Nuns on the Frontier

An early re-enactment of the 1869 journey from Galveston to San Antonio undertaken by three Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word. The journey resulted in the formation of what is today the largest congregation of women religious in Texas.

When the sun rose on Sept. 9, 1900, the island city of Galveston, Texas, lay in ruins. What would come to be called The Great Storm, a hurricane of massive proportions, had roared ashore from the Gulf of Mexico overnight, sweeping “the Wall Street of the Southwest” from the face of the Earth.

Over the following weeks, rescuers pulled more than 6,000 bodies from the rubble, piled the remains on the beach, and burned them to prevent an outbreak of disease. Among the departed, discovered amid the wreckage of St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum, were the bodies of ninety children ages 2 to 13 and all ten Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word. In a valiant, yet ultimately futile, attempt to save the children from floodwaters that rose to twenty feet above sea level, each sister bound six to eight orphans to her waist with a length of clothesline. The lines tangled in debris as the water destroyed the only home some of the children had ever known.

Sister Vincent Cottier and two of her young charges at the orphanage in Galveston. All three perished during The Great Storm of 1900.
Sister Vincent Cottier and two of her young charges at the orphanage in Galveston. All three perished during The Great Storm of 1900.

All that survived of the orphanage were the three oldest boys and an old French seafaring hymn, “Queen of the Waves.” To this day, every Sept. 8 the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word worldwide sing the hymn in honor of the sisters and orphans who died in what remains the deadliest natural disaster ever to strike U.S. soil.

Established in Galveston in 1866 by three Catholic sisters from France, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word is a congregation of women religious. Not technically nuns because they take perpetual simple vows instead of perpetual solemn vows and work among secular society instead of living in seclusion behind cloistered walls, they nevertheless wear habits and bear the title Sister. Today the original congregation is based in Houston, but back then Galveston seemed an ideal spot for the women to build a convent, an orphanage, and a hospital. On January 7, 1867, they opened Nazareth Academy in Victoria, Texas. In 1883, the federal Bureau of Education praised the academy as one of six Texas schools providing “superior instruction of women.” By 1869, the sisters had founded a second congregation in San Antonio. From there, they expanded to other cities in Texas, including Amarillo, and even farther west, all the way to California. In 2014, the sisters operated missions in Ireland, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Kenya in addition to the United States. They continue to operate Nazareth Academy, but as a coeducational school serving children in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Two postulants from the Congregation of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, ca. 1890.
Two postulants from the Congregation of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, ca. 1890.

Armed with faith instead of guns, the sisters did their part to civilize Texas’s notoriously wild frontier. They did not do so without significant hardship. Catholics often were not well-tolerated in 19th Century America, although in Galveston the sisters were admired and even loved for their industry and benevolence. That benevolence led to the deaths of two of the original three Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, who perished during Galveston’s yellow fever epidemic of 1867.

As a Galvestonian, the history of the island city and its diverse people fascinates me. I continue to hope for inspiration that will grow into a story set here, where the past overflows with tales of adventure dating back well before the pirate Jean Lafitte built the fortified mansion Maison Rouge on Galveston in 1815. In the meantime, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word provided the inspiration for the heroine in a quick read, The Second-Best Ranger in Texas, which is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and .



A washed-up Texas Ranger. A failed nun with a violent past. A love that will redeem them both.

Thanks so much for stopping by. As a token of my appreciation, I’ll give a copy of The Second-Best Ranger in Texas, in the winner’s choice of e-fomats, to one of today’s commenters.

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23 thoughts on “Nuns on the Frontier”

  1. Galveston is one of my favorite places to escape to (though we haven’t been able to afford any kind of getaway in many years). I have heard the story of the great storm and the nuns and the children. But, I didn’t know the background of them. Thanks for sharing.

  2. You’re welcome, Janine. Galveston just happens to be one of my favorite places, too. 😉

    The Great Storm was such a tragic event. If you ever get a chance to watch the TV movie Isaac’s Storm, it’s an interesting presentation of the event and the issues surrounding the catastrophe. The author of the book on which the movie is based played with the historical record a bit, IMO, in blaming Galveston meteorologist Isaac Cline for the carnage. Cline lost his pregnant wife in the flooding, but he and his brother saved the couple’s three children.

  3. Thanks for sharing a bit of Texas history with us today. It is an interesting if tragic story. I love reading something that sends me searching for more information!

    • Connie, it’s a tremendously interesting and tremendously tragic story. Such an enormous loss of life in just a few hours! Galveston and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers immediately thereafter built a seventeen-foot-high seawall and raised the elevation of the lowest parts of the island in hopes of preventing a similar disaster in the future. So far, it’s worked!

      Have fun in your search for more information. If I can be of any help, please let me know! 🙂

  4. How tragic! I was not familiar with this bit of Texas history. Thank you so much for sharing an interesting post, Kathleen.

    • Always glad to be of service, Britney! 🙂

      The Great Storm was such a horrible event, but it left a legacy of self-reliance and camaraderie that continues to this day. Even I was amazed at the way the entire island came together after Hurricane Ike in 2008. Folks took in neighbors and strangers whose homes had been destroyed, and everyone worked side-by-side to restore what was lost. It was heartwarming.

      Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  5. So much history out there if we look for it… thank you for sharing today’s post with us Kathleen… I love this blog and all its history bits you all share!

  6. Wow what a wonderful story of our history. I really enjoyed it very sad though to here of everyones deaths. Thanks for sharing.

    • The loss of life and human potential was incredibly sad, Quilt Lady. We may no longer know the name of every victim — rescue workers stopped counting the bodies at 6,000, and there’s no telling how many more were lost and never accounted for — but those folks as a group will be remembered, and mourned, forever.

      Thanks for visiting again! 🙂

  7. I am frustrated. I had a long comment almost ready to post and a new post was added and the page flipped and deleted my comment. Will try again but won’t be the same. Thanks for the post. I have heard about it for many years. I think that Galveston might be where some of my Ancestors came into America by ship. Was a very tragic thing that happened. I live in Pasadena. My kids and their families families love to go to Galveston. Those women were very brave ladies and did so much good through the years. I didn’t know they had spread so far.I didn’t know about the book and Movie. Would love to find them. I would love to win your book. Maxie > mac262(at)me(dot)com <

  8. How interesting. I enjoy reading your blog, I learn something new almost everyday! thank you..
    dkstevensneAT outlook DoTCoM

  9. An interesting post. Thank you. I have never really understood why nuns were mistrusted and persecuted. I guess too many people couldn’t understand why someone would give up a life following the usual path of marriage and family to dedicate their lives to serving those who needed their help the most. Those they helped were their family. They were married to their vocation and their god. That tradition continues today.

    It is hard to imagine the intensity of the storm that hit Galveston and the destruction and death it caused. There have been few instances in the U. S. where bodies have had to be burned rather than given a decent burial due their large numbers.

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