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BULLEThistory archive
History Archive Photo
© Coutesy Arizona
Historical Society, Tucson

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Sister Act
It’s the stuff that movies are made of: Seven nuns leave Missouri on a mission to the Wild West, where they build a legacy and break a few hearts along the way.

By Sally Benford

Tucson The seven sisters of St. Joseph bid adieu to their fellow nuns in relatively tame Carondelet, Missouri, on April 20, 1870. They were headed for the rugged Arizona Territory, and they understood that it would be a long and treacherous journey, as well as a permanent assignment. But that didn't matter as they traveled through harsh terrain and the threat of Indian attacks to help civilize Tucson and "rid the town of its wicked ways." They believed they were on a mission from God.

After three weeks of crossing the country by train, covered wagon and boat, the sisters reached Fort Yuma on the Colorado River. There, they quickly learned about life in the Wild West.

According to Sister Monica Corrigan's diary of the trip, Trek of the Seven Sisters, the group nearly drowned, suffered from heat and fatigue, and saw the graves of many settlers who had been killed by Indians, including the Oatman family. Once they arrived in Arizona — the most dangerous segment of the trip — the sisters accepted the hospitality of ranchers, but nothing more.

"There were several ranch-men there from the neighboring stations, but no women," Sister Corrigan wrote. "There are few women in this country. After dinner, they became very sociable. Some of them proposed marriage to us, saying we would do better by accepting the offer than by going to Tucson, for we would be massacred by the Indians."

More amused than insulted, the sisters continued on their journey, past the Gila River, where soldiers escorted them for the final 75 miles, including a harrowing ride through the mountain pass at Picacho Peak. On May 26, 1870 (Ascension Thursday), the seven sisters arrived in Tucson, where 3,000 citizens greeted them with a grand reception.

It didn't take long for them to make their mark on the Old Pueblo. Within a few days, the nuns had opened the doors of St. Joseph's Academy, which was immediately filled to capacity with eager students. When they weren't teaching, the sisters walked the dusty streets of Tucson, carrying medicine and supplies for the poor and sick. In 1880, they opened St. Mary's Hospital, the first hospital in Arizona.

Today, the legacy of the seven sisters of St. Joseph lives on. In all, the Tucson diocese is home to 26 schools, three hospitals and more than 60 parishes and missions.

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