In 1850, at about the age of five, Nellie immigrated to Boston with her sister Fanny and widowed-mother. The three spent almost fifteen years together there, but then relocated west to San Francisco around 1872, give or take. Nellie and her mother, both of whom apparently had an adventurous streak, decided to move on to the bustling, untamed mining town of Pioche, NV. They only stayed a few years, but Nellie was deeply involved with the Catholic church there, helping with fundraisers and bazaars. When her aging mother decided Pioche was a little too wild for a senior citizen, Nellie took her to live with her now-married sister in San Francisco. Stunningly, Nellie then headed north alone to British Columbia to another rough-and-rowdy mining town. She opened a boarding house in the Cassiar District and tried her hand at mining.
Now, most girls in this situation, hanging around with such an unsavory crowd, might get into mischief, forget their morals. Herein lies the quirky thing about Nellie: she loved to help people, sometimes through hell and high water and avalanches. In the winter of 1874-75, Nellie took a trip to Victoria where she helped establish the Sisters of St. Ann Hospital. Over the coming decades, she would continue to be a stalwart supporter of this hospital, and several others. She also helped destitute miners, making sure benevolence funds were available to them in whatever town she landed.
She is most famous, though, for what she did on the way home. Traveling back to Cassiar, she heard a blizzard had stranded dozens, if not more, of the folks from the district, and they were experiencing a scurvy epidemic, to boot. Nellie immediately hired men and sleds, acquired medicine and supplies and started out for Cassiar. It took the group 77 days in unimaginable conditions to reach the miners. Nellie then worked tirelessly to nurse the folks back to health.
Her feat was so astounding, so brazen, so fearless, the story was picked up by the newspapers. With good cause, she came to be known to the miners as their “Angel of Mercy.”
Nellie was a legitimate legend.
She was also restless, constantly on the move, from one raunchy mining town to the next. After the death of her sister, she continued to feed her wanderlust, but with five nephews and nieces in tow. To keep food on the table, she bought and sold restaurants, and even owned and worked her own claims. She spent several years in Tombstone, AZ where she rubbed shoulders with larger-than-life figures like Wyatt Earp and Johnny Behan. Her faith, however, was as ingrained on Nellie’s heart as cactus in the dessert. Even in wild-and-wooly Tombstone, she worked to build Tombstone’s first hospital and Roman Catholic church.
Nellie did a lot of philanthropic work, but the lady was no push-over. When her rights were challenged, she went to court. She won some cases, and she lost some, but she managed to raise five upstanding citizens and keep her mines working. When Nellie passed away in 1925, she did so in the Sisters of St. Ann hospital that she had funded for nearly fifty years.
I heard someone complain today about how her own life had never really amounted to anything because of a lack of opportunity. Nellie saw opportunity everywhere: opportunities to succeed, opportunities to help others. The Real American Way.
It’s all around us, just open your eyes…
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