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Florence Nightingale and the Catholic Church

Florence Nightingale is one of the most iconic of Victorians. She won fame for her care and efficiency in tending the wounded at Scutari during the Crimean War, drastically reducing the mortality rates among those she cared for, and went on to establish the world’s first secular nursing school at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. It is appropriate that the bicentenary of the birth of this effective founder of modern nursing should coincide with the Coronavirus pandemic, which has led to a greater appreciation of our healthcare workers, and that the emergency hospital opened at the capital’s ExCel conference centre should be named after her.

Florence was born on 12 May 1820 while her English parents, Fanny and William, were holidaying in Florence, then part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. She was named after her birthplace, although at that time it was not a common name for girls. It seemed something of a family tradition; an older sister, Parthenope, was also named after her place of birth.

Like so many children, she played at nurses: bandaging dolls her sister broke and administering first aid to a collie with a broken leg. On 7 February 1837, shortly before her seventeenth birthday, she felt that God was calling her to the ‘service’ of others. Though she was not yet sure what this would exactly entail, her life was changed and she turned down several offers of marriage so that she could dedicate herself to this vocation. Her family were, at first, opposed to her dreams. Nursing was not seen as an appropriate occupation for a well-born lady; even Queen Victoria thought it ‘unwomanly’

Florence was dissatisfied by the opportunities provided for women in the Church of England. She wrote that it offered men ‘bishoprics, archbishoprics, and a little work’ but ‘for women she has what? I would have given her my head, my heart, my hand. She would not have them. She did not know what to do with them. She told me to go back and do crochet in my mother's drawing-room; or, if I were tired of that, to marry and look well at the head of my husband's table.’ She was inspired by the community of Protestant deaconesses at Kaiserswerth-am-Rhein, which ran a hospital she visited in 1850.

Florence looked with admiration at the many nursing orders of sisters in the Catholic Church and made contact with the recent Catholic convert, Henry Edward Manning, who was already known to her. She unburdened herself to him in a lively correspondence and asked for help in visiting convents in Dublin and Paris.

In 1852 she started working at the Institution for Ill Gentlewomen on London and volunteered for the Middlesex Hospital during the cholera epidemic of 1854. By this time, reports were reaching Britain of the horrific conditions in the Crimea, where Britain, France, Italy and Turkey were fighting Russia. Thanks to her connections with Sidney Herbert, the Secretary at War, Miss Nightingale was appointed Superintendent of the Female Nursing Establishment of the English General Hospitals in Turkey.’ Sidney’s wife, Elizabeth, was a close friend and went on to become a Catholic and a famous writer as ‘Lady Herbert of Lea.’

Florence was joined in the Crimea by two groups of Sisters of Mercy. One came from the convent in Bermondsey; the superior of their party, Mother Mary Clare Moore, can be seen clearly in the Jerry Barrett’s famous painting in the National Portrait Gallery, Mission of Mercy: Florence Nightingale receiving the wounded at Scutari’. Another group of Mercy Sisters arrived from Dublin, thanks to the ministrations of the Vicar General of Westminster, Fr Robert Whitty, who had two sisters in the congregation: Mother Vincent, the Superior General, and Sr Mary Agnes, who joined the party to the Crimea. Another small group of sisters came from the Virgo Fidelis convent at Norwood. It is said that Bishop Grant of Southwark sent them a message one Sunday evening: ‘I must have five of the Sisters by seven o'clock to-morrow morning at London Bridge, ready to start for Constantinople.’

The War Office agreed to their presence on the condition that they did not try to win converts to Rome and that they took their directions from Florence. Despite some opposition in the Protestant press and initial tensions at Scutari, it proved to be a happy union. The sisters were able to draw on their long experience of nursing and were particularly appreciated by the many Catholic Irish soldiers. She gave them a room to use as a chapel, where news of the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was solemnly celebrated when it reached them at the end of 1854. Two of the sisters, Elizabeth Butler and Winifred Spry, died at their posts and lie buried on the heights of Balaclava. Florence later wrote to Herbert that they were ‘the truest Christians I ever met with,—invaluable in their work, devoted, heart and head, to serve God and mankind.’

Florence never publicly acknowledged the work of the Catholic Sisters at Scutari. Recognition eventually came at the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897 when Florence and the surviving nurses received the Royal Red Cross decoration, including four religious. 

Several of Nightingale’s nurses went onto become Catholics. Mary Stanley, sister of the celebrated Dean of Westminster and another friend of Sidney Herbert, was received into the Church in 1856 by Fr Ronan, an Irish Jesuit chaplain present in the Crimea; she went on to establish the Ladies’ Committee of the British Red Cross. Frances (‘Fanny’) Taylor likewise became a Catholic in 1855 and went on to found her own religious order, the Poor Servants of the Mother of God.

Florence did not follow them to Rome; indeed, by her thirties she had stopped attending church. However, she was deeply touched not only by the example of the nursing orders but by aspects of Catholic piety. On visiting Rome in 1847, for example, she underwent a retreat following the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. In setting off to the Crimea, Manning wrote to her: ‘my prayer for you will be that your one object of Worship, Pattern for Imitation, and source of consolation and strength may be the Sacred Heart of our Divine Lord.’ 

As we celebrate the bicentenary of her birth, we should not underestimate the Catholic connections of the famous ‘Lady with the Lamp.’

Fr Nicholas Schofield

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