Jen's World: The sick and the poor were Sister Antoine's 'constant thought'
Mother Alfred Moes. Sister Mary Joseph. Sister Generose Gervais.
To most Rochesterites, these names are synonymous with Mayo Clinic, and with the fabric of our city. They also happen to be the three Franciscan sisters featured in Rochester Magazine’s current, November issue.
Mother Alfred, of course, founded St. Marys Hospital. Sister Mary Joseph served as St. Marys nursing superintendent for 47 years — and was Dr. Will’s first surgical assistant for 25 years. Sister Generose made such an impact as a St. Marys administrator that the bronze, ornamental Plummer doors were closed in her honor when she died in 2016.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that as our Rochester Magazine team was working on that story, I learned about Sister Antoine Murphy.
Lyn Wong, of local Dunn Bros. fame, stopped to chat when I was in having tea a few weeks ago. She’d recently talked to a customer who’d bought a desk built by Sister Antoine’s brother. Sister Antoine, Lyn told me, had just died in February at 104 years old and was the last surviving sister to have worked with the Mayo Brothers.
It was an interesting story, she said. Did I want to learn more?
And so I found myself, shortly thereafter, sharing a booth at Dunn Bros. with Dr. Darlene Kelly — the proud new owner of Sister Antoine’s desk.
Dr. Kelly, who I’ll call Darlene by her request, is a cojourner — a lay member of the Sisters of St. Francis. Cojourners share a relationship with the sisters, by way of time spent, prayers given, and missions and ministries shared.
Some cojourners, said Darlene, help with the sisters’ health care. Others share meals and socialize with them. Darlene works on a committee for human trafficking education, a cause important to the Franciscans.
It was as a cojourner that Darlene’s relationship with Sister Antoine grew. But her relationship with the sisters dates back further than that.
For 30 years, Franciscan Sister Bernadette was Darlene’s cat and house sitter. As a result of that friendship, Darlene would often get invited to eat meals with the sisters, including Sister Antoine (and Sister Generose), at St. Marys.
Sister Antoine, who was born on Jan. 15, 1914, was "very much retired" by the time Darlene met her. Even so, she describes her as "a fairly tall lady who looked like she just stepped out of a high fashion store. And she was always smiling and warm."
Though the end of her career was spent in hospital administration, Sister Antoine had begun her health care career as a nurse — during the time Drs. Will and Charlie Mayo were practicing.
"She had an amazing memory," says Darlene. "She had names on the tip of her tongue, and memories that went back into the history of the Clinic. She had memories of the first time they did certain surgeries, of the first kidney transplant."
While her memory never failed her, her eyesight did. In fact, Sister Antoine was legally blind by the time Darlene met her, yet she always managed to call Darlene by name.
She also remained sharp. Darlene recalls a dinner with the sisters: "It was a birthday party for a priest," she says. "And we played games afterwards. There was a card game the priest had never played, but Sister Antoine had. By the end of the night, each of them had won two games, and the rest of us won none or one! She would’ve been 103 then."
Sister Antoine passed away on Feb. 15, 2018, one month to the day after her 104th birthday. (And, unfortunately, before she got to see herself appear in Ken Burns’ PBS documentary, Mayo Clinic: Faith – Hope – Science.")
After her death, many of her possessions that didn’t go to family members were auctioned or sold to raise money for the Poverello Fund. The fund, started by Sister Generose, is used for patients who need help paying their hospital bills.
It’s a fitting fund for Sister Antoine, as, said Darlene, the focus of her prayers were the sick and the poor. "They were her constant thought," she said.
Sister Antoine’s desk — the one Darlene bid on — was sold through a charity sale held annually by another Franciscan nun, Sister Lauren. (Sister Lauren, who is 97 years old herself, has been holding charity sales for 50 years.)
Sister Antoine’s desk, which Darlene describes as "a small, solid oak desk with a drop leaf, beautifully made and with hardly a mark on it," was offered through silent bid. Darlene’s winning bid was $700 — worth it, she says, to donate to the Poverello Fund and, of course, to have this piece of Sister Antoine’s history.