St. Columba’s School, Cambria City, Johnstown, Pennsylvania. May 31, 1889. 9:30 a.m.
“Rain. A never-ending torrent of rain,” muttered Sister Raphael Kane. Although it wasn’t unusual for water to fill the valley on days of heavy rain, this was a different kind of rain. A relentless and powerful show – Mother Nature’s daughters dripping an impressive and imposing dance from the heavens for nearly a week.
Sister Raphael, riddled with worry as water flowed down the street, announced, “Everyone is dismissed.”
Sisters Flavia, Rita, and Aloysius hurried the students out of St. Columba’s School into the wet spring morning, accompanying a few on their way home.
“Hurry back,” Sister Raphael said, as she anxiously stared out the hazy school window.
St. John Gualbert’s, Clinton Street, downtown Johnstown, Pennsylvania. May 31, 1889 11:00 a.m.
Stonycreek River, already overflowing, was steadily rising. The sisters at St. John Gualbert’s School had already dismissed the children for the day. Sister Ignatia Flinn worried they wouldn’t get home.
Two little girls, Nelly Ryan and Mary Regan, were temporarily boarding with Sister Ignatia and her eight compatriots, Sisters Genevieve O’Connor, Marie Flanagan, Elizabeth McGurgan, Perpetua Behe, Augustine Wharton, Agatha Kaney, Marie Louise O’Connor, and Ursula Gorman. Nearly 600 other students were on their way home.
“Don’t mind the rain,” Sister Ignatia assured the sisters and girls, “Usual prayers at 2 p.m.”
St. Columba’s, 11:00 a.m.
“The rising waters took Toll Bridge,” Sister Aloysius Blakely told Sister Raphael when she returned to the convent. “It swept down the river and destroyed Tenacre Bridge, too. We saw it from the school.”
“The cellar has a good foot of water. I fear the foundation of the convent will give way soon. Gather your things and pray to God,” Sister Ignatia said.
The sisters, already soaked and deafened by the volley of rain and the rush of street water, clung to the yard fence and trudged to the neighboring home for safety.
St. Columba’s, approximately 3:00 p.m.
Although the sisters thought they had managed to get to safety, the waters continued to rise throughout the afternoon. Two men, running along the hill, shouted, “The dam has burst! Get to the brick house, if you wish to save your lives!” (Sr. Electa Boyle’s Mother Seton’s Daughters in Western Pennsylvania).
The South Fork dam, a pleasure to the wealthy vacationers from Pittsburgh, had been a thorn in the side of Johnstowners. One mile long by three miles wide, the dam had deepened to 70 feet and contained more than 700 acres of water. Faulty management and repairs to the dam, in addition to the amount of rain, compromised the manmade structure. The dam would spell doom for Johnstown.
Father Davin, who lived in the brick rectory next door, bellowed through the rain, “I will send the men to fetch you!” As the men carried the sisters from the home to the rectory, the water began rising to their waists. By the time they reached Father Davin, all were forced to retreat to the second floor.
Father Davin and Sister Raphael led the group in prayer, “Almighty God and his Blessed Mother, spare us…”
“It’s rising!” exclaimed Sister Rita.
“Head for the attic,” Father Davin said.
Just as they reached refuge, the water gathered on all sides of the rectory.
“Houses with their terror-stricken inmates were being tossed about like mere playthings on the bosom of those merciless waters. Roofs, rafts, every piece of household furniture, or anything else one could imagine, floated quickly past, with human beings clinging with a death grip to whatever they could grasp; their wild, despairing shrieks and cries for aid were all one could hear above the terrible roar of those mighty waters…” (Letter, Sister Aloysius Blakely to her mother, 1889).
St. John Gualbert’s, approximately 3:00 p.m.
After prayers, Sisters Augustine and Perpetua went to the school to prepare the classrooms for the following day. The other sisters went about their convent duties.
Suddenly, the quivering voice of Sister Marie Flanagan interrupted the din of rain on the roof. “Sister Ignatia, there are men outside navigating the streets on boats,” she said.
“I fear it is time to ring the bell. Gather the sisters and assemble in the chapel,” Sister Ignatia urged.
Sister Augustine’s sister was staying in the convent to study for her teacher’s examination. The convent housemaid had been working in an adjoining room. Both women and the two schoolgirls joined the sisters in the chapel.
Sister Agatha lit the candles on the altar of Our Lady, beginning the May devotions early. All in attendance recited the Litany and began singing, “Hail, bright star of ocean, God’s own Mother blest, Ever sinless Virgin, Gate of heavenly rest…”
Several sisters continued praying in the chapel, but Sister Elizabeth McGurgan went downstairs to view the progress of the flooding at Stonycreek River. No sooner than she had arrived, she “was horrified to see a two-story house floating rapidly down the middle of the street.” (Sr. Electa Boyle, Mother Seton’s Daughters in Western Pennsylvania).
Behind the house was a “huge black wall of water.” The South Fork dam had collapsed! Stunned, Sister Elizabeth rushed up the stairs, calling for the sisters and guests to brace themselves.
The wall of water descended on the Clinton Street convent, bringing with it a darkness beyond hue.
The sisters watched, and prayed, as the water rose to the chapel windows on the second floor. The raging water swept homes, trees, horses still attached to wagons, and even people, past as the sisters gazed in horror.
“We need to get to the third floor,” Sister Ignatia insisted.
“Sister Marie,” said Sister Ursula, “take the Blessed Sacrament from the Tabernacle,” as she grabbed candles from the May altar.
The convent was located on the second floor ell of the structure. Nine other rooms comprised the main part of the home, jutting out from the ell.
