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TWENTY-FOUR YEARS IN BUENOS AYRES.
IN 1856 the Sisters of Mercy were seen for the first time in the
straight streets and flowery plazas of Buenos Ayres. A large tide of European emigration had been turning towards the Argentine Republic, and these Religieuses had come at the urgent call of the authorities, civil and religious, to minister to the pressing wants of the native and foreign population, and establish schools and hospitals throughout the territory. The above joint applications had been made to the parent house at Dublin, and Archbishop Cullen and Mother M. Vincent Whitty took the deepest interest in this first South American foundation. The former gave a special blessing to the courageous volunteers, bade them apply to him as to a father in any contingency that might arise in their new field of labor, and rely on his aid in every emergency. The latter gave them a warm maternal benediction, made every possible arrangement for their spiritual and temporal weal, and followed them with love and prayers over the vast watery expanse which she herself has since crossed more than once.
It was, therefore, with deep spiritual joy and high hopes that the little band of five sisters turned their faces southward on the Feast of the Kings, January 6, 1856, and set out on their toilsome journey from the Liffey to the Rio de la Plata. Cheerfully did they bear the terrible heat of the Torrid Zone, the monotonous days, the trying tediousness of that lengthy voyage. While most of the passengers, enervated by the fierce tropical sun, lay stretched out as if dead, they were up and doing. The cooler weather of the South Temperate Zone, and its beautiful starry skies, were a relief and a joy to them. On the 24th of February, after a prosperous voyage, their vessel cast anchor in the immense river along whose shore stretches Buenos Ayres. A tug brought them near land, and in a few moments they briskly clambered down its sides to the boat that was to land them opposite their provisional convent. For two years they resided in a private house in Calle Merced, whence they removed to the fine convent in Calle Rio Bamba, built for them by the Irish people. Dr. Excalada,' the saintly old Archbishop, heartily welcomed them to his episcopal city.
1 This holy man died at Rome during the Vatican Council. So highly did the people venerate him that they had his remains brought back and deposited in his Cathedral. He was succeeded by his Vicar-General, the present incumbent, Dr. Anieros.
Buenos Ayres was not, in 1856, the beautiful city it has since become. It was, however, unique in the eyes of the newcomers. Its long narrow streets, stretching into the pampas, were lined with low, white houses of adobe or sun-dried brick, surrounded, in Spanish fashion, by gardens, and shaded by trees which have long since given place to unsightly telegraph and telephone poles. Here and there were large stone churches outlined against the sky, Moorish arcades, and low private palaces, carved and pillared, through whose arched windows the sun rarely penetrated. It had, and still has, many beautiful public squares, a healthy Spanish custom which other nations are too slow to adopt. From the unsurpassed salubrity of the climate, the city and province have been called Buenos Ayres (good air).'
But neither Dr. Cullen nor the Mother Superior understood the circumstances of the country which had so earnestly begged through its one Archbishop, and its chief magistrate, for a branch of the Mercy Order. They did not remember, if, indeed, they ever knew, tha: "the revolution of '48 had caused the scum of Italy to migrate to that once peaceful land," men who, " by their numbers and wicked organizations, were destined to make ruin, anarchy, and irreligion the order of the day, set the government at defiance, and establish a reign of terror." Nor were the home authorities aware, in those days of little steam and less telegraph, that a fearful epidemic was raging in the city to which they missioned the devoted band.
Yes, when the Sisters arrived, it was not the red flag but the yellow---not the demon of periodic revolution, but the Angel of Death--that hovered over the fair city. They had no work to do as educators, but, entirely unacclimated as they were, their services were at once called into requisition as nurses. Their days and nights were spent assisting the sick and preparing the dying for the better land. The whole town was laid waste by yellow fever. The worst cases were sent to the Lazaretto, and of this temple of horrors they at once took charge. The pamperos or prairie wind was supposed to have brought the plague. The very atmosphere was pestilence-laden; its boasted salubrity had vanished. Buenos Ayres had become the city of bad air. Every breath they inhaled was poison. Yet they drank of the deadly thing and it hurt them
The horrible scenes peculiar to epidemics were enacted over and over again. Frightened wretches forsook their nearest and dearest. Panic-stricken crowds fled to the country. At the first approach of peril, the infidel party had rushed madly towards the shadows of the snow-capped Andes; and on their return, when the last vestige of the plague had disappeared, the heroic charity of a few poor women, strangers in the land, compelled their admiration and esteem.
1 “Santisima Trinidad de Buenos Ayres” was the name given the city by the Spaniards who planned it.
II. Yellow fever came again and again, and history repeated itself. In the pestilence of 1871, the official report gave the number of deaths as 13,000, but 20,000 would be nearer the truth. Eight of the sisters were prostrated, as much by exhaustion produced by incessant nursing as by disease, yet not one died. What they underwent on these occasions no tongue could tell, no pen describe. But their labors and sacrifices were all for One who, on the great accounting day, will reward even a cup of cold water given in His name.
After each terrific visitation a period of comparative quiet followed. On account of their skill as nurses, and their success in saving cases which even the medical men deemed hopeless, the whole population was at such times, figuratively, at their feet. The State vied with the Church in doing them honor, and styled them the saviours of the city. The Sisters took advantage of one of these favorable epochs in their history to build a fine hospital-a necessary adjunct to a city always menaced and often visited by yellow fever. The site was selected in Rio Bamba, the highest quarter of Buenos Ayres; and the institution, open to all kinds of fevers, attained, under their able superintendence, a high degree of efficiency.
