Few people know that the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., one of the world’s leading hospitals, can trace an important part of its development to a Franciscan sister. Thanks to Mother Mary Alfred Moes, Saint Marys Hospital (the first hospital of the Mayo complex) was built in 1889 and the highly successful partnership between the Franciscan Sisters of Rochester and the Mayo family of doctors who staffed it was established.
Answering the call to religious life, Mother Moes traveled to America from Luxembourg in 1851 to bring the Gospel to Native Americans. For the next 20 years, she taught in mission schools throughout the Midwest. Embracing the Franciscan values of serving God through service to others, she began a new order in Rochester in 1877 under the title of the Sisters of Saint Francis. It was during her stay in Rochester that Mother Alfred became acquainted with the work of Dr. William Worrall Mayo, a prominent local physician, and his two sons, Will and Charlie. Both sons had assisted their father in surgery since childhood — Charlie began when he was only 8 years old!
After a devastating tornado struck Rochester in 1883, Dr. Mayo approached the sisters and asked them to assist the volunteer nurses. Convinced of the need for a hospital, Mother Alfred proposed to Dr. Mayo: “Just promise me that you will take charge of our hospital, and we will set that building before you at once.” After initial hesitation, the Mayos began a partnership that lasted the rest of their lives. Although the Mayo doctors, as Episcopalians, were not of the sisters’ faith, they shared a common goal of serving humanity with dignity and compassion.
In 1889, Saint Marys Hospital opened with 27 beds and eventually became one of the largest privately owned hospitals in the world. To run an institution of its size was demanding. Usually the sisters’ days began at 3 or 4am — and often didn’t end until midnight. Some of their daily duties included hand-pumping water, carrying meal trays and shoveling coal for the furnace. Somehow the sisters also found time to cut sponges and carefully make sutures from horsehair. They also managed a farm with cattle, pigs, chickens and a vegetable garden.
Duties, however, were not confined to domestic chores. Some of the sisters became indispensable in the operating room, like Sister Joseph Dempsey. Dr. Mayo chose her rather than another physician as his first surgical assistant. In this position, she would be called upon to finish operations when he addressed other doctors in the gallery. During her tenure, Sister Joseph was also the first to call attention to a first sign of abdominal cancer. In recognition of her contribution, the condition was named “Sister Joseph’s nodule” and has become part of medical terminology.
Even more far-reaching than the operating room, the sisters helped to forge a philosophy of care that emphasized patient-centered care and collaborative work. Their example left an important legacy of caregiving that was modeled on community effort. This framework influenced the other medical professionals and benefited the team-led consultations so unique to the Mayo Clinic.
Although starting a hospital was fraught with hurdles, Mother Moes literally prayed Saint Marys Hospital into existence and imbued it with Franciscan values of hope and joyful generosity. Thanks to Mother Moes, the hospital continues to have not only a sound Catholic formation that reflects the fundamental teachings of the Church, but also the virtues typical of Franciscans, which continue to inspire patients and visitors.
Today, the Franciscan Sisters still direct Saint Marys Hospital through its sponsorship board, and it remains an integral part of the Mayo Clinic. Faithful to the Church’s ethical values, Saint Marys Hospital does not perform abortions. Beyond the Mayo Clinic, the sisters’ work has now grown to various ministries throughout the U.S., Colombia and Cambodia.
The Franciscan Sisters at Mayo are but one example of the historical legacy the Church enjoys in the health-care field. It is interesting to note that, according to the Catholic Health Association, each year in the U.S. one in six Americans receives medical care in a Catholic health institution. In fact, many of the early religious orders that were founded in America have strong nursing traditions. Among these are the Sisters of St. Francis, Sisters of Charity, Bon Secours, Sisters of Mercy, Daughters of Charity, Sisters of Providence, Sisters of St. Joseph and others.
Nursing the sick has always been an essential part of the Church’s mission. From the earliest days of the Church, canon law required bishops to use a portion of diocesan revenue to help the needy. Founding and endowing hospitals, therefore, became a common practice of bishops. Clearly, even in the 21st century, leading a Christian life of purpose and integrity is not inconsistent with providing excellent medical care.
The ministry of the Franciscan Sisters of Rochester has been a long one, positively influencing the community and hospital where they serve.
As Sister Mary Brigh Cassidy notes in the documentary “Healing Hands: The Sisters of Saint Francis and Mayo Clinic,” “The sisters want our hospital to be a house of God and a pathway to heaven.”
Jennifer Roche writes