in pain, a girl of twelve years, the eldest sister of the four. When the boat came the next morning it brought another Sister, Sister Alphonsus and on the following morning plenty of clothing for the children. Sister wrote to the Archbishop and to Mother every day.
After some days the cholera seemed to abate and when no new case appeared the ship was allowed to Start taking only those whom the Doctors considered well. There was great grief among many who were separated, members of the same family in some instances. Others rejoiced to hear that the voyage to New York was to be resumed. At twelve o'clock one fine day the ship sailed out amid great cheering but among those who were left behind it was different Still the weather was fine, they had plenty of nourishment and after about a week they also left in good condition.
A few days before the ENGLAND sailed the boatman brought a letter from the Archbishop, recommending to their tenderest care, the greatest orphan of all, Father McIsaac, whom he heard was suffering from the effect of exposure night and day. His Grace said the same boat took from him a letter to Father McIsaac telling him through obedience, to repair at once to the Sisters and to obey them. So after a few hours this orphan came and took his turn on this bed off the kitchen where all the sick, one after another had lain. They bathed his foot gave him a hot drink and covered him with his overcoat, cloaks, etc. After a rest and a night's sleep he was all right again. His hard work was over now, he had only to attend to the sick who were recovering.
A few days after the ENGLAND set sail, His Grace came for the Sisters and Father McIsaac and how delighted all were to meet again. Of course all from the cholera station had to be quarantined but His Grace arranged with the Government that the quarantine station for the Sisters and Father McIsaac would be his county residence, then "Maryvale" on the Arm. There all repaired, His Grace spent the evening and left nothing undone to make everything comfortable and pleasant We arranged an altar and had Mass and Communion after such a long time. The Archbishop could not refrain from expressing his gratitude to God for the safe return of all, and also for the honor reflected upon religion. The quarantine was to last two weeks after which the Archbishop's carriage brought the Sisters home.
After their return the City Council formally presented a vote of thanks to the Sisters for their services. Also, they and Father McIsaac were awarded each, a solid gold watch, suitably inscribed, in recognition of their services, inviting them to the Assembly room to receive them from the hand of the Governor's Lady. Father McIsaac and the Sisters, at the suggestion of the Archbishop, declined the honor At this time Mother visited Sister Alexis who was dying.
In July, 1866, Mother Rose was appointed to replace Sister Joseph in Newcastle; Sister Teresa also went to the same place. Sister Aloysius replaced Mother Rose at St. Patrick's and completed the addition to the house which had become entirely too small. The public school now required seven teachers, instead of three, and the following year the Sisters were offered a class of small boys, about sixty, which increased the teaching staff.
The next step was an effort to remove the orphans from St Mary's. The novitiate increasing, accommodation was insufficient. Sr. Aloysia offered to take the boys at St Patrick's as the house was now quite large. There were about ten little boys and prayers were offered to St. Joseph to find a home for the girls of 18 or 20.
Rev. T.V. Allen, a young priest, was given charge of the district around Richmond and down to North Street. He soon undertook to build a Church. A school was opened and two Sisters, went from St Mary's every morning and returned in the evening by the street cars which ran through a few of the principal streets at the time for a couple of years; after which the company disputed some matter with the city and ended by giving up and leaving Halifax, which remained without this great convenience for more than twenty years. The two Sisters attended the school in this way all winter; now March had come and all determined to invoke St Joseph to procure a house for the orphans. Sister Elizabeth got the children to have devotions every day while she helped them herself. Mother and she went out a few times to look at the location and sizes of houses etc. which were advertised towards the end of the city for they could not be at a great distance from the Church. While deliberating, Mother proposed a novena to St Joseph, to end on his feast About the third day of the novena, Father Allen, who knew nothing of the prayers, came to inform Mother that there was a very fine property for sale adjoining St. Joseph's Church, which he thought would be suitable for the Sisters, besides, the price named was very moderate, L 700 or $2000. He asked Mother to go to see it which she did and at once concluded it was a grand place for the orphans, While we were thinking they would have to go south and belong to the Cathedral, St. Joseph brought them north, and to his own church. It was then a retired locality in the suburbs of the city which suited much better. On the eve of St. Joseph's day the sale was completed.
The house was soon prepared for the children. Mother Elizabeth was appointed Sister Servant, the two sisters for the school and one to take charge of the orphans were soon transferred to St. Joseph's. This was a cottage; the rooms were quite small. During the summer the children had plenty of room outdoors but in bad weather it was very inconvenient. Besides, now that there was a house for the orphans, admission was sought for many others. Towards Autumn the Archbishop, in his fatherly kindness for the orphans, offered his own country residence, Dutch Village. Here they had plenty of accommodation and remained for a couple of years when the distance from the Church proved an insurmountable difficulty. While there the number increased to forty. And now the question arose, where were these children to go?"...
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