Just off Connecticut Avenue, across from the Rhode Island Avenue & M Street, NW is a monument called Nuns of the Battlefield, which was commissioned in 1924 by the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians to honor nuns who volunteered to care for the sick and wounded of the Civil War. The Arsenal Monument, another mostly Irish intended monument and Nuns of the Battlefield are the only two Civil War-related monuments in the capital that suggest the role that women played in the conflict.
The idea for a national monument started with a Rhode Islander with the wonderful name of Dr. Ellen Ryan Jolly who was, at the turn of the 20th century, president of the Ladies' Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, (From 1912-1916) a new but large (56,000 members on its inception) and political powerful organization at the time.
For one year, Dr. Jolly researched the roles of Nuns in the American civil war and complied enough evidence to bring her case before congress to ask that a monument be built in their honor. Her campaign was championed by her Congressman, an Irishman named Ambrose Kennedy (A Republican of Rhode and not the Democrat from Maryland who shared his name)
The Congress, aware of the growing political clout of the Irish-American and Catholic communities, agreed and the monument was commissioned. One member of the House objected to the government paying for the statue, and according to Dr. Jolly, managed to have his objections recorded but not his name. He didn’t show up on the day of the vote saying he would be “away from Washington for the day” Later, at the unveiling, Dr. Jolly noted with a smile that the Congressman “is permanently away now”. Funding for the memorial was given on St. Patrick’s Day 1918.
It was unveiled in 1924, while the Hibernians held their second annual convention at the old Raleigh Hotel. (100,000 members showed up including Boston Mayor William Curley).
The unveiling before a crowd of 5,000, was one of three that month in the city. The other two were the First Division memorial by the Old Executive Office Building and the statue of another (although Ulster-orange) Irishman, Francis Asbury, the first Bishop of the Methodist church in America.
The monument shows twelve nuns, representing the different orders who nursed the wounded of both North and south, are depicted in this statue. The upper inscription reads: They comforted the dying, Nursed the wounded, carried hope to the imprisoned, gave in His name a drink of water to the thirsty.” The lower inscription reads: To the memory and in honor of The Various Orders of Sisters who gave their services as nurses on battlefields and in hospitals during the Civil War.
The monument was intended to be placed in Arlington Cemetery but the war department objected (Too religious) and the piece was plopped down in front of Saint Mathew’s cathedral, to the objections of its sculptor Jerome Connor.
Connors, like his earlier counterpart Lot Flannery, was a quick-tempered Irishman with a tendency to sue those who annoyed him. As an example, he sued the Ancient Order of the Hibernians for allegedly never paying him.
Jerome Connor was born on February 23, 1874 in Coumduff, Annascaul, Co. Kerry, Ireland, the sixth and youngest child of Patrick Connor and Margaret (Currane) Connor who operated a small mountainside farm even though his father was experienced as a stonemason. In about 1884, the family moved to Holyoke Massachusetts, where an elder son, Timothy, was already settled.
Two years after the family arrived, Jerome’s father died unexpectedly and Jerome, at age 16, found work as a sign painter, a stonecutter, bronze founder and machinist. " My father” he wrote “ was a master of four trades, and it was the inheriting of those tendencies, along with a little extra will all my own, that enables me to do this work. I am self taught…when I was a boy I used to steal my father's chisels and carve figures on the rocks in Kerry."
He worked as an assistant in the manufacturing of bronzes statues including the Fountain of Neptune bronzes at the Library of Congress. He also made his living as foundry-man, professional prizefighter, machinist, sign painter and stonecutter and served as a Japanese intelligence officer in Mexico.
The Nuns of the Battlefield tablet made his career and, heavily influenced by the work of Irish American sculptor Augustus St Gaudens, Connor returned to Ireland in 1925 and opened his own studio in Dublin with a substantial advance sum to create a work for the memorial committee in New York to sculpt a memorial to the dead of the Lusitania. He disappeared with the money and was not heard from for another 18 years. On August 20, 1943, Connor, at age 67, was found deathly ill in his slum apartment and brought to the Hospital in Dublin where he died the following day of heart failure. His friends formed a committee to have his work completed by another sculptor in order to "save Ireland's honor."