Spirituality at Carville

By Debbie Shelley

The Catholic Commentator

Life in prison was the sentence they received even though they had not committed murder, treason or robbery. Their “crime” was having a disease which medical science now shows that 95 percent of the world population is not susceptible to.

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The first group of four Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul arrived at the national leprosarium in Carville, which was the first and only in-patient hospital in the U.S. for the treatment of leprosy, on April 17, 1896. With Father Michael Colton, then chaplain, and Sister Beatrice Hart, center, sister superiors, are, from left, Sisters Mary Thomas Stokum, Annie Costello and Cyril Coupe. They were met with almost insurmountable obstacles, one being the dilapidated condition of the Indian Camp Plantation Home which was to be their quarters. See related story on page 12. Photos provided by Elizabeth Schexnyder | National Hansen’s Disease Museum, Carville


And for thousands, that “sentence” was served at a leprosarium in Carville, now known as the National Hansen’s Disease Museum.

Known by the name leprosy, Hansen’s disease has been feared and misunderstood throughout history. Most people’s knowledge of the disease stems from biblical references, in which those who had it were banished from their community and loved ones and labeled “unclean.”

That stigma continued to more recent times in Louisiana, according to Dr. David M. Scollard, director of the National Hansen’s Disease Programs and Elizabeth Schexnyder, curator at the museum. The museum honors leprosy patients who were there and the medical staff who attended to them and made medical history.

In 1890-92, a series of articles published in the New Orleans Daily Picayune revealed that when cases of leprosy were diagnosed in the New Orleans area, patients lived in a “pest house” run by a physician “who was on a state contract.”

In 1892, Louisiana passed a law requiring people diagnosed with leprosy to be quarantined in a selected location. A board of control was established to run the leprosy home. They selected Indian Camp Plantation in Carville. Patients began arriving by coal barges in November of 1894. Once there, patients were quarantined for the rest of their lives.

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Among the social activities at the national leprosarium at Carville was a Mardi Gras ball.


Located near the end of the road by a levee, patients were fearful and considered it the end of their lives. Their new homes were the slave cabins at the abandoned plantation.

The terms used to refer to the patients were the same as those used for prisoners. Bounties were offered for those who escaped “through the hole” in the fence. They were usually punished by being jailed.

Patients were occasionally allowed visitation with family members and lucky ones were paroled.

Bringing a light of hope to the leprosarium, where the scourge of loneliness was acute as the disease itself, were the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul.


The president of the control board, Dr. Isadore Dyer, had suggested that the Daughters of Charity, uncloistered servants of the poor working where they found those in need, care for the patients. After some consultation, the sisters accepted the mission. With spartan spirits the sisters, who had the motto “The charity of Jesus Christ crucified urges us,” met almost insurmountable conditions. The biggest was the dilapidated condition of Indian Camp Plantation, which was to be their headquarters, according to Schexnyder.

But they were determined to bring dignity to the patients.

Sister Beatrice Hart, Sister Superior, who was one of the first four Daughters of Charity to arrive at Carville, wrote in a letter dated April, 1896:

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Sister Hilary Ross DC, lived and worked at the Carville hospital from 1923 to 1960 where she helped to build a research laboratory for drug testing in partnership with Dr. George Fite.


“In the evening of the 16th we sailed from New Orleans and reached the plantation on Friday, the 17th. Our first move was towards the patients’ quarters, where the word leper will not be used, if possible. The patients could see the steamer arrive from their cabins and were out on the porches waiting for us. We went to each one separately and tried to make them feel we had come to be one with them, to care for them and make them happy. To look into their wants and supply them.

“And in this they must try to see the goodness of God their Father providing for them, in their suffering and lonely condition.”

The sisters began at once to establish a sense of community. Mass was celebrated within the first 24 hours of their arrival. The first chapel was built inside one of the slave quarters and measured 26′ x 15′.

