WOMEN IN HISTORY: A Nun’s Life — Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

Editor’s note: Of all the forms of spirituality practiced in Wheeling, perhaps the least understood is that of the various orders of nuns who have served in the city since the 1840s. The Sisters of St. Joseph, one of two remaining communities here, opened their archives and hearts to share glimpses of their story with Weelunk readers.

When the first rounds of Roman Catholic nuns arrived in Wheeling in the 1840s and 1850s, it was already an industrial boomtown full of great wealth, poor immigrants and an ever-widening political divide over the issue of slavery.

The Civil War that soon began to rage didn’t make anything easier.

Angel of Mercy, a painting by Wheeling artist Anne Foreman, depicts a Civil War-era Sister of St. Joseph tending a fallen soldier. The nun’s face is that of Sr. Mary Ignatius Farley, a 20-something who was among a group of six sisters who served not only the Roman Catholic Church but the Union Army during the conflict. Their 15th Street hospital cared for both Union and Confederate soldiers, sometimes as many as 200 at a time.


Little more than a decade into running the freshly chartered Wheeling Hospital, the Sisters of St. Joseph got an unexpected knock on the door in spring 1864. Officials from the city and the Union Army wanted to enlist them as military nurses and to rent their 15th Street facility as a full-blown military hospital.

Private patients and orphans were relocated as both prisoners of war and casualties began to arrive, some of them “prostrate with disease” and others gravely wounded, according to a community journal kept by Sr. Mary de Chantal Keating. (Journal entries are among several records provided for this article by Margaret Brennan, local historian and former Sister of St. Joseph.)

roster of names
A military roster from the National Archives shows the names of the local nuns/nurses, including Ignatius Farley and Sr. Mary de Chantal Keating, who came from New York to serve as superior. De Chantal’s community journal offers vignettes of the sisters’ lives during the Civil War. It also mentions a horse-cart trip she took to “Washington City” in 1865 to ensure the government would pay up on $600 per year rent owed to the hospital. The entry ends with funds secured and a “Laus Deo,” or “Praise God.”

“There were so few of us, it was necessary to work almost without stopping,” de Chantal Keating wrote, noting she once left a long day in the operating room only to find the other sisters sleeping on the floor in the chapel with sacks of leaves for pillows. They had given their beds to soldiers.

The crisis reached its most difficult point on the evening of July 26, 1864, when the entire hospital was commandeered as 200 wounded and sick soldiers arrived without warning. “They were sent up as fast as ambulance could be provided for them,” de Chantal Keating wrote. “We laid them on the floor on rows of blankets, supplied them with immediate requirements and left them to repose as they might after a toilsome journey.

“Some among them are great sufferers; we are busy enough but can do a great deal to soothe their miseries.”

Nuns in surgery
The idea of nuns serving as nurses didn’t end with the Civil War. In this photo from the early 1900s, Sisters of St. Joseph work in the operating room — in full habit. There are no religious nurses working in Wheeling today, but some sisters still serve as hospital companions, taking other sisters in need of skilled care to medical appointments, according to Sr. Jennifer Berridge. She works in pastoral care at an addiction-recovery clinic.


Perhaps no one has a better perspective on how convent life has changed over the decades than Sr. Gabriella Wagner. At 101, the Mount St. Joseph resident is one of the oldest living nuns in the Sisters of St. Joseph community.

When Wagner entered convent life after her junior year of high school, nuns were still wearing full habits, had not even a dime of spending money and were summoned to morning prayers by a bell. Over the years, she reduced down to a modified habit in the 1960s, then no habit at all. She acquired two college degrees, an alarm clock and some serious skill at making stuffed animals for fundraisers.

Sister with stuffed animals
Sr. Gabriella Wagner, 101, is among the oldest living members of the Sisters of St. Joseph community. Born on a Triadelphia farm in 1918, she served as a math and science teacher in various West Virginia locations before becoming part of the local community in the 1970s. When she wasn’t teaching, she was often found making stuffed animals that were sold during an annual fundraiser and spaghetti dinner.

And now, long retired from both her last math and science teaching position at Wheeling Central Catholic High School and the business office at Mount St. Joseph, she has a room of her own, with hand weights and a devotional stored close to her chair. She attends Mass most days on-site, even though her hearing is limited. She prays alone and whenever she likes.

“I don’t know why they want to build me up,” she joked of the weights, part of her physical therapy. “Do they want to make me live to 110?”

Not that she would necessarily mind. The Triadelphia-raised Wagner said a nun’s life was the right one for her, something she knew when she was in second grade.

“I went to St. Vincent’s to school and often the parish priests were there, and they would say, ‘How many are going to be sisters? How many are going to be priests?’ and I just raised my hand.

“If I had to do it all over again, I would do it, and I would be happy,” Wagner said.

family photo
Sr. Gabriella Wagner, back row, was one of three siblings out of 14 to enter religious life. She said that rate of choosing church vows over secular life was not uncommon at the time. In her community, she said the Wagners were among five families to have at least three children each in church service.


She’s not the only one. Sr. Jennifer Berridge, formerly a medical and social worker from Cleveland, felt the same call. Just later in life.

