Sunday, January 12, 2014

Nuns on the Frontier

By Kathleen Rice Adams

Sister Vincent Cottier, one of ten
Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word
who died during the 1900 Storm.
(courtesy Sisters of Charity
of the Incarnate Word, Houston)
When the sun rose on Sept. 9, 1900, the island city of Galveston, Texas, lay in ruins. What would come to be called The Great Storm, a hurricane of massive proportions, had roared ashore from the Gulf of Mexico overnight, sweeping “the Wall Street of the Southwest” from the face of the Earth.

Over the following weeks, rescuers pulled more than 6,000 bodies from the rubble, piled the remains on the beach, and burned them to prevent an outbreak of disease. Among the departed, discovered amid the wreckage of St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum, were the bodies of ninety children ages 2 to 13 and all ten Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word. In a valiant, yet ultimately futile, attempt to save the children from floodwaters that rose to twenty feet above sea level, each sister bound six to eight orphans to her waist with a length of clothesline. The lines tangled in debris as the water destroyed the only home some of the children had ever known.

All that survived of the orphanage were the three oldest boys and an old French seafaring hymn: “Queen of the Waves.” To this day, every Sept. 8, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word worldwide sing the hymn in honor of the sisters and orphans who died in what remains the deadliest natural disaster ever to strike U.S. soil.

Two postulants from the Congregation of the Incarnate Word
in San Antonio, Texas, ca. 1890. (courtesy University of
Texas at San Antonio’s Institute of Texan Cultures)
Established in Galveston in 1866 by three Catholic sisters from France, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word is a congregation of women religious. Not technically nuns because they take perpetual simple vows instead of perpetual solemn vows and work among secular society instead of living in seclusion behind cloistered walls, they nevertheless wear habits and bear the title “Sister.” Today the original congregation is based in Houston, but back then Galveston seemed an ideal spot for the women to build a convent, an orphanage, and a hospital. By 1869, they had founded a second congregation in San Antonio. From there, the sisters expanded to other cities in Texas, including Amarillo, and even farther west, all the way to California. In 2013, the sisters operated missions in Ireland, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Kenya in addition to the United States.

Sister Cleophas Hurst, first administrator
of St. Anthony’s Sanitarium in Amarillo,
Texas, 1901. (courtesy Sisters of Charity
of the Incarnate Word, San Antonio)
Armed with faith instead of guns, the sisters did their part to civilize Texas’s notoriously wild frontier. They did not do so without significant hardship. Catholics often were not well-tolerated in 19th Century America, although in Galveston the sisters were admired and even loved for their industry and benevolence. That benevolence led to the deaths of two of the original three Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, who perished during Galveston’s yellow fever epidemic of 1867.

As a Galvestonian, the history of the island city and its diverse people fascinates me. I continue to hope for inspiration that will grow into a story set here, where the past overflows with tales of adventure dating back well before the pirate Jean Lafitte built the fortified mansion Maison Rouge on Galveston in 1815. In the meantime, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word provided the inspiration for the heroine in a short story that appears in Prairie Rose Publications’ new western historical anthology, Hearts and Spurs. The collection of short stories by Linda Broday, Livia J. Washburn, Cheryl Pierson, Sarah J. McNeal, Tanya Hanson, Jacquie Rogers, Tracy Garrett, Phyliss Miranda, and me, is set to debut within days in both e-book and print.

“The Second-Best Ranger in Texas”

A washed-up Texas Ranger. A failed nun with a violent past. A love that will redeem them both.

His partner’s grisly death destroyed Texas Ranger Quinn Barclay. Cashiered for drunkenness and refusal to follow orders, he sets out to fulfill his partner’s dying request, armed only with a saloon girl’s name.

Sister María Tomás thought she wanted to become a nun, but five years as a postulant have convinced her childhood dreams aren’t always meant to be. At last ready to relinquish the temporary vows she never should have made, she begs the only man she trusts to collect her from a mission in the middle of nowhere.

