Updated: Sep 18, 2018
Every year, when hurricane season begins, I am reminded of the devastating storm that struck the coast of Galveston, Texas in 1900 killing thousands. This hurricane is still considered the deadliest in US history and though tragic, many stories of bravery emerged. Still the one that remains clearly etched in my mind is the story of St. Mary's Orphans Asylum. The facility was established in 1874 on 35-acre tract of land, a barrier island, that sat west of the bustling city of Galveston. At the time, the orphanage housed 93 children, many whose entire families had succumbed to the yellow fever plague. The orphanage, run by 10 Sisters of the Incarnate Word, was a safe haven for these displaced children. The sisters hailed from all over the globe, some as far away as France and Ireland. The youngest was only 21 and the oldest nearly 80 in 1900. These courageous women, gave their lives to protect the children in their care. This month's fearless post is dedicated to them.
September, 8 1900
The day started like every other Saturday as Sister Elizabeth Ryan traveled into Galveston proper by horse and buggy in order to get supplies from St. Mary's Infirmary for the orphanage. This was a weekly routine and a necessary one. Mother Gabriel, the assistant superior in town, pleaded with her to stay overnight for fear that the storm might wash out the wooden bridge connecting their island to the town. Although Sister Ryan knew the storm would be dangerous, she chose to drive back so that the children could eat dinner. As always, she was determined to put the needs of others in front of her own. Time and time again this courage would be repeated throughout that fateful day.
She arrived home before the storm broke and settled everyone for the long day ahead. As the afternoon continued, the sea became more ferocious pounding the shore and flooding low lying areas. According to one survivor, the waves eroded the dunes as if they were stacks of flour. Eventually the sisters decided that the newer girl's dormitory would be the safest place and hurried all the children into the chapel to lead them in hymns, particularly, "Queen of the Waves" - an old French hymn sung by sailors for protection from storms. They managed to keep the children safe and calm for several more hours before the waters began to rise forcing them upstairs. It was here, in an attempt to save as many children as possible, that each sister tied clothesline to several younger children and then to themselves, knowing that they would save the children or die trying.
The orphanage had survived many storms over the years, but this was different. The winds that night were recorded at 150+ mph, howling and battering both buildings, finally overtaking the boy's dormitory and destroying it completely. It must have been terrifying. Throughout it all, the sisters remained steadfast combating fear with quiet courage - comforting their little children with soft words, hymns and hugs.
When the full force of the storm hit, it tore the building apart lifting the girl's dormitory off its foundations and bringing the roof crashing down. The sisters and all but three of the children were trapped inside. The storm took a heavy toll on Galveston, with estimates of 6000-12000 deaths and years of reconstruction. Many of the sisters of St. Mary's were found days later still bound to the children they protected. Two of the sisters were found near each other across the bay with one still holding two small children in her arms - keeping her promise never to let go.
Every year on September 8th all around the world, the Sisters of the Incarnate Word take time to remember this tragic event. Below are the names of the women who lost their lives that night protecting the children of St. Mary's - fearless to the end.
Sisters of the Incarnate Word - St. Mary's Orphans Asylum - 1900
Sister Mary Catherine Hebert 1855-1900 Elizabeth Ryan 1865-1900 Camillus Treacy 1865-1900 Evangelist Sullivan 1865-1900 Raphael Elliott 1873-1900 Genevieve Devalos 1820-1900 Felicitas Rosener 1866-1900 Benignus Doran 1877-1900 Finbar Creedon 1879-1900 Vincent Cottier 1853-1900