In 1896, the Daughters of Charity boarded a barge on the Mississippi River at Canal Street heading to Carville, Louisiana, about 70 miles upriver from New Orleans. Carville was the new site of the Louisiana Leper Home, where the Sisters performed both managerial and nursing duties. It was no coincidence that a religious community became the caregivers to leprosy patients. By the time the Federal government instituted isolation facilities in the late 19th century, religious communities had a long history of caring for the sick. In 1633, Vincent DePaul organized young peasant women in France, known as Filles de la Charité, to answer the country’s need for caregivers to the sick and the poor. In 1809, Elizabeth Seton founded the Sisters of Charity in the United States based upon the tradition of DePaul’s group. The Sisters answered the call in both war and peace, providing professional nursing services to those who fought in the Civil War and the Spanish American War as well as caring for the sick, orphaned and poor. In 1850, the Sisters joined with the Daughters of Charity to become one religious community.
In 1832, before the two orders merged, Bishop Rosati summoned two Sisters of Charity to teach at the Poydras Asylum in New Orleans. Less than a year later, members of Charity Hospital’s Board of Administrators requested additional Sisters to take the reins of management and care at their hospital. The two Sisters worked at the Poydras Asylum until 1836, but then joined the other Sisters at Charity Hospital and nearby orphanages. During this time period, those diagnosed with a disease presumed to be contagious, including leprosy, were housed at Charity. In 1859, the Sisters opened a hospital of their own called Hotel Dieu (most recently LSU Interim Hospital, now closed). Through their work at Charity Hospital and Hotel Dieu, the Sisters became known as caregivers to those who New Orleans’ society had cast aside.
In 1891, the Daily Picayune published an article alerting the public to at least 25 known lepers loose in the streets of New Orleans and the pitiful conditions in which they lived at a “pest house” on Hagan Avenue. The 1883 passage of ACT 85 by the Louisiana Legislature appointed the Hagan Avenue pest house, previously a smallpox hospital, as the site of containment for those diagnosed with leprosy in New Orleans. The Daily Picayune article caused a public outcry to clean up the pest house and the streets.
When the New Orleans City Council did little to act, noted Tulane dermatologist Dr. Isadore Dyer and the newly formed State Board of Control took it upon themselves to provide suitable medical care to those suffering with leprosy. Dr. Dyer attempted to find a locale that was contained but also convenient for researchers and doctors coming from New Orleans. The Board of Control received numerous letters from local residents about available property close to the city, but the general public often reacted in hysteria to the suggestion of housing leprosy patients near their communities. It is unclear why the Board of Control selected Carville, seventy miles northwest of New Orleans in an isolated bend of the Mississippi River, when they had other offers for land much closer to the city. It is possible that the Board of Control believed the more isolated setting would result in fewer outcries from the public.
In the twilight of a November night in 1894, seven residents of the Hagan Avenue pest house stepped off of a coal barge and onto the overgrown, swampy grounds of the abandoned plantation. For the next two years, these patients lived in the delapidated former slave cabins with only one resident physician, Dr. L.A. Wailes. Soon finding himself overwhelmed, Dr. Wailes implored Dr. Dyer and the Board to request help from the Daughters of Charity. In March of 1896, the Sisters agreed to the duties of managing the home and caring for those confined there.
On April 16, 1896, four Sisters boarded the Paul Tulane to begin their journey to Carville. On that day, a crowd gathered at the Canal Street Wharf to see the Sisters off. A reporter from the Daily Picayune described the scene: “It was something of the tribute that a hero receives when he goes forth with deathless courage to battle to the end and wrest victory in a cause that is all but lost.”
Following an 18-hour journey up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, Sister Beatrice described the enthusiastic welcome from leprosy patients in a letter to the Visiatrix.
“The lepers watched the boat…until we finally stepped out. We told them that we had come to stay, wishing to do all that we could to comfort their lonely, suffering condition. It was touching to see the happiness of these poor people when they caught sight of the Sisters. They almost wept with joy. ‘Have you really, really come to stay with us?’ they kept repeating.”
In the following years, Sr. Beatrice expressed a desire to relocate the home. Heeding Sr. Beatrice’s plea to find a more suitable location, and with a sum of money appropriated by the State Legislature to purchase a site and build a leprosarium, the Board of Control settled on Elkhorn Plantation in present day Kenner. This site boasted 400 acres stretching from the river to the railroad at the back of the property, just isolated enough for the patients but close enough for city physicians to continue studying the disease. The property was sold under the belief that it would be used as a truck farm and fruit orchard. When nearby residents discovered the truth, protests forced the Board to take the matter under advisement.
In the early morning hours of May 23, 1901, a group of Jefferson Parish residents cut the Board’s advisement period short by setting the old Elkhorn plantation house on fire in protest of the proposed leprosarium. It then became evident to the Sisters that Carville would remain the Home’s permanent site, as this act of arson effectively ended any further attempts to find a new locale.
To learn more about life at the National Leprosarium in Carville, LA, visit the following tour: Carville: The National Leprosarium.