Sponsored By
An organization or individual has paid for the creation of this work but did not approve or review it.



Franciscan sisters celebrate hospital's history

original hospital building.jpg
Saint Marys hospital building as it looked in 1889.

One hundred and twenty-five years ago today, Saint Marys Hospital in Rochester opened its doors — a day early.

"It wasn't supposed to open until the first of October. But it opened the day before because a patient needed surgery," saidSister Generose Gervais, the last Franciscan sister in Rochester to hold the post of hospital administrator.

Gervais and Sister Lauren Weinandt, the hospital archivist, recently reflected on the hospital's history and the remarkable nature of its success.

• When the hospital first opened it was staffed by five sisters, Dr. W.W. Mayo and his two sons — the Mayo Brothers — Dr. Will and Dr. Charlie as they are fondly called. They had to hand-pump water, and it "was carried from the basement," Weinandt said. That included water for "cooking, cleaning, bathing" and for patients and nurse-sisters to drink.

• "The poverty of the sisters, and how they saved, is the reason we have what we have today — because of their saving and their progress and their work," Weinandt said. For example,Mother Alfred Moes, founder of the Rochester Franciscan order, "wore shoes that she made out of cloth. But if she went outside of the hospital, she wore shoes that she got for a dollar-and-a-half. They lived very frugally."


• During the latter parts of the day, sisters spent their time cleaning patient rooms.

• There are at least two remnants of the original hospital building still housed at Saint Marys. Along the west side of the Joseph Building entrance (the hospital's former main entrance along Second Street), there's an original stone cross. Separately, at the entrance to the historic 1904 Chapel (on Floor 1, which is one floor up from street level), there's a stone archway that came from the original hospital.

• What's the oldest still-used part of the hospital? The 1904 chapel. "The chapel is really the heart of the hospital," Weinandt said. "And this is our mission, healing the sick just as Jesus healed the sick."

• Where did the original 1889 hospital building once stand? About where today's Domitilla Building Desk 1D now stands, according to Sister Generose.

• What was the first surgery every performed at Saint Marys? A patient with cancer needed an eye removed. Two sisters were present during that first procedure "which was a vital memory for them for the rest of their life."

• Archives note that the first patient "was discharged sometime later in good condition."

• Nursing was "a new kind of work" for the Franciscan sisters. Previously, theirs had been a teaching order.

• "Nursing, in that day, was more like a mother would take care of a sick kid at home," Gervais said. "They didn't have all that equipment."


• "They only had a little bit of silverware," Weinandt said. "It was iron forks. They had to scour it in between."

• In the early days, the hospital had three wards. The only "pretentious" item was a black wooden bureau that had been sent to the hospital from the convent.

• Patient wards included plain wooden chairs and bleached muslin sheets on cots. Quilts were obtained gradually over the course of time.

• When all the beds were taken in the early days "the sisters surrendered theirs." It became a normal nightly duty for the sisters to prepare spots on the floor upon which to sleep.

• The hospital was built with a crude elevator-sort-of-platform operated by ropes. One sister sat nightly "to protect people from walking into the shaft."

• In the early years, smoking was allowed at the hospital. A story passed down from the late 1800s is about a patient who wanted to have a smoke. For the comfort of other patients, he wasn't allowed to smoke on the ward where he was hospitalized. So, "three or four sisters carried the man up to the third floor (on a cot) so that this man could smoke."

• Patients sometimes wrote to the sister in charge asking for a ride upon arrival "and she'd have a sister go to the train station." Dr. W.W. Mayo also sometimes picked up patients himself and took them in his horse-drawn buggy to the hospital.

• "After supper was the usual time for the sisters to got to the butcher shop to get the next day's supply of meat," Weinandt said. For 15 cents the sisters got a soup bone with about five pounds of meat "and that took care of everybody."


• The sisters arose at 3 or 4 a.m. and continued working until 11 p.m. or midnight. Laundry was washed, ironed and allowed to dry during the afternoon so that it would be ready for the next day. Weinandt and Gervais said more-contemporary sisters like themselves arose at about 4:55 a.m. and completed their Saint Marys work generally by midnight or before.

• "In the year of the flood," Gervais said, "we worked in the laundry at night because we couldn't have all that machinery running" during the daytime.

• Weinandt, quoting archival material, said the Sisters of Saint Francis worried not about "creed, color, social or financial distinctions. The poor have been as well cared for as the rich."

• A solitary, itinerant "incompetent" janitor helped the sisters with work outdoors.

• It soon became clear that the patient survival rate at Saint Marys — which is today called Mayo Clinic Hospital-Rochester Saint Marys Campus — was far better than survival rates elsewhere around the country. Ironically, medical expertise of the day called Saint Marys "that foolish adventure doomed to failure" because, Gervais said, "they didn't believe in aseptic technique."

Today, Bishop John Quinn will celebrate mass at the Saint Marys chapel at the normal Mass time; 4:30 p.m.

Sister Lauren Weinandt and Sister Generose Gervais in the chapel at Saint Marys Hospital where they attend daily mass. Built in 1903, this section of the chapel is the oldest section of the existing hospital.

What To Read Next
Get Local