NunsOfTheBattlefield01

Nuns of the Battlefield Memorial

There is no shortage of unusual memorials in D.C., and on this lunchtime bike ride I visited one of them which happen to be dedicated to nuns. Now at first, that might not seem all that unusual. But as the title of the memorial indicates, the context of the nuns being honored gives it an unusual quality. It is the Nuns of the Battlefield Memorial, and it is located at the intersection of Rhode Island Avenue, M Street and Connecticut Avenue (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s DuPont Circle neighborhood.

The Nuns of the Battlefield Memorial is a tribute to more than 600 nuns who belonged to the 12 orders of nuns who nursed the sick and wounded soldiers of both armies during the American Civil War. It is one of two monuments in the District that mark women’s roles in the conflict, the other being The American National Red Cross Headquarters Building, which was built by the Army Corps of Engineers as a memorial to women of the Civil War.

The Nuns of the Battlefield Memorial not only honors the selfless service of the volunteer nuns during the Civil War, but could also be said to commemorate how that service helped to dispel the anti-Catholic sentiment that existed in America prior to the war. Anti-Catholicism reached a peak in the mid nineteenth century when Protestant leaders became alarmed by the heavy influx of Catholic immigrants, particularly from Ireland and Germany. In fact, nuns and sisters prior to the Civil War would not wear their habits outside of their convents for fear of insult or attack. There was even an instance of an anti-Catholic mob burning down a convent. But as a result of the quality of the nursing they received from these women of God, as well as their general kindness and good cheer, soldiers and others on both sides of the conflict were impressed, and generations of bigotry began to quickly dissolve.

The idea for the memorial originated with a woman named Ellen Jolly, who was the president of the women’s auxiliary branch of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, who said she grew up hearing stories of battlefield tales told by nuns. She initially proposed the memorial to the War Department just after the turn of the century, but the request was denied. After years of gathering additional information in support of the memorial, in 1918 she proposed the idea to Congress, which authorized its construction. However, they refused to fund it. So a committee to raise money for the project was formed by the Ancient Order of the Hibernians. Headed by Jolly, it took six years to raise the money and construct the memorial, which was finally dedicated in September of 1924.

The Memorial was created by Irish sculptor Jerome Connor, who also created the Monument to Robert Emmet, and the Statue of John Carroll on the campus of Georgetown University, both of which are here in D.C.  He is also reported to have assisted in the creation of  The Court of Neptune Fountain in front of the Library of Congress on Capitol Hill.

The Nuns of the Battlefield Memorial consists of rectangular granite slab that sits on a granite base, with a large bronze relief panel on its face. The relief depicts a dozen nuns dressed in traditional habit, representing the twelve different orders of nuns who served. Those orders are the Sisters of St. Joseph, Carmelites, Dominican Order, Ursulines, Sisters of the Holy Cross, Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis, Sisters of Mercy, Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, and Congregation of Divine Providence.

On each end side of the slab sits a bronze female figure. The figure on the right side has wings, and is dressed in robes, armor and a helmet, robes to look like an angel representing patriotism. Sitting, she holds a shield in her proper left hand and a scroll in her lap with her proper right hand. She is weaponless to represent peace. The other figure on the left side of the monument is another winged figure, and is depicted wearing a long dress, a bodice and a scarf around her head to represent the angel of Peace.

On the granite above the relief is inscribed: “They Comforted The Dying, Nursed The Wounded, Carried Hope To The Imprisoned, Gave In His Name A Drink Of Water To The Thirsty.” And on the granite below the relief: “ To The Memory And In Honor Of The Various Orders Of Sisters Who Gave Their Services As Nurses On Battlefields And In Hospitals During The Civil War.”

The memorial is part of a group entitled “The Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C.” which are spread out through much of the central and northwest areas of the city. They are listed as a group on the National Register of Historic Places.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

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