In a letter about the first chapel from the sisters to their mother house, one sister wrote, “I know you would enjoy a half hour in our sweet little chapel, and while kneeling there in the presence of the Lord, watch these poor, afflicted ones come in and pray and approach the altar. I fancy they used the words mentioned in the Gospel, ‘Lord, if thou will it, thou can make me clean!’ ”


Schexnyder said that not only was life at Carville made more tolerable by the arrival of the sisters, but their presence gave hope for a Christian death and burial.

In 1896, Sister Beatrice wrote, “Before we took charge of them, they were thrown like dogs into the grave the same day they died. I have insisted on a Christian burial. Nothing short of a high Mass would satisfy Father Colton (chaplain there). The sisters sang.”

After a touching Mass, procession and burial, Sister Beatrice wrote, “We had buried the bodies of the poor in the spirit of our Lord. The reverent care that these bodies received has made a deep impression and has, the patients say, taken away all the sting of dying here.”

Schexnyder noted that the sisters had developed such a close relationship with the patients that they were buried alongside them in the cemetery.

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 Theater productions were part of the community life at the leprosarium at Carville.


The museum curator stated that 116 sisters served at the Carville mission for 109 years, caring for over 5,000 patients. They worked as nurses, medical records librarians, X-ray technicians, dieticians, medial researchers, assistants in dental and bandaging clinics, religious leaders and confidents and friends. Scollard said the sisters played a major role in advancements in the treatment of leprosy. On April 11, 1957, the Daughters of Charity at Carville were presented with the Distinguished Service Award, the highest award of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, “for devoted services to the patients of the leprosarium at Carville, and contributions to the success of the unique program at this hospital.”

The Health Resources and Services Administration assumed federal responsibility for the management and operation of the Carville facility in 1982.

Scollard said what was once considered a curse from God because of sin is now treated on an outpatient basis, and if treated early, many patients live normal lives. He said complications from the disease come when people delay going to the doctor or doctors misdiagnose it because they still think of it as an ancient biblical disease.

To dispel such misconceptions, people such as Jose Ramirez Jr., a former patient at Carville, dedicate their lives educating people about Hansen’s disease and advocating for people affected by it.

Ramirez was 20 years old in 1968 when he was diagnosed with Hansen’s disease in Laredo, Texas and brought to Carville in a hearse. His family was devastated, especially his mother, who thought she had done something wrong that led to him having the disease. He had plans for his life, and he and his childhood sweetheart, Magdalena, whom he later married, struggled with the meaning of everything that had happened. It was thought that he would die.

The Daughters of Charity and the Carville community became family and played a big role in the ongoing physical, psychological and spiritual healing for Ramirez. The sisters were forthright in providing information, comfort and friendship for Ramirez and his family.

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“They made him feel like it was going to be all right, that he would be able to accomplish the goals he wanted to accomplish before he was diagnosed,” said Magdalena Ramirez.

While living at Carville, Ramirez earned his degree in social work from LSU, and, combining the research with personal experience, is working to eradicate the stigma of the disease. He is the author of “Squint: My Journey with Leprosy,” and is managing editor of The Star, a magazine dedicated to publishing the truth about Hansen’s disease.

Schexnyder and Scollard credited the sisters with helping Carville become a self-sustaining community full of hope for those patients facing such a blight on their health and entire lives.

“The patients, according to several accounts, were extremely moved to find that when they got here, a place that many of them were afraid of, they were in the hands of nuns who recognized them and treated them well,” said Scollard. “The sisters were a great source of consolation for them. You read in diaries of the patients that they struggled with ‘Why did this happen to me? Why have I been isolated? Whey have I been torn away from my family?’ Many times, the answers they were seeking weren’t medical, they were spiritual, philosophical. I don’t know how the nuns answered the questions at the time. But they think of any disease in its spiritual sense, which is the most important.”

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In 1943, Hansen’s patients at Carville celebrated the coming of Christmas with the production “The Manger Prince.”