Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Sisters of Mercry at Cripple Creek, Colorado

Sisters of Mercy, Bennett Ave, Cripple Creek, circa 1899
Cripple Creek, Colorado is a small town nestled in the Rocky Mountains, west of Colorado Springs. The town originally had a population of about 500 people. The gold rush in the 1890’s led to the population booming to 10,000 and later to 50,000. Saloons, brothels, shops and hotels lined East Bennett Avenue, the main thoroughfare through town. Most structures were made of wood, and folks from various walks of life ventured there to either live or strike it rich. Once such group residing in Cripple Creek at that time was the Sisters of Mercy.

The Sisters of Mercy was founded in Dublin, Ireland, circa 1831, by Catherine McAuley. Catherine was born into a Catholic family. She was orphaned at age nineteen and went to live with relatives who had suffered financial loss and disapproved of her religious beliefs. She was forced to find employment and residence elsewhere and took a position as household manager for William and Catherine Callaghan, and as Mrs. Callaghan’s companion. McAuley spent the next two decades administering to the sick and the poor, especially women. When the Callaghans’ passed, she inherited their home. In 1827, she opened the first House of Mercy in Dublin. The House of Mercy provided religious, educational and social services to poor women and girls.

Through her work, and with the support of the Dublin clergy and two associates, Catherine established the Religious Institute of the Sisters of Mercy. Members were known as ‘walking nuns’ as they assisted the sick and the poor. When Catherine died in 1841, the organization had over 100 members, with 10 foundations in Ireland.

The Sisters of Mercy came to the United States in 1843, by invitation from the Bishop of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Within ten years, the organization expanded to New York, San Francisco and other parts of the country, establishing schools and hospitals. They arrived in Colorado in 1882 to establish a school and hospital in Durango. In 1889, the sisters were working in Denver and in 1894, Sister Mary Claver Coleman was sent to Cripple Creek to establish Cripple Creek’s first hospital, St. Nicholas Hospital.

Like many of the buildings in Cripple Creek, the sisters’ hospital was constructed of wood. A major fire erupted in Cripple Creek, circa 1896. It began on one side of the street and worked its way to the other side. Eventually, the fire was put out, but another major fire erupted four days later. With flames raging, men tossed sticks of dynamite into buildings in an effort to slow down the fire. The Sisters of Mercy scrambled to get their patients out of the hospital and to safety when one anti-Catholic man entered the hospital and tossed a stick of dynamite into the stove’s chimney, hoping to destroy the hospital. The dynamite exploded prematurely. He lost his leg, and the sisters evacuated and treated him, too. After he healed, he repented and thanked them for saving his life.

St. Nicholas Hospital, Cripple Creek, circa 1902
The original hospital survived the fire, but the Sisters saw a need for a modern, safer structure. They built a new hospital of brick, complete with electric lights, hot and cold running water and a surgery department. The first two floors of the new building were dedicated to patients. The sisters’ quarters were on the third floor and an orderly lived in the attic. The hospital received its first patient in 1898 and was named for and dedicated to Bishop Nicholas Matz. The Sisters eventually left Cripple Creek in 1924. The hospital was purchased and operated by local doctors. It eventually closed in 1972 and in 1995 was refurbished into the Hotel St. Nicholas.   

Today, Cripple Creek is host to several casinos and receives many tourists, local and from afar, daily.    


Jacquie Rogers said...

Julie, thanks for this excellent article on the Sisters of Mercy (I didn't know anything about them) and the history of Cripple Creek. Fire sure did shape a lot of our western cities. The Seattle fire was devastating but the ironic thing is that it's also what changed a wild west town into a real city.

D'Ann said...

Fascinating! I intend to write a story about a nun someday! SO many stories, SO little time.