III. Delightful climate and wonderfully productive soil characterize most of the Spanish-American republics. But these and other advantages are all but neutralized by the chronic instability of the governments; and revolutions are almost as common as floods, earthquakes, or epidemics. A group of daring men at home, any collection of carbonari from abroad, may be able to upset the firmest government yet established in these territories. Between 1810 and 1835 there were thirty-six changes of government in Buenos Ayres; and many have since occurred. Every change brought trouble to the sisterhood. The despotism of the "blood and iron" Don Manuel Rosas, who styled himself “the Eternal," had but recently ceased when the Sisters of Mercy were invited to the country. Indeed, the so-called liberal party, with a fine sense that liberty consists in license to crush all who venture to dissent from one's peculiar views, had been playing at annoying or suppressing convents from its advent to the beautiful region to which it has been such a scourge. And if, by fits and starts, it tolerated
the Sisters of Mercy—the only religieuses within the limits of the republic for the twenty-four years of their residence in Buenos Ayres-it was because of the immense advantages society derived from that devoted body of women, the only trained nurses and teachers then in the country.
With the exception of New Orleans Buenos Ayres is, perhaps, the most cosmopolitan city in the world. On the arrival of the Sisters about one-third of the population was European. Italians were the most numerous of this contingent. There were also Spaniards, Irish, French, Americans, Germans, English, Gauchos, Negroes, Indians, poor specimens of the Children of the Sun-a sprinkling of mestizos and mulattoes—in short, of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation. Spanish, and Spanish spoken with an Italian accent, and English, were the chief languages heard on the streets. Canon Fahy, their chief friend among the clergy, wished the Sisters to be specially beneficial to the Irish settlers. But these, for the most part, wisely kept aloof from the city. They were very much scattered. As stock raisers and wool farmers they may be said to have developed a new industry and added a new article to the commerce of the country. Their occupation kept them at a distance on large estancias or cattle farms, where they have become the most extensive sheep-raisers in the world. Sometimes an Argentine caballero, splendidly mounted, his horse and saddle, solid silver stirrups and pommels, worth a small fortune, his shoulders draped with the national poncho (blanket), drew up before the convent-gate, and spoke to them with the accent of Cork or Donegal-an estanciero, thoroughly naturalized. But, on the whole, they saw little of their country-people. All Argentines, whether by birth or adoption, were equally the objects of their zeal.
Boarding-schools were soon added to their convent. A second convent was founded at Mercedes, two hours distant by rail. An orphanage and a house of mercy adjoined each institution. All this was done in the face of almost unceasing opposition from the infidel party, which too often held sway in the Southern Republic. While their charity was remembered they were unmolested in their works of education and benevolence. But such remembrance was short-lived. “Ah," said a holy Jesuit to them on their arrival, “I know you expect the cross, for, as you say, the cross is everywhere. But it is much larger in South America than elsewhere." The enemies of religion were compact and thoroughly organized ; the good people were scattered and without a leader. Liberty too often degenerated into license. The men in power seemed incapable of understanding that all the inhabitants of a republic are equally entitled to its privileges, provided they observe its laws.
The leader of the Buenos Ayres Sisterhood, Mother M. Evangelista Fitzpatrick, in every sense a superior woman, was born in Dublin on Christmas Eve, 1822, of parents remarkable for piety, charity, and intellectual endowments. Her father, who was well known in the literary circles of his day, took an active part with O'Connell against the Veto and for Emancipation. His charity was unbounded. He was called the father of orphans. His wife cordially seconded his charitable plans. The virtues of the parents passed to their offspring. One of their sons fell as a missionary chaplain at Kyper Pass, India. Another sacrificed his life for his flock in a distant western state. Even in this family of apostles Mother M. Evangelista was distinguished from childhood for tender piety and unlimited charity. She showed a real personal love for the poor and helpless—beautiful traits fostered by prayer and the saintly example of her parents.
No one was surprised when this lovely, accomplished girl left all for Christ, and became a Sister of Mercy at the age of twentytwo, a period of life when the world holds forth its fairest charms. She was received by Mother M. Cecelia Marmion, whose death she so beautifully describes in a letter quoted in the second volume of “ Leaves from the Annals of the Sisters of Mercy.”
As a novice she exhibited the virtues characteristic of her long religious life-solid, unaffected piety, self-denial, charity, and exact observance of rule. During the cholera of 1849 she was the life and soul of the Sisters appointed to minister to the victims of that awful disease in the camp or shed hospitals at Glasnevin. Here she gained the skill and experience that stood her in good stead beneath the Southern Cross. It used to be said that cholera never passed the equator. But the cholera at Buenos Ayres in 1873 was only less dreadful than the epidemic of yellow fever in 1871. Mother M. Evangelista was attacked at the midnight Mass, at Christmas, and the Sisters had a sad feast. Though at death's door for several days, God gave her back to their prayers.
When it was decided to respond to the Argentine appeal Mother M. Evangelista was named Superior of the valiant band destined for that distant and most uninviting mission. From the first the undertaking was full of crosses and contradictions. These served to show the true spirit of the holy Mother, who was subsequently styled “the Apostle of Buenos Ayres." The natives, the Spanish settlers, and the government (before it fell under infidel influence) were most kind to the Sisters. And even the infidel party, at once bold and unscrupulous, could not always hold out against the heroic charity of the good Mother and her worthy daughters.