August 13 – Florence Nightingale & Edith Cavell

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Florence Nightingale & Edith Cavell, renewers of society

Florence Nightingale

At seventy, Florence Nightingale wrote, “When many years ago, I planned a future, my one idea was not organizing a hospital but organizing a religion”. History remembered the woman who cared for wounded British soldiers in the Crimean War and is credited with founding modern nursing, but few know of her fifty years of amazing accomplishments after Crimea.

Florence was born in 1820 into a wealthy Unitarian family and raised Church of England. Her father educated her ‘like a son’ he didn’t have – in history, science, languages and philosophy. Brilliant and religiously absorbed, Florence was frustrated with her privileged life in Victorian England, with its divinely ordained class system of rich and poor, rulers and workers. She spent much of her childhood helping poor villagers around her family’s estates.

At seventeen, she received an audible call to serve God, but her family thwarted any attempt to follow this call. In 1849, she visited a Deaconess training center in Germany and discovered her dream – women training to serve the poor. Florence finally left home at thirty-three to become volunteer superintendent of a home for destitute governesses in London and left for the Crimea from there. When she returned twenty-two months later, she avoided public acclaim and retreated from public life. A grateful nation had established the Nightingale Fund in her honor, but she did not start the proposed nursing school. Haunted by dead soldiers, reforming army medical services was a more pressing task. When the Nightingale Training School for Nurses opened in 1860, Florence submitted proposals for its administration, but her focus was army reform.

Over the next fifty years, Florence was involved in reforming colonial policy and sanitation in India, work house reform, hospital design and location, preventative medicine and village health education. She developed hospital record forms to analyze patient information, introduced trained nurses to poorhouses, advised on indigenous health in British colonies and drafted the British delegation’s recommendations to the Geneva Convention. She helped change laws that restricted women’s rights to their children, property and divorce, and worked for paid employment for women, accomplishing all this through politicians who came to her home for advice and guided the reforms through Parliament.

Florence can only be fully understood by taking seriously her divine calls as the inspiration for her life and work. She once thought of founding a religious order and visited a Paris convent to learn the disciplines she followed through her life. Her secluded, disciplined lifestyle after Crimea created her own monastic structure. Florence wrote an eight hundred-page manuscript offering a new religion for the poor, challenging the belief that poverty was God’s will. The Divine Spirit is in each of us, she said, guiding us, with the help of “saviours”, beyond any predetermined destiny – she saw herself as a “saviour” for her time. Her theological ideas reflected the later disciplines of liberation theology, process theology, feminist theology and contextual theology, exploring topics like the concept of God, universal law, God’s will, sin and evil, family life, spiritual life and life after death. Her conclusions were in dialogue with the Church of England Broad Church movement whose Essays and Reviews challenged the church in the 1860’s. Florence’s writings are one of the British Library’s largest collections. She died in 1910.

Reference: Val Webb, Florence Nightingale: the making of a radical theologian (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002.

Val Webb

 Edith CavellNurse, Humanitarian and Spy

Edith Cavell was born in Swardeston, near Norwich. Her father was a priest in the Anglican church. The religious faith that she was brought up with, was to provide an important influence on her life. In 1900, she trained to be a nurse at the London hospital. In 1907, she was recruited to be the matron of a new nursing school in Brussels. This was a period of growth in the prestige and importance of nursing; a period which began with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War.

In 1910, Miss Cavell began one of the first nursing journals, L’infirmiere, which documented good nursing practices and basic standards. She became a teacher of nurses in different hospitals throughout Belgium and sought to improve standards of nursing.

In the Nursing Mirror, Edith Cavell writes:

“The probationers wear blue dresses with white aprons and white collars. The contrast which they present to the nuns, in their heavy stiff robes, and to the lay nurses, in their grimy apparel, is the contrast of the unhygienic past with the enlightened present.”

In 1914, the First World War broke out. At the time, Miss Cavell was in England, but she moved back to Belgium to her hospital which was later taken over by the Red Cross. As part of the German Schlieffen plan, the Germans invaded Belgium and in late 1914, Brussels was under a very strict German military occupation.

Many British soldiers had been left behind in the withdrawal of the Allied forces and were stuck in Brussels. Miss Cavell decided to aid the British servicemen, hiding them in the hospital and safe houses around Belgium. From these safe houses, some 200 British servicemen were able to escape to neutral Holland. At the same time, she continued to act as nurse and treated wounded soldiers from both the German and Allied side. The occupying German army threatened strict punishments for anyone who was found to be ‘aiding and abetting the enemy’. Yet, despite the military rule, Miss Cavell continued to help. Edith wrote: “Nothing but physical impossibility, lack of space and money would make me close my doors to Allied refugees.”

In mid-1915, nurse Edith Cavell came under suspicion for helping allied servicemen to escape; this was not helped by her outspoken views on her perceived injustice of the occupation. In August 1915, she was arrested and held in St Gilles prison. After her arrest, she did not try to defend herself but only said in her defence that she felt compelled to help the people in need.

After a short trial, the German military tribunal found her guilty of treason and sentenced her to execution. This surprised many observers as it seemed harsh given her honesty and the fact she had saved many lives both Allied and German.

For two weeks prior to her execution, Miss Cavell, was kept in solitary confinement, except for a few brief visits. On the night before her execution, she was visited by the Reverend Stirling Gahan, an Anglican chaplain. He recorded her final conversation. He records that Miss Cavell said: “Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness to anyone.” She is also recorded as having said: “I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me.”

On her last night, she wrote to her fellow nurses, saying: “I have told you that devotion will give you real happiness, and the thought that you have done, before God and yourselves, your whole duty and with a good heart will be your greatest support in the hard moments of life and in the face of death.”

Though diplomats from the neutral governments of the United States and Spain fought to commute her sentence, their efforts were ultimately in vain. After her execution, the fate of Edith Cavell was widely publicised in the British and American media. It was shown as more evidence of German brutality and injustice. Edith Cavell was portrayed as a heroic and innocent figure who remained steadfast in her Christian faith and willingness to die for her country.

Tejvan Pettinger