Photo used with permission. Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth Archives.
Mother Irene McGrath (1857-1944), who entered the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth in 1873, is our best informant on the arduous task of doing the laundry in the community’s early years. In her tribute to Mother Irene, Sister Leo Gonzaga noted that Mother Irene “often commented how strenuous the laundry work was” in the early days.
The formula for the famous soap was familiar to every novice. It was malodorous in the extreme and did not possess skin-softening ingredients. After being washed, rinsed, and wrung by hand, the clothes were draped over the hedges to dry. The time for drying depended entirely upon the temperature and humidity of the atmosphere.
Water for the laundry was carried in large buckets from the well in the field south of the academy building [today, St. Mary’s Hall, University of Saint Mary].
To the lye, rendered beef or mutton fat was added – about two pounds of grease per gallon of lye. The mixture was then boiled in a kettle for about an hour. Essential oils could be added to improve the smell of the soap; evidently, the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth did not do so.
Doing the laundry in 19th and early 20th centuries was not simply strenuous, but, indeed, dangerous. Even as technology improved, the safety measures to protect laundresses did not advance at the same pace.
One of the community’s Irish sisters, Sister Mary Thaddea McCarthy, suffered a terrible accident around 1905 in the St. Mary’s Academy laundry, where she helped out as a postulant.
A mangle is a large electric ironing device that presses clothing through heated rollers. If you have seen one, it will not surprise you that her arm was amputated. Sister Mary Thaddea did not let her injury stop her from a life of service. She worked in the community refectory, taught in St. Mary’s Academy and a number of parish schools, and performed office duties in hospitals, not retiring until 1957.
In researching this blog post, I asked a number of retired sisters at the Mother House what they remembered about working in the community laundry as novices. Of course, the days of homemade lye soap and dangerous equipment were long gone by the time they had laundering duties. But most of them vividly recalled the heat in the laundry.
In conclusion, I will share the observation of a wise sister living in the Mother House today. The novices working in the laundry, she mused, would have been much cooler and not had so much laundry to do had they not been wearing the habit!
Tribute to Mother Irene McGrath (1857-1944) by Sister Leo Gonzaga, undated. Mother Irene McGrath Collection. Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth Archives.
 “Laundress – Making Soap.” National Park Service, Fort Scott National Historic Site. Accessed May 12, 2016. https://www.nps.gov/fosc/learn/education/laundress7.htm
 “Lord, I Want to Be Useful,” undated. Sister Mary Thaddea McCarthy File. Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth Archives.