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Willing Hearts App — A Five Star Experience

Updated on January 11, 2017
Painting of Mother Angela (Gillespie) CSC
Painting of Mother Angela (Gillespie) CSC | Source
Inside a Civil War hospital.
Inside a Civil War hospital.
Civil War newspaper article about Mother Angela (Gillespie) CSC and Sisters of the Holy Cross.
Civil War newspaper article about Mother Angela (Gillespie) CSC and Sisters of the Holy Cross. | Source

Willing Hearts App by Davis Studio Publishing

Our passion is telling the true stories of Catholic Sisters who valiantly served as nurses during the American Civil War. Second in the series, and soon to be released, is our app, Willing Hearts, which focuses on the service of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, the forerunners of the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps.

We spent two years researching Willing Hearts, visiting the Holy Cross’ archives several times, making the rounds of local libraries, the National Archives and the National Museum of Civil War Medicine — among others. As the Sisters of the Holy Cross’ story unfolded it deeply touched our hearts. We were moved by the Sisters’ dedication, faith and inspired words of wisdom. Mother M. Augusta (Anderson) remembered her first day in a military hospital, “Dr. Burke, the Surgeon in Charge, showed us through the wards, which were in a frightful condition. Many wounded men whose limbs had been amputated, were there with little or no care… Although we were tired and sick for want of sleep, there was no rest for us. We pinned up our Habits, got brooms and buckets of water, and washed the blood-stained walls and scrubbed the floors. Dr. Burke sent some men to carry away the legs, arms and other pieces of human bodies that were lying around. We had no beds that night, but we slept as soundly as if we had feathers under us. The hospital was full of sick and wounded, but after some days we succeeded in getting it comparatively clean. We were not prepared as nurses, but our hearts made our hands willing and our sympathy ready, and so with God’s help, we did much towards alleviating the dreadful suffering.”

Sisters of the Holy Cross were the foremothers of the Naval Nursing Service, going aboard the USS Red Rover in December 1861.
Sisters of the Holy Cross were the foremothers of the Naval Nursing Service, going aboard the USS Red Rover in December 1861. | Source

Davis Studio Publishing

Davis Studio Publishing — Kindness Apps — A tiny digital studio dedicated to remembering the kindness in history. Our mission at Davis Studio is to share these heart touching stories about Catholic Sisters' service as nurses during the American Civil War in hopes that they will take their rightful place in women's history and U.S. history as a whole. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Sisters of the Holy Cross ministries.

Where the Sisters were serving as nurses during the Civil War

Bobbie's Story from On the King's Highway pp. 245-246

“At one time they found in the pesthouse a dying woman with a beautiful four-year-old boy name Bobbie. She had come there to take care of her husband. He had died and she was now grieving over what would become of her child. Mother promised to take care of him. After the woman died, Mother told the little chap that he was going home with her and that he must do just what she told him and must keep very quiet. She then put him under her Habit skirt and walked boldly out with him. If the doctors saw the outline of his body under her skirt, they gallantly looked the other way. When Mother was called home from Cairo to be general stewardess she brought Bobbie with her, and he went to Notre Dame to school. She gave him some sheep, calves and chickens to raise and then purchased them from him, so that he could buy his own shoes and clothes and books and start a bank account in a little toy bank.

After two years, he was prepared for his First Holy Communion. He liked to help to gather up the clothes bags on Sunday and ride on the wagon down the west road to the old washhouse on the riverbank below the presbytery. One Sunday the gab on which he was sitting slipped and threw him in front of the wheels, which ran over his body. Father Vagnier, the chaplain, saw this from the porch, jumped over the railing, ran to the child, and carried him to the house. The little fellow cried for Sister Augusta and Sister Bertha. When Mother reached him, she asked the priest to bring him his First Holy Communion. The little boy received his Lord and was anointed. He lived for two hours, remaining conscious all the time. He gave his chickens to one Sister, his sheep to another, his calves to Sister Bertha, and reaching his little hand to Mother, he said, ‘You may have my bank.’ He was buried in the shady east corner of the Sisters’ cemetery.

Some years later it was necessary to move Bobbie’s remains. When the small grave was opened, Mother went down the ladder herself, gathered up the little bones, arranged them in a box, and carried the box to Cedar Grove Cemetery, South Bend, where it now rests in a lot owned by the community.”

One of the many hospitals run by the Sisters of the Holy Cross.
One of the many hospitals run by the Sisters of the Holy Cross. | Source

“There are some people who can inspire others to do what ordinarily speaking is impossible; Mother Angela was one of these. Her faith and courage never recogn


October 1861 — It was a brisk, cool October evening just before dusk. Deciduous tree leaves had already set in their striking fall colors of red, yellow and orange. The failing sunset on the horizon cast shadows of falling leaves waltzing with the chilly winds. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart’s bell tower had just struck six, when a horse and rider in full gallop raced across the campus of Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana. He was carrying an urgent dispatch from Governor Oliver P. Morton. The message was an appeal for help to save wartime lives. Soldiers were dying daily for lack of better care, would Father Sorin please ask the Sisters of the Holy Cross to serve as military nurses?