When the ex-Ranger’s quest collides with the ex-nun’s plea in a burned-out border town, unexpected love blooms among shared memories of the dead man who was a brother to them both.

Too bad he was also the only man who could have warned them about the carnage to come.


  1. Tex, I'm already in love with your short story. A broken lawman and a nun...Love it! And the real story of these women's bravery and sacrifice could inspire volumes.

    I've always wanted to write a story with a nun, or former nun really, as the heroine and I finally found the right hero in a secondary character in my current wip. It's not technically a Western, but you'd have a hard time telling my hero he's not a cowboy. :)

    Best of luck to all you gals in the anthology!!


  2. Thanks, Rustler! Now you've got my curiosity up. A nun story, huh? (Regardless what happens in the tale, if you put a nun into a story -- even a former nun -- it will forever after be known as "that nun story you wrote." ;-) ) As good a storyteller as you are, I can't wait to read it. Your characters have a way of getting themselves into all kinds of briar patches. :-D

  3. Kathleen, I loved your story in H&S. And what a post this is. I had seen a show on tv about the hurricane and the nuns trying to save the kids by tying them to the line. That was so sad to me. This is just a fascinating bit of research you did and again, I can't say enough how much I enjoyed your story!

  4. Awesome post. People really didn't have a chance in those days when Mother Nature took over. Bless their hearts for all the good they tried to do.

  5. Thanks, Cheryl and Paisley. Every one of the folks who died during The Great Storm of 1900 had a story, and all of the stories ended violently in the middle of one of those proverbial dark and stormy nights. The nuns and the orphans were among the saddest losses, I've always thought. Ironically, the three eldest boys survived only because they weren't tethered to the others. At 13, the nuns left them loose so they could help if things went wrong. Things did go terribly wrong.

    I don't know what became of those three boys, but after reacquainting myself with the sisters as preparation for writing "The Second-Best Ranger in Texas," I'm beyond curious about their lives after the storm. I see some digging through records in my future. ;-)

  6. Really interesting, Kathleen. I never think much about nuns in the old west.

  7. You learn something new everyday and stuff I learn from you, Tex, is fascinating. I went and listened to the Queen of the Waves. Knowing the history behind it gives one chills.

    I hope you write that Galveston story soon and I look forward to reading your story in the new anthology.

    - The Crazy Canuck

  8. Tex, I loved your story in Hearts and Spurs! Quinn was quite a hero but the nun kept him off balance. :)

  9. What a terrific story, and so sad. I never thought about nuns being in the old west.



  10. Kathleen, I look forward to the next anthology from Prairie Rose. I loved WISHING FOR A COWBOY. Keep them coming!

  11. I've read a lot about the hurricane of 1900, but never about the nuns. I did know nuns were in the wild west here and there, but we just never knew much about them.
    To even try to imagine the horror those residents of Galveston went through is not possible.
    In my novel wish for the Moon, 1901, Max Landry has wandered homeless and lost a year after losing his entire family in the Galveston Hurricane. He was on the mainland to pick up his brother who was coming home from school on the train. But the train was washed away on the mainland, too, leaving Max the sole survivor.
    I researched the hurricane a lot and became immersed in the story.
    Wonderful post,--very different.

  12. Oh goodness, Kathleen, what a heartbreak, all those sweet children. I'm ever fond of nuns; I taught in Catholic schools for twenty years and have one as a close friend. In fact, in an upcoming release, I have a nun...well, she's disguised as one. But the outlaw-hero thinks she's one so he can't put the move on. Sigh. Of course it all works out.

    I am absolutely positive you can come up with a fabulous story! Congrats on Hearts and Spurs. IT's such an honor sharing it with you! xoxox

  13. Throughtout history it seems nuns have brought their love and care with them and shared it with those in need--and they've suffered for it.
    This was a great blog, Kathleen.
    I saw an episode in the History Channel about the hurricane in Galviston. It was so tragic.
    I'm going to love reading your story about the lawman and the nun. You're a marvelous story teller.


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