A Brief History of the Sacred Heart Chapel, Carville

The leprosarium at Carville, located in an isolated bend in the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, was founded in 1894 in a bold move by the State of Louisiana on the site of an old sugar plantation. The hospital was first known as the Louisiana Leper Home, and its first resident staff consisted of a band of intrepid Daughters of Charity recruited from Emmitsburg, Maryland, who functioned as doctors, administrators, nurses, technicians, therapists, pharmacists, researchers, dieticians, mechanics, maintenance workers and political advocates for the hospital and its patients.

The Daughters of Charity, who staffed the hospital for over one hundred years, were founded in the Seventeenth Century by St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac. Their motherhouse is in Paris, France. Their vows of charity, poverty, obedience and service to the poor are renewed by these dedicated sisters annually. Their first contract with the State of Louisiana was entered into in 1896 and, although it provided no salary for the sisters, did allow for some payment of expenses by the State. Upon arrival in 1896, the first four Daughters of Charity faced tremendous obstacles to the building of a first-class hospital, including the terribly dilapidated, vermin-infested condition of Indian Camp Plantation and its almost total inaccessibility to supplies and communication with the outside world.

The sisters, however, overcame the odds and provided excellent care for the patients, both spiritually and physically. Their faith allowed them to take each day as it came and make the best of them all, establishing a farm, cold storage plant, generator for electrical power, and clinics for men and women. In addition, they constructed covered walkways to facilitate travel between buildings in the swampy land upon which the hospital facility was built. The sisters insisted on Christian burial for all patients in the Carville cemetery, and some were buried there alongside of the patients they so heroically served.

In addition to their duties at the hospital and laboratories, the sisters actively campaigned against the predominant social prejudice against leprosy. And they worked tirelessly for a cure of the dreaded disease. In 1921, primarily through the prodding of New Orleans dermatologist Isadore Dyer and Louisiana’s U.S. Senator Joseph E. Ransdell, champion of public health, the institution became a Public Health Hospital formally known as U.S. Marine Hospital No. 66, the National Leprosarium of the United States. The contributions of the Daughters of Charity assisted in a breakthrough discovery in the 1940s that forever changed the lives of Carville residents as well as the facility itself, when, after uncountable experiments, staff doctor Guy Faget discovered and demonstrated a veritable cure for Hansen’s Disease. This cure, the control of leprosy with sulfone druge, soon became known as the “Miracle of Carville” and has brought fame to Carville for its role in the control of one of history’s┬ámost dreaded diseases. After the first successful findings, a host of doctors, nurses, patients and volunteers began a remarkable program of education and public information designed to put to rest the association of the disease with the outcasts of Biblical leprosy. The hospital’s research in Hansen’s disease classification, microbiology and disease-related eye and limb complications were the finest to be found anywhere.

In 1981, regional Hansen’s disease clinics were established to provide outpatient care to patients with leprosy, and the population at Carville was greatly reduced. Patients who lived at Carville were, however, given the option to remain until their death if they so chose. In 1986, the center was renamed the Gillis W. Long Hansen’s Disease Center, U.S. Public Health Service Hospital, in honor of the distinguished U.S. Congressman. It remained in Carville until 1998 when the center was relocated to Baton Rouge.

In 1996, the National Hansen’s Disease Museum was opened on the site. This museum houses artifacts and information about the residents at Carville, both patients and Daughters of Charity, the disease of leprosy and its control, and other related artifacts and information. In 1999, the U.S. government returned title of the lands at Carville back to the State of Louisiana which operates a Louisiana National Guard Youth Challenge Program on the site. Two Daughters of Charity remained at Carville until 2005.

For nearly a century, the Carville hospital complex was like a small village, containing not only residential, medical and research facilities but also a store, a theater, a golf course, a jail and churches. Masses are still celebrated at Sacred Heart Catholic Chapel, the second Catholic chapel to be built on the grounds of the hospital. This chapel, designed in Mission Revival style with Romanesque details by New Orleans architects Bernard & Wogan, was completed in 1933 with funding provided by the Catholic Church Extension Society of America.

* Historical images used on this page are copyright-protected property of The National Hansen’s Disease Museum in Carville, LA and are used here for educational purposes. Please do not reuse. You can visit the National Hansen’s Disease Museum’s website at www.hrsa.gov