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Mother Josephine Meagher, President Lincoln and Sister M. Rachel Conway

Abraham Lincoln and the Dominican Sisters of Springfield

Springfield, IL February 6, 2009 -- This month, the state of Illinois, and the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, will celebrate the 200th birthday of President Abraham Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky and made Illinois his home, a history that the Springfield Dominicans share since their Sister pioneers came to Illinois from Kentucky as did Lincoln. So they feel a personal claim to him. 

“Some of [Lincoln’s] near relatives and close friends were educated by the Dominican Sisters at St. Catharine’s Academy.”2   His most endearing relationship was with the town of Springfield where he departed with these words: “To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe every thing. Here I have lived for a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man.”

President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed this about the Catholic Sisters who nursed the wounded soldiers during the Civil War:  “Of all the forms of charity and benevolence seen in the crowded wards of the hospitals, those of some Catholic Sisters were among the most efficient.  I never knew whence they came or what was the name of their order.  More lovely than anything I have ever seen in art, so long devoted to illustrations of love, mercy, and charity are the pictures that remain of those modest Sisters going on their errands of mercy among the suffering and the dying.[ ...] As they went from cot to cot, distributing the medicines prescribed, or administering the cooling, strengthening draughts as directed, they were veritable angels of mercy.  Their words were suited to every sufferer.  One they incited and encouraged, another they calmed and soothed.  [...]   How many times have I seen them exorcise pain by their presence and their words!  How often has the hot forehead of the soldier grown cool as one of the Sisters bathed it!  How often has he been refreshed, encouraged and assisted along the road to convalescence by the home memories with which these unpaid nurses filled his heart.” 1

Additionally, the Sisters are linked to President Lincoln due to a tribute that is unprecedented.  Following his assassination, a tomb and monument were erected at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois.  On October 1874, distinguished representatives from all sections of the nation gathered to pay tribute to the esteemed leader at ceremonies of the unveiling of his statue at the tomb.  President Ulysses S. Grant had requested of the committee planning the dedication that two Sisters unveil the statue of Lincoln, which crowned the newly completed monument. This was to be a public expression of gratitude to all the ‘Nuns of the Battlefield’ who had served during the Civil War.2

The request had not been an idle gesture nor a fleeting whim.  To President Grant it was the requital of a debt.  Author Ellen Jolly writes in her book Nuns of the Battlefield: “Under his command, many hundreds of Sister-War-Nurses of twelve religious orders, including twenty distinct communities, had served with distinction upon land and floating hospitals, in prisons, and in the death-swept pest houses from the beginning to the close of the Civil War.  During the war President Lincoln had upon many occasions expressed ‘high regard for the Sister-nurses in the long and gigantic struggle.’” 3

There being no army nurses or any kind of nurses yet in the United States, it was Sisters, in every part of the country, who after a battle, pinned up their long habits, gathered basic medical supplies, and went onto the battlefields to tend the wounded and dying, often bringing them to their convents for nursing care. In Kentucky, for example, the Sisters sent the boarding students home, and after the battle of Perryville--which was fought practically on their doorstep--they brought the injured soldiers by cart to the students’ dormitory, which became an early intensive care units.

Nine years after the war had ended, no formal recognition had yet been made to these congregations, who without remuneration, had turned their convents into military hospitals, shared their food, and spent themselves wherever they were needed to ally the distress of war.  President Grant had decided that the ceremonies at Lincoln’s tomb afforded a perfect occasion for an overdue public expression of gratitude.2

According to an October 16, 1874 article in the Chicago Tribune: “In the procession which began to move at ten o’clock and which preceded the ceremonies, the President (U.S. Grant), with attendant generals in full regalia, occupied the first carriage, while the second bore the unveilers, whose humble, though peerless black and white garb formed a contrast to those about them.  So great and so dense was the crowd of people that is was necessary for the military to clear space through the crowd to enable them to reach the monument, where upon its concourse the two Sisters occupied seats of honor near President Grant, at the base of the obelisk against which stood the Statue of Lincoln.”4

Illinois Governor Richard J. Oglesby, the orator of the day had designed his eulogy so that it led to the climactic introduction for the unveiling.  “And now,” he concluded. “By the authority and under the direction of the National Lincoln Monument Association, in the presence of this vast assemblage who bear testimony of the fact, and under the gracious favor of Almighty God, I dedicate this monument of the obscure boy, the honest man, the illustrious statesmen, the great liberator, and the Martyr President, Abraham Lincoln, and to the keeping of time.  BEHOLD THE IMAGE OF THE MAN.”  At this moment two foundresses of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Mother Josephine Meagher and Sister M. Rachel Conway released the silken cords of the magnificent “Star Spangled Banner,” and the vast multitude for a hushed and breathless moment, watched the soft silken folds of red, white and blue glide slowly down revealing the statue of Lincoln.  Then followed a long, subdued applause. 2

Today, Springfield Dominican Sisters look back at this event as the beginning of their participation in civic events, their celebration of diversity and their commitment to peace and justice. Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address, "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds." As Lincoln called the people to be healers and reconcilers, the Dominican Sisters of Springfield preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, calling everyone to right relationships.

To commemorate his upcoming 200th birthday in February 2009, Congress established the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission (ALBC) in 2000. Dedicated to renewing American appreciation of Lincoln's legacy, the Illinois Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission has worked closely with numerous organizations, tourism agencies and institutions to organize events and programming in the local communities of Springfield. 

For more information on the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, or exploring a call to religious life, visit their congregational website at www.springfieldop.org.  To read the complete historical account of Sister Thomas Aquinas Winterbauer, OP, contact Nathan Mihelich at the Dominican Sisters Motherhouse in Springfield, IL, nathan@spdom.org


By A Nathan Mihelich

1.  Graham, James M. Dominican in Illinois:  A History of Fifty Years.  The Edw F. Hartmann Co. Publishers.  Springfield, Illinois.
2.  Winterbauer, OP.  Sister Thomas Aquinas.  Lest We Forget:  The First Hundred Years of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, IL.  Adams Press.  Chicago, Illinois 1973. 
3.  Jolly, Ellen Ryan.  Nuns of the Battlefield.  Kessinger Publishing. 2006.
4.  Chicago Tribune.  October 16, 1874