The Sisters of Charity and the 1919 Spanish flu pandemicPrint
The Archives Manager, Janet Howes, knows this 100 year old image of an outdoor Mass at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney well. So in this time of coronavirus, she did some research. This is what she discovered:
A very different epidemic from now. In September 1918 the first news of outbreaks of “pneumonic influenza” in South Africa and the United States of America reached NSW. Returning soldiers from active service in World War I were most probably the cause of carrying the disease from Europe. By October, Spanish influenza had arrived in New Zealand and on 25 October 1918 a ship arrived in Sydney from New Zealand with infected passengers on board.
St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney recorded in its Annual Report for 1919:
The year 1919 has been, perhaps, the most eventful in the history of St Vincent’s Hospital; certainly never has its usefulness been more prominent, its aims more perfectly fulfilled. During those never-to-be forgotten days when the fatal epidemic, so mildly termed “‘influenza”, was sweeping over the city like a cruel blast…our Hospital gave shelter to hundreds of pestilence-stricken, many of whom returned whole to their homes; others, who had reached their allotted span, received in their last hours such consolation and relief as could be afforded them.
It is likely that one of the Sisters of Charity succumbed to the disease. On January 3, 1919, Sr M Ignatius D’Arcy (far right in the image at left), an Irish-born Sister of Charity, died of “pneumonia”, which she caught from a wharf labourer whom she had nursed until his death in St Patrick’s Ward. From 1877, Sr Ignatius nursed at St Vincent’s Hospital Darlinghurst in St Patrick’s Ward until her death 42 years later. St Patrick’s Ward, also known as the Sailor’s Ward or the Naval Ward, catered for naval patients.
The hospital reported at the end of 1919 that of the “epidemic diseases” 356 cases of “influenza” had been treated, of which 256 recovered and 63 died.
On February 16, 1919 a Mass was held in the grounds of the then Sacred Heart Hospice, Darlinghurst. White masks seen on the faces of some of the people kneeling on the lawn. The altar is located in the gazebo and the exterior of the back of the Hospice can be seen.
Out of shot on the left hand side can be seen the walls of the former Darlinghurst Gaol, where the Sisters ministered from 1841 until its relocation to Long Bay Gaol in 1914.