Subscribe to Weelunk
Sister Berridge
Sr. Jennifer Berridge, 45, is a recent addition to the Sisters of St. Joseph. Berridge and another nun in her 30s are younger than most of their fellow sisters by decades.

Berridge, now 45, entered the convent in 2016. She is on the way to making her first, temporary vows this summer. Permanent vows would come three years after that.

While her devotion is similar to Wagner’s, her life has unfolded very differently. One of only two siblings — as opposed to Wagner’s 13 brothers and sisters — Berridge lived a typical American existence until mid-life.

While working at an Ohio hospital, she was approached about the possibility of convent life and something clicked for the cradle Catholic. After a year of thinking about it, she left her secular job and solo apartment to head to Wheeling.

She now lives with sisters who are decades older than she, joining them for nightly meals and prayer, but otherwise living a life that isn’t entirely removed from the one she left behind.

The downtown-based sisters — who live in a portion of the same building that once housed the Civil War soldiers — keep their own daytime schedules and do their own morning prayers, for example. Berridge uses her social work training to work in pastoral care at Serenity Hills Life Center, an addiction-recovery site for women.

They wear street clothes. Indeed, on the day of this interview, Berridge was wearing a T-shirt with a scriptural reference, pants and riding boots.

They check in with each other via texts and WhatsApp.

Not everything is the same, though.

“I didn’t really have to report to anyone about how I spent my time,” Berridge said of her secular life. “(Now,) we’re very intentional about community life, living out our lives together much like a family. … The same frustrations families have, we have. We just talk about it.”

Also, while today’s nuns do have some personal money should they want to have coffee with friends or such, it comes from a monthly budget. “We have one checkbook for the house,” Berridge said. “We’re conscious about what’s coming in and what’s going out.”

She has also become acutely aware of who is coming in and going out.

“There’ve been quite a few deaths since I’ve been here,” Berridge said. “I read a book that said young nuns get good at grieving. I didn’t want to get good at grieving, but I have.”

Berridge, who believes the community will look very different in even five to 10 years, said they are in the process of “right-sizing buildings” and looking critically at what they have to work with and what they actually need. This is a continuation of a decades-long process of turning many facets of community life — such as teaching and hospital duties — over to secular employees who share the order’s values.

“Our goal is to do what we can with whoever and whatever we have,” Berridge said.

  • Nun teaching young children in 1930
    Area nuns were also teaching in parochial schools throughout the city — and elsewhere. In this photo from the 1930s, a Sister of St. Joseph teaches rural Ohio County children during a remote Vacation Bible School.


Margaret Brennan, a former Sister of St. Joseph, tracks the history of sisters who have served in Wheeling among other facets of city life.

Brennan the historian agrees with Berridge that this long history of both constant presence and change will shift again in the next decade or so. It’s a question of numbers. With few American women taking religious vows in recent decades, Wheeling is running out of nuns.

“I would think that (no remaining sisters) would be a possibility down the road because of the trend locally and nationally,” Brennan said, noting most area priests are now from either India or Africa.

There is also a precedent for community comings and goings, she said. Nuns from the Visitation order, which most recently ran Mount de Chantal Academy, came in the 1840s and stayed until that school closed in 2008.

The few remaining Visitation sisters then relocated to Georgetown Visitation Academy in Washington, D.C., Brennan said. That community includes a “great infirmary” that Brennan noted at least some of the sisters soon needed.

Wheeling was also home for a time for a Carmelite order of nuns who operated a cloistered monastery near the current St. Michael complex. Dwindling community population also caused their disappearance, Brennan said.

Today, in addition to 35 or so Sisters of St. Joseph still living in downtown Wheeling and at Mount St. Joseph in the city’s outskirts, Brennan said there are a handful of sisters from yet another order — Good Shepherd — in Woodsdale/Edgwood.

While the Good Shepherd sisters could follow the Visitation sisters’ example and eventually join with another community, the Sisters of St. Joseph are still taking in sisters from other parts of their multi-state order. While these imported sisters are generally coming into Mount St. Joseph’s infirmary, there is still a Wheeling presence, noted Rose Mathes, coordinator of community life at Mount St. Joseph.

“Even though the median age of the Wheeling sisters is high, the mission of the Congregation of St. Joseph — loving unity and outreach to neighbors in need — will continue via (the) sisters, associates and employees who will continue to fund important projects through several foundations,” Mathes said.

Brennan believes all of the various sisters’ work will carry out in a less tangible way, as well.

“These women who helped build the fabric of Wheeling starting in the 1840s and 1850s have provided a dimension of spirituality,” Brennan said, calling them the city’s “designated pray-ers.”

“Prayer is always good.”

Daily Mass at an in-house chapel is a part of life at Mount St. Joseph in the outskirts of Wheeling. More than 30 Sisters of St. Joseph (ages 80-102) live in this community, some of them in an infirmary that also serves nuns from order communities in other states. A handful of sisters from the same order remain downtown, in the same building that housed the group’s Civil War hospital. The city’s other remaining community of nuns, a small number of Good Shepherd sisters, still live in the Woodsdale/Edgwood neighborhood.

• A long-time journalist, Nora Edinger also blogs at noraedinger.com and Facebook and writes books. Her Christian chick lit and faith-related non-fiction are available on Amazon. She lives in Wheeling, where she is part of a three-generation, two-species household.