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Nightingale’s Franciscan Spirituality

6. Nightingale’s Franciscan Spirituality

Niagara Anglican, September, 2000

An American bishop examining Roman Catholic influences on Nightingale saw a Franciscan strain in her faith, with her delighting in flowers and love for “all of God’s creatures.”1 Certainly her love of nature shines through in so many notes and letters, even if her enjoyment for most of her life had to be vicarious, observations from her sick room window.

Her first patient, when she was still a child, was a dog. A letter recounting a trip to Oxford, in 1847, reported an encounter with a bear cub chained to the door of a student’s room. She begged for it to be left alone and then, with a friend keen on “mesmerism,” hypnotized it.2 In Greece in 1850 she bought an owl from some Greek boys who were tormenting it, and brought it back to England. Her concerns about cruelty to animals and species extinctions can be seen in many letters, notably one to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.3

Diary entries show that Nightingale identified with animal suffering, for example a “picture of hare run down by two greyhounds and man galloping behind, all for the pleasure of the greyhounds and the man, and not one to sympathize with the hare. That fate is thine.”4 A butterfly is identified as being “God’s butterfly” (Entry 17 November 1877).

A letter raises several delights of nature:

…I never see a soap bubble when I am washing my hands without thinking how good God was when He invented water and made us invent soap. He thought of us all and thought how He could make the process of cleansing beautiful, delightful to our eyes, so that every bubble should show us the most beautiful colours in the world. It is an emblem of His spirit, when we put our own into it and handle them too roughly; immediately they break, disperse and disappear. So I try to put as little of my own as possible into things.”5

Like Francis of Assisi Nightingale had a special fondness for birds. Early in life she told a cousin, “There is nothing makes my heart thrill like the voice of birds, much more than the human voice. It is the angels calling us with their songs.”6 She fed the birds outside her window in London (her house was near Hyde Park and backed onto the gardens of the Dorchester Hotel). Answering an enquiry from her sister, she described a “golden-crested wren…in the old tree in the middle of the sweep opposite the parsonage door….Now golden-crested wrens lay not only ‘eight eggs’ but I have myself counted at Embley [Hampshire] up to thirteen and sixteen.”7 Late in life, in a letter to back to her childhood home, Lea Hurst, in Derby, Nightingale asked to have the birds fed, “as usual, and charge it to me.”8 To a friend she related, “My robin, the first I have seen, has just come to my window and made me two curtseys, saying ‘I know you are trying to save us.’…O save my birds.”9 Another letter noted “St Francis of Assisi did not like the ants because, he said, they were ‘so anxious.’ But the birds, he said, were just right: industrious, I suppose he meant, but not anxious.”10

To her brother-in-law she returned a lark “which you were so good as to send me. Pray, pray forbid all killing of larks. (I have enforced this on the cookery school).”11 To her aunt she reminisced: “There is a thrush here. We fed him during the winter—he is so good as to sing in the trees opposite my bedroom windows, in all the din of Park Lane, the only thrush I ever heard sing in London.”12 To her brother-in-law she wrote: “Birds: I don’t believe a word of it, that sparrow clubs are at an end and bird slaughter stopped….I saw a sensible diminution of birds in my last few weeks at Claydon over and above the extraordinary disappearance of the last two years. Some species have entirely disappeared. One wretched half-starved starling who came to my window to beg is the sole representative remaining of the splendid crown of starlings which used to sit or parade along the top of your church tower.”13

Nightingale was not being entirely facetious in her belief that non-human species share in prayer; she was enormously fond of the psalms, many of which have animals, mountains and rivers praising God. In a letter to her sister she referred to birds “whispering at dawn their prayers to God.”14 To her brother-in-law she commented, at the end of war in Egypt, “Every little bird seems to sing its praise for this great mercy.”15 A letter to a friend reflects on a mutual friend’s “belief in the immortality of animals, who, she says, which is quite my own conviction, have some qualities so much higher than we have.”16 In a letter to a nursing colleague in Belfast Nightingale offered to send plants for the hospital and asked about a canary or singing bird, and “a tame cat” which would not hurt the canary: “it is a civilizer, is it not?”17


1 Leo Gregory Fink “Catholic Influences in the Life of Florence Nightingale” St Louis MO: Catholic Hospital Association Bulletin No. 19:3.

2 Letter to Mary Clarke 9 June 1847, Add Mss 43397 f286.

3 Letter to the Secretary 23 October 1891, Lothian Health Board Archives, Edinburgh University Library, LHB1/111/1-2.

4 Diary entry 25 February 1877 Add Mss 45847.

5 Letter/draft/copy to Sir Harry Verney 12 May 1890, Add Mss 45791 ff211-13.

6 Letter to Hilary Bonham Carter circa 25 April 1846, Add Mss 45794 f101.

7 Note to Parthenope Verney 17 December 1869, Wellcome Institute (Claydon copy) MS 9003/131.

8 Letter to Mr Yeomans 19 December 1899, Boston University.

9 Letter to Margaret Verney 23 September 1891, Wellcome (Claydon copy) MS 9013/192.

10 Letter to Emily Verney 24 March 1872, Wellcome (Claydon copy) MS 9005/124.

11 Letter to Sir Harry Verney 23 November 1882, Wellcome (Claydon copy) MS 9009/115

12 Letter to Mary Smith, circa July 1888, Collection of Hugh Small.

13 Letter/draft/copy to Harry Verney, 22 November 1892, Add Mss 45791 ff240-45.

14 Letter to Parthenope Verney 7 June 1885, Wellcome (Claydon copy) MS 9010/80.

15 Letter 17 September 1882, Wellcome (Claydon copy) MS 9009/91.

16 Undated letter to Mary Clarke Mohl, Woodward Biomedical Library A.39.

17 Letter to Miss Pirrie 14 October 1885, London Metropolitan Archives Microfilm 7.

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