Saint Ursula and Her Maidens

O'Connell, Mary

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony
  • Date of entry: Aug-02-2005
  • Last revised: Jan-21-2010


Five women find fellowship and comfort in the swimming pool at a community center managed by Ursuline nuns. Each woman suffers from a chronic disease--lupus, multiple sclerosis, Crohn's disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. One is also being treated for ovarian cancer. The diverse group includes a pregnant woman, an elderly nun, and a retired nurse who currently peddles Avon products. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they participate in aquatic therapy. The one-hour sessions temporarily soothe the body and boost morale. It is a welcome reprieve from the burden of disease and the complications of life.


Water is an essential element in many different ways for these five women, and the swimming pool provides physical and emotional support for them. Their physical therapy sessions are a sort of ritual. The women share common bonds: chronic illness, side effects from drug therapies such as Prednisone, and a future that might include the inability to care for oneself. Camaraderie is identified as a key to coping with chronic illness.

Pity (for self and others) is potentially problematic. Sister Barbara, a nun with lupus, astutely points out, "People who aren't happy with their own lives feast on the troubles of others" (36). Readers should consider the connection between the life of Saint Ursula and the characters in this story. Saint Ursula was a British princess who made a three-year pilgrimage at sea. She was accompanied by many virgin maidens and all of them were slaughtered by the Huns.

Primary Source

Living with Saints



Place Published

New York



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