Just as the sisters made it up the stairs to the third floor, the wall of water hit the main structure. It one bleak moment, a home was torn to shreds. The brick school was gone, too. Only the ell, with Mother Seton’s daughters, remained.
St. Columba’s, approximately 7-10 p.m.
“Look! The water is falling,” one of the men said. It was true. The mercilessly raging water had died down. Cambria City began to emerge from the assault badly beaten. Much of the little town was decimated.
As night fell, the sky brightened in the valley. The sisters could see, amidst the flood waters in the city of Johnstown, massive, intense fires.
“What about our sisters at St. John’s?” Sister Aloysius asked.
“Pray for them. It’s in God’s hands now,” Father Davin whispered.
St. John Gualbert’s , 10 p.m.- 3 a.m.
“The school boys gathered on Prospect Hill, high above the town, watched the faint glow of candles in the window of [St. John’s] convent. So long as they could see the glimmer of light they knew that the Sisters were still safe.” (Sr. Electa Boyle’s Mother Seton’s Sisters of Charity in Western Pennsylvania).
Neighbors, seeking shelter on the tops of their home’s rooftops, called out to the sisters when the ell was in the path of large trees or homes drifting down the street. By God’s providence, the remaining convent was spared.
The water within the city was still high. Meanwhile, the stone bridge over the Conemaugh, which had held during the torrent, caught fire. St. John Gualbert’s Catholic Church burned when the hot oven of a neighboring home, which had been lifted fully off the ground and right into the church, caught the upper half on fire. It was a sight for the sisters to witness St. John’s succumb to both fire and water, those sources of both life and death.
Around 3 a.m., Sister Marie Louise noted, “Praise God! The waters are falling.”
St. John Gualbert’s, June 1, 1889, 10 a.m.
After twelve hours of horror, Father Tehaney, the parish pastor, with Father Sheehan, Judge O’Connor, and several other surviving men of St. John’s parish, rescued the sisters and their guests. Using a remaining trellis as a makeshift ladder, the sisters climbed down the side of the convent. The water and mud, deep and sticky, prevented the sisters from walking, so the men carried them to higher ground.
Finally, to reach complete safety, the sisters needed to cross the engorged Stonycreek River. Using foot-wide boards and a strong cable, all were able to shimmy across the still-powerful and chaotic force.
All Sisters of Charity are safe!
The sisters at St. John Gualbert’s were taken in by Mrs. Nolan, a local Catholic woman, who let them stay in her home to rest and recover from the event that would make international history.
The sisters of St. Columba’s made their way to nearby Morrellville, in the countryside, to rest and await word of the fate of their friends and family members in Johnstown.
What happens next?
When Mother Aloysia, who was in nearby Altoona, heard the devastating news of the tragedy in Johnstown, she knew she had to find her sisters, alive or dead. With transportation infrastructure destroyed, there was almost no way into the city. But with Mother Aloysia, if she had the will, she got her way.
Mother Aloysia first took the train from Altoona to Ebensburg. There, she met a farmer.
“I must ask you to take me as close to Johnstown as possible. My sisters are there and they need me,” she beseeched the man.
“No, I couldn’t possibly -,” he began to reply.
“Only God can help them now and may his judgement abide you, too.”
He agreed to take her, over rough, country roads, on the back of a wagon, through to Sang Hollow.
There, the Pennsylvania Railroad had constructed a temporary trestle to carry supplies and workmen into the wreckage. Just as Mr. Frank Adams, engineer, was about to test the trestle with a trial run, Mother Aloysia implored, “Let me ride.”
Of course, he couldn’t let her, but Mother Aloysia was the sole woman, among the men and work supplies, on the second caboose into Johnstown.
Mother Aloysia did find her sisters and was able to eventually send word to the motherhouse in Greensburg.
Two ill sisters were sent to the motherhouse and Sisters Aloysius and Rita, who were both a mere 18 years old, were also sent back home.
The other sisters stayed in the city to help salvage what they could and to nurse the wounded.
Over the course of the weeks following the Johnstown Flood, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company gave free rides to the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill riding to and from the city. They were an integral part of the community in Johnstown before the flood and would play an important role in the recovery efforts. The survival of the Sisters at St. John Gualbert’s was considered one of few miracles during the event.
The sisters would not return to St. John Gualbert’s parish, but they did continue their work at St. Columba’s until 1905.
More on The Great Flood
By 1889, over 15% of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill had entered from Johnstown, so the Great Flood devastated the community. Sr. Mary Grace Ryan lost her mother, father, two sisters, and her grandmother. The sisters missioned in Johnstown, who had grown close to the community, lost many of the same children they had bade farewell to that same day. They lost friends and family members. The life and the place they once knew vanished.
Students from St. John’s School in Altoona and St. Joseph Academy in Greensburg lost parents, relatives, and friends. Nearly ¼ of students at St. Joseph’s were directly affected. The Academy girls sacrificed their graduation awards to donate the funds to the victims of the flood. Students from St. John’s, and other schools in the diocese, gathered donations of clothing, food, and supplies.
The Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill took in dozens of permanently and temporarily orphaned children from Johnstown. They housed and cared for them at Seton Hill during the summer of 1889.
Over 2,200 people died in the Johnstown Flood, which is now considered the worst flood in U.S. history and ranks among the deadliest days in U.S. history. For context, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 saw 1,500 victims.
The above historic dramatization is based off of primary source material in the archives of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, as well as Sr. Electa Boyle’s Mother Seton’s Daughters in Western Pennsylvania. All events are true. Only the dialogue has been inserted.
Below are clippings from Sister Ann Regina Ennis’ personal scrapbook. Nearly half of the scrapbook relates to the Johnstown Flood.