Photo of the Week: The Nuns Who Went to WWI - Atlas Obscura
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Photo of the Week: The Nuns Who Went to WWI

In 1918, the Daughters of Charity were deployed to a hospital near the Italian Front.

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(All Photos: Courtesy Daughters of Charity Province of St Louise, St Louis MO)

You may not expect the 10 nuns in this photograph to be heading to a war zone. Yet in the summer of 1918, during World War I, they left for Italy as the Loyola Unit, with 90 nurses in tow. The unique headpiece seen in the photo–the cornette, a starched white cloth folded horizontally to form wide triangle shapes–identified them as members of the Daughters of Charity order.

The Daughters were some of the only nuns to serve with the American Army in the Great War, and were led by the woman seated in the front middle: Sister Chrysostum Moynahan. As Chief Nurse, this was not Sister Moynahan’s first experience of war: she had also cared for the wounded in the Spanish-American War. In 1916, she became the first registered nurse in Alabama.

Before leaving, Sister Moynahan spoke to The Sacred Heart Review, and explained: “It will be the happiest moment of our lives when we are ministering to the wounded and sick, in Italy.” Evidently she was less pleased about having her photograph taken–according to the Review, she consented only to serve as an example to others.

The Loyola Unit worked in Base Hospital 102, near Vicenza, 15 miles from the Italian Front. The injuries treated included malaria, influenza, and those inflicted by a new weapon of war: mustard gas. An excerpt from one of the Sister’s diaries describes the conditions: “There is heavy firing going on at this Front at the present time; the booming of the cannons can be heard here with not more than one or two minutes’ intermission.”

After returning to America, Sister Moynahan worked in hospitals in Missouri and Alabama. She died in 1941 and was buried with military honors.

These photographs form part of the exhibition, Over There: The Daughters of Charity’s Service in the First World War.