After reading the plea, Father Sorin, accompanied by Brother Francis Xavier, rushed across the street to St. Mary’s to talk with Mother Angela and the Sisters of the Holy Cross. As Providence would have it the Sisters were already gathered together. When they heard the appeal, they “volunteered almost in one voice.”

Feeling the urgency, Mother Angela must have spent much of that night readying instructions for her immediate departure. There was much to do packing the necessities and appointing replacements. Certainly countless footsteps clamored through the halls gathering together all the supplies that could be imagined for the journey and eventual arrival in the war zone. Bandages, medicines, food, everything that could be parted with and reasonably transported must have been pulled together. Without a doubt many delicate conversations and prayers took place, while decisions needed to be made. Who would take charge in Mother’s Angela’s absence?

Willing Hearts — Sisters of the Holy Cross — Civil War Nurses — 1861-1865

The Sister-nurses’ service is a remarkable story of faith, courage and finding joy amidst an angry, divisive time in our country. Yes, within days of volunteering to serve as nurses, Sisters found themselves in the middle of civil war, with little or no supplies and in challenging times nearly impossible to envision. Sister Paula (Casey) wrote about her arrival, “Of course we never knew what war was until that 7 [sic] day of Dec 1861. Then we tasted it to the fullest extent.”

It is impressive how the Sisters faced these difficulties head on, and by doing so saved countless lives. Prior to the Civil War, “nursing” was just beginning to become a recognized profession. But many of the Sisters had helped their communities during the horrific cholera epidemics of the 1850s, and through those arduous periods gained healthcare experience. Throughout the Civil War, the Sisters never hesitated to go onto battlefields to succor the wounded and dying. They were not afraid to nurse patients in the pest-houses suffering from a multitude of contagious diseases, although they lost two of their own during the war, both from disease. The Sister-nurses helped establish nursing protocols and procedures that became the roots of the modern nursing profession. Those that served on the naval ships became the foremothers of the Naval Nursing Service.

Atlanta Campaign — Army of the Cumberland
Atlanta Campaign — Army of the Cumberland | Source

Researching for Willing Hearts app

It has taken us two years to complete Willing Hearts, and through it all, it has been a joyful experience for us to work closely with the Sisters of the Holy Cross. Our initial contacts with the Sisters were Sister Madeline (Wilhoit), Sister Joanne Becker and Sister Jeanette Fettig. Each Sister helped us negotiate their archives, dig up a multitude of historic photographs, and answer our countless questions. Sister Madeline passed away soon after the project began, but Sister Jeanette stepped in and has been invaluable in her knowledge, expertise and excitement for our app.

Recently, Sister Catherine Osimo and Sister Timothea (Kingston) joined the Holy Cross archives. Along with Sister Jeanette, they gave us solid, thoughtful ideas, comments and constructive criticisms. With their input, we were able to complete a revised text and eventually present our story, a short version of the app, and discuss our hopes for the project.

Ours is a whole new way of experiencing a “book” and we tend to call our “readers” media voyagers instead. We love using the multi-media format to enhance the media voyagers’ experience. In travelling through one of our apps, we include primary documents, movies, sound effects, photographs and all sorts of interactive features. Sister Catherine organized a group of women religious to read the words of their earlier Sisters. The readings were performed by Sister Mary Ann Uebbing, Sister Alberta (Zimmer), Sister Catherine Osimo, Sister Helen Sharp, Sister M. John Margaret (Dietzen), Sister Yvonne Arcand, and of course, Sister Jeanette Fettig. Their readings, infused with compassion and determination, further brought the words alive for a modern-day audience. Also, the Loretto Choir sang a period song, oftentimes sung by the Sister-nurses. “Tenting Tonight” was put to a short movie accentuating the poignant lyrics.

In October 2016, Willing Hearts—Sisters of the Holy Cross – Civil War Nurses 1861-1865 made its debut in the appstores, first for Amazon and then for Apple devices. We feel that it is important for this story to be introduced to a new digitally mobile audience in hopes that this touching and heroic story will take its rightful place in women’s history and in U.S. history as a whole.

How did it all start? Well, we started researching and writing creative non-fiction about twenty years ago. That’s when we began sleuthing around the archives of small towns and big cities, collecting little-known stories for our newspapers-in-education program. No location was too remote — even dusty attics and barns did not escape our hunt for primary source materials. Then one day a long-sought-after document crumbled to dust in our hands – with nothing left but a few bits of yellowed clear tape — literally bringing us to tears. There was no time to waste. We realized the urgency to document stories that were being lost at a rapid pace to decaying newspapers, letters and microfiche.

It was during one of our sleuthing trips when we first came across the poignant story of Sister Lucy, SCN. As a young woman, Sister of Charity of Nazareth and musical prodigy, Sister Lucy served as a nurse during the opening months of the Civil War and was so beloved by her patients — well — the rest of the story can take your breath away.

We eventually built her story into our first Catholic app titled, Civil War Truce — The Story of Sister Lucy Dosh, SCN. After its debut, Civil War Truce received rave reviews and in late 2014 won a gold-medal for the Illuminating Book Award — Shining A Light on Exemplary Christian Literature! You can find Civil War Truce now in your favorite appstore, and please keep an eye out for Willing Hearts debuting soon!

Did you know about the service of Catholic Sisters during the Civil War?

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