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L.A. Scene / The City Then and Now

'God's Geese' Watched Over Flocks of Girls

June 29, 1997|Cecilia Rasmussen

For six decades, it stood on a hill overlooking the Los Angeles River, protecting more than 9,000 children and guarded by an angel of mercy carved from stone.

Inside their five-story, red-brick landmark, the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul--kept equally steady vigilance over their young charges at the Los Angeles Orphan Asylum.

For about a century, these women of faith--known as "God's Geese" because of their distinctive wing-like white wimples--educated and cared for generations of the city's girls, many of them orphans and daughters of the poor. Some of that work was subsidized by the rich, who paid a stiff tuition for the rigorous education the nuns provided their children as well.

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The Daughters of Charity arrived in Los Angeles on Jan. 6, 1856. They waded ashore from a ship's dinghy that beached at San Pedro, then traveled north by stagecoach to Los Angeles. The initial band of six nuns had been sent from their American "motherhouse" in Maryland to open this city's first orphanage and hospital.

In those days, Los Angeles was a mecca for outlaws and gamblers and was torn by intense racial hatred. But that didn't stop the group's mother superior, Sister Mary Scholastica Logsdon, and her nuns--Sisters Anne Gillen, Corsina McKay, Francesca Fernandez, Angelita Mumbrado and Clara Cisneros--who set up shop in a leaky adobe at Alameda and Macy streets, where Union Station now stands. As rain poured through the roof during that unusually wet spring, they cooked their meals under an umbrella.

But the weather was the least of their problems. A language barrier was priority No. 1. Sister Scholastica and the two other American-born nuns spoke no Spanish, while three of their sisters, who were from Spain, spoke no English. But soon the nuns had opened Los Angeles' first formal school and orphanage, and began holding what were in essence the city's first English as a second language classes under the trees near their adobe.

Their lessons soon attracted women from the area's prominent Spanish-speaking families, along with their servants. From the start, the nuns insisted that the daughters of wealthy rancheros receive their instruction alongside poor orphans and Native American girls.

Within a few years of opening the school and orphanage, enrollment swelled to 170 girls, 45 of whom were orphans. The nuns began charging tuition, started accepting boarding students and launched something new to L.A.--fund-raising. The annual "Orphans Fair," along with dinners, dances and a circus, proved quite successful. Such social events were popular, in part, because the resourceful nuns usually arranged to have blocks of ice freighted down from the High Sierra to San Francisco, then transported to Los Angeles by ship.

But not every Angeleno was pleased with their presence. According to Michael J. Engh, a Jesuit priest and author of "Frontier Faiths: Church, Temple and Synagogue in Los Angeles 1846-1888," a neighbor of the sisters wrote in a letter: "I am mad every time I see one of these sisters in the yard with their kites flying around, I mean their bonnets . . . those Sisters are too ugly to tolerate."

But the sisters were anything but flighty, and they tirelessly pursued various business ventures to support their charitable work. They collected wood shavings to make mattresses, picked fruit from their 300 fruit trees, sold grapes from their 6,000 vines, and branded their own cattle with the letters S and C. (The nuns' nickname had become the Sisters of Charity.)

They also found time not only to teach, comfort the victims of natural disasters, find jobs for women, collect small state grants for the orphanage and raise funds, but also to negotiate a county contract to nurse the indigent sick at a dollar a head.

In 1858, the nuns opened the county's first hospital, the Los Angeles Infirmary (later known as St. Vincent's Hospital) in a rented four-room adobe with eight beds. One sister later recalled that providing milk for the patients was a challenge because "the cows were not accustomed to be milked, and the operation was a dangerous one."

For more convenience and because they lacked a well, the sisters bought additional land, extending their property to 14 acres and moving the hospital next to the orphanage. They also used their credit to borrow enough to replace their adobe with a brick building. The facility was completed just in time, for when the first of Los Angeles' reoccurring smallpox epidemics began in 1863, the Daughters of Charity were asked by city authorities to staff the "pesthouse."

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The nuns believed that they were doing God's work, but the earthly rules imposed by the local Catholic bishop, Thaddeus Amat, were getting in the way. Amat wanted their expanding properties put in his name.

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