Inventive, Even to Infinity: The Story of Sister Hilary Ross

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Saint Vincent de Paul said to the Daughters of Charity "Love is inventive, even to infinity". That inventiveness is something that first struck me about the Daughters of Charity - whether it's doing art ministry like Sr Maria or teaching at a university like Sr Anne.

Sister Hilary Ross was one of those inventive ones.

I first saw her picture in an article about the "Women of Spirit" museum exhibit traveling around the United States. And, of course, it's pretty unmistakable that Sr Hilary was a Daughter of Charity.

Sr Hilary was not a doctor or a nurse or even a physician's assistant. No, she was a biochemist and a pioneer scientist. She published in many scientific journals and soon became renown for her research in Hansen's Disease (leprosy) Meanwhile, she lived and worked in a leper hospital in Carville, Louisiana.

But researching leprosy at Carville isn't where her story ends nor where it begins. Sr Hilary was a Californian, the daughter of immigrants. At the age of 11, tragedy struck when her father drowned in the San Francisco Bay. Just a few months later, the famous San Francisco earthquake took everything. So, the Ross family, both fatherless and homeless, lived in emergency shelters until they were able to afford a house in Berkley, CA. Affording the house, however, meant that everyone in the family, even the children, had to work to pay the bills - including Hilary, once she finished eighth grade.

Meanwhile, Hilary, along with the rest of her family, was baptized Episcopalian but she frequently branched out into other Christian religions. She volunteered with the Salvation Army and also frequently attended Catholic Mass with a friend. Eventually, at the age of 19, she reached the decision to become Catholic. Her conversion made quite the splash in her house. It became the butt of jokes for her brothers and her mother was so upset that she constantly cooked meat on Fridays to spite Hilary.

Things must have calmed down by the time that Hilary announced she wanted to be a Daughter of Charity two years later. Her mom consented, although she didn't want her to go. As a Daughter of Charity, Hilary became a nurse (a quite popular occupation of the Daughters at the time) It wasn't before long that her newly-learned skills were put into practice, as the influenza pandemic of 1918 hit her hospital in Milwaukee. It grew to be something she'd never forget - the hospital filled to the brim, so many dying around her.

Shortly after, Hilary, now Sister Hilary, had to get a mastoid operation - an operation to remove an infection in the mastoid bone (the bone behind the ear). The surgery was somehow botched. she was left with facial paralysis. Since the first surgery was unsuccessful, Sister Hilary went for two more. Both would have great complications - first she contracted typhoid fever, then pneumonia, and then headaches that would never leave her for the rest of her life. When asked about it years later, Sr Hilary shrugged it off, saying "one learns to live with one's ailments"

Mainly because of her facial paralysis (which slowly decreased but never went away), she could no longer be a nurse. The Daughters of Charity, instead, sent her to study pharmacy. Soon, she was sent on her first mission as a pharmacist - to Carville, Louisana to the Carville National Leprosarium, one of only two leper hospitals in the United States. It was a mission that probably terrified her family and friends, who probably thought for sure she'd catch the contagious disease. But she herself had no fear - "I just had a job to do – and I had to give God the best of what I had. He’s always been my boss, you know."

Her job as a pharmacist soon turned into that of a biochemist. From 1927 on, she began to publish medical studies, especially on the changes that take place when the Hansen's bacteria enters the body. Thanks to her investigations, the world would have a greater knowledge of all the aspects of Hansen's Disease (leprosy). She, a humble Sister who never even went to high school, became recognized in the science industry as a pioneer. When an interviewer commented on her various awards and how great it was that she was now an international figure, she replied, probably with a roll of her eyes or a wave of her hand, "That’s all a lot of bosh. I just did my job as well as I could. And there were a lot of other good Sisters and people doing much better than I."

Sr Hilary stayed at Carville - researching, investigating and generally caring about the welfare of her poor sick - for 37 years. In 1960, she retired at the "old age" of 66. Perhaps people thought she'd finally slow down now that she was officially retired - but Sister Hilary thought the opposite, saying she still had much more life to give to the poor. Instead of taking it easy, she volunteered for the foreign missions - more specifically to Wakayama, Japan - to work in a hospital for crippled children.

And this is where Sister Hilary's story turns black for me, as I couldn't find any other details about her past her move to Japan, except this interview of her on the Daughters of Charity website. I do know that she died in 1982, at the age of 88, still living and working in Japan.

Sister Hilary was truly inventive in her love for the poor. (After all, do you know any other Sisters that are famous biochemists?)
She was courageous.
She was a fighter.
She was strong.

Yet, following in the footsteps of Saint Vincent de Paul, she was so humble in the face of such international fame, saying "I just did my job. Now you take Father Damien of Molakai. He’s the real hero in the fight against leprosy. I’ll have a lot to tell him when we meet in heaven!"


  1. Awesome article Sister Hilary Ross is my Aunt, her little brother Dewey was my grandfather. Thank you for the wonderful information regarding my family. Again thank you

  2. Hi, Sandra. I'm writing a book about Carville and am trying to find more information about your aunt. Could you contact me at Thanks!


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