Monday, February 16, 2009
About a month into my husband's complicated and difficult hospitalization in the fall of 2004, some good friends, Stewart and Kathy Laird of Minneapolis, came to visit us at St. Mary's Hospital of Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where Larry was in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit.
Stew, a former hospital administrator in Wisconsin and Minnesota, wanted to visit a friend of his who lived at the hospital, a Franciscan nun, and he and I set out to find her while Kathy stayed behind in Larry's room to pray.
We wandered down the halls of the Mary Brigh Building to the corridors of the older Domitilla Building, until we were past the main visitors' cafeteria and just outside the sisters' dining room, where we came upon an older woman in hairnet and apron putting jars of homemade pickles on a cart.
"Excuse me," Stew asked. "Do you know where I can find Sister Generose?"
It was Sister Generose.
Despite her unassuming appearance on that particular occasion which might have given rise to any patient, visitor or unknowing staff passing her by, Sister Generose is the life and heart and history of St. Mary's Hospital and the Franciscan alliance with Mayo Clinic.
Not everyone knows that Mayo Clinic, a world class health care institution, came to be because of a tornado in a cornfield in August of 1883, a tornado that wiped out much of the town of Rochester and left many seriously wounded and in need of medical care. The Sisters of St. Francis were called upon by a local physician, Dr. William W. Mayo, to take in the sick and wounded and care for them. The sisters, trained as teachers, not nurses, cared for the patients through the crisis, and when it was over, Mother Alfred Moes, the spiritual leader of the Rochester Franciscans, recognized the need for a local hospital and enlisted Dr. Mayo to help her in creating it. The sisters would work to acquire the land, and open the hospital, and provide nurses for it, she explained, if Dr. Mayo would staff it with doctors.
It was then that St. Mary's Hospital, and Mayo Clinic, were born, and an alliance was formed between the Sisters of Saint Francis in Rochester and the Doctors Mayo, an alliance that continues to this day.
From the time of Mother Alfred Moes, there began an unbroken chain of Franciscan sisters who were administrators of St. Mary's Hospital--Sisters Joseph, Domitilla, Mary Brigh,
Sister Generose Gervais was the last Franciscan administrator of St. Mary's Hospital.
Like the great women who went before her, there is a building a St. Mary's that bears her name, the most recent addition, which houses Mental Health and Addiction Services just across from the main hospital.
There are fewer than two dozen Rochester Franciscans who continue to live in community in the convent at St. Mary's Hospital of Mayo Clinic in Rochester. They wrapped their arms around me during the difficult eight months that we were there for Larry's prolonged hospitalization and fight for his life, took me in, prayed with and for me and him, and gave me strength I would not have had otherwise. Some of these women were at St. Theresa's College in Winona, Minnesota, at the same time my husband Larry was a student at St. Mary's, and some knew him later at a time he served on the boards of both St. Mary's and St. Teresa's. When I needed them, they were there for me, and I will never forget their loving presence, or underestimate the power and strength of the Rochester Franciscans.
Sister Generose Gervais continues to be a larger than life presence in the Mayo/St. Mary's/Rochester community. She works tirelessly for the efforts of the Povarello Foundation, which enables those who are less fortunate to be able to receive health care at Mayo despite an inability to pay.
And she makes world class pickles.