Sisters of Mercy Archives (Essay)

I’m writing a children’s book about ghost towns. One chapter features the island of Chacachacare, which is located off the coast of Trinidad. In the 1920s, a leprosarium was established on Chacachacare to treat individuals diagnosed with leprosy and to isolate them from society. As medical science advanced, the perceived need to segregate the patients from the general public proved unnecessary. Antibiotics liberated the patients from the government enforced seclusion. During the 1980s, the last patient left Chacachacare to reintegrate into society. The island has since remained abandoned. I wanted to learn more about the patients and the people who cared for them, so I turned to Sister Paula Diann Marlin, the archivist at the Sisters of Mercy of the South Central Archives and the Baltimore Collection, for help.

The Sisters of Mercy were Catholic nuns from the United States, who tended the patients at Chacachacare from 1944 to 1955. The Sisters of Mercy Archives contains a scrapbook, photographs, and many letters chronicling the period the Sisters spent at the leprosarium. The letters detail how the Sisters adjusted to life with no electricity, rudimentary plumbing, tropical heat, mosquitoes, malaria, monkeys, and vampire bats. The letters also reveal the Sisters’ concern for their patients. Sister Mary Anita wrote:

“I marvel at their spirit, for after they have been here for a few years, they cannot help but see a patient come in looking fairly well. Then as time progresses, the disease makes itself more apparent. Each experienced one knows that he will likely go the same way.”

My favorite find in the Sisters of Mercy Archives was the description of the wedding between two patients. Both Beulah and Bryan came to the island when they were children. Beulah loved to sing. Bryan excelled as a musician. Despite losing his fingers to the disease, he played the piano and directed the island’s band. When Beulah took music lessons from Bryan, love blossomed between the two of them.

The Sisters of Mercy Archives is important to me because the collection documents the lives of so-called ordinary people. Through the letters that they’ve left behind, we witness their quiet acts of courage and heroism, as they went about their daily lives—the courage to find joy in life when faced with a crippling disease and the courage to care for those whom society alienated. I found it at the archives.