The Daughters of Charity, also known as the Sisters of Charity, served the mining town of Virginia City from 1864 to 1897. They present a fascinating example of how religious women and traditional religious institutions adapted to life in remote Western towns. Led by Sister Frederica, Sisters Xavier and Mary Elizabeth traveled to the Comstock in 1864 under the directive to open a school and hospital in Virginia City. This order originated from Saint Vincent de Paul of San Francisco, a Catholic organization known, in part, for the ability of its members to adapt to the unpredictable social environment of the American West.
Upon their arrival, The Daughters of Charity established a small boarding school and orphanage that constantly struggled to keep up with the demand of the community. Within the first year, occupancy of the institution rose to twenty-five residents and 112 students, all the while maintaining a small number of sisters that reached the highest number of only sixteen in 1880.
In order to keep up with the financial demand for their projects, the sisters organized fundraising fairs and raffles, and established contacts with prominent members of the community. Although they briefly accepted state funding for approximately five of their thirty years of service, they largely subsisted on contributions from local citizens who donated money, food, and clothing to the convent.
In 1876, with the encouragement and support of Father Patrick Manogue, the Daughters of Charity opened the area's first medical facility: Saint Mary Louise Hospital. The new hospital accommodated up to sixty or seventy patients, and was considered a state-of-the-art facility. It was financed by contributions from some of the area's most notable figures, such as John and Mary Louise Bryant Mackay and Mr. and Mrs. James Fair.
In addition to running the school, orphanage, and hospital, the Daughters of Charity provided a range of social services to a community that was accustomed to mining accidents, shootings, and social disorder. They cared for the sick, the needy, and those requiring spiritual comfort, regardless of religious denomination or cultural background.
The Daughters of Charity's service to the Comstock community is considered extraordinary for Catholic religious women, in that they strayed from the European Catholic tradition of maintaining social separation; they regularly left the convent to care for individuals in their home or workplace. The sisters also administered care to those in jail while abstaining from moral judgment.
Like many Western mining towns, Virginia City was known as a wild and rowdy town in which the men outnumbered the women two to one. However, the Daughters of Charity seemingly embraced the challenges that this environment presented to them. For the community, the sisters' characteristic dress of a blue habit, guimpe, and white cornette provided the townsfolk with a visual reminder of strong moral values.
In the 1890s, the mining industry in Virginia City began to fail, prompting many residents to move from the town. Consequently, the Daughters of Charity closed the convent, hospital, and school in 1897, and with much regret, moved on to other missions.