By Jeff Hansel
Sister Generose is a well-known name in Rochester today, but 87 years ago she was baptized Jeanne Rose Gervais.
At 18, while preparing to join the Order of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, she attended a Valentine’s Day party at which each postulant received a sacred heart of Jesus. As place cards were turned over, sister names were found inscribed on the other side.
Gervais was pleased by the name on hers: Sister Generose. Her new name combined the names of her baptismal Jeanne Rose, her Uncle Eugene and her Godmother Rose, an aunt.
She became known as Sister Generose, a name she suggested to the bishop. He conferred it upon her.
Her faith and hard work have brought fame to that name. Not only was Sister Generose the final sister to serve as administrator of Saint Marys Hospital, but the Mayo Clinic Generose Building is also named after her.
She continues to sell her famous jellies, using the proceeds to help patients who are unable to pay their medical bills.
"No task is too menial for her," said Sister Lauren Weinandt. "She can go down the hall and pick up somebody’s gum."
She still commands a lot of respect.
"She has this presence about her; she just has kind of an openness about her that makes you feel kind of very comfortable even approaching her," said Saint Marys Hospital administrator Lynn Frederick.
A life of many avenues
Sister Generose, who grew up in the southwestern Minnesota town of Currie, was 9 years old during the 1929 stock market crash, so she grew up during the Great Depression. Her family worked together to make it through tough times.
"We learned to do … canning and that, didn’t have air conditioning, didn’t have electricity, didn’t have indoor plumbing, didn’t have running water, carried the water from the well, which was full of minerals, including iron," she said.
After joining the Order in 1938, Sister Generose taught eighth-graders for two years in Winona — "literally scared to death, because the boys were taller than I was; many of them were."
After teaching, Sister Generose went to Stout Institute in Menomonie, Wis., which is now the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She received a degree in home economics education. There was one other sister in the program, and only one teaching job was open. So off that sister went to teach, while Sister Generose took more chemistry and physics.
"I probably wouldn’t have passed physics if my (own) sister hadn’t been in the same class and helped me; a tutor, if you will," she said, breaking into laughter.
She served as a dietitian because, if one was needed, "I was willing to give it a try."
She became dietitian administrator and co-director of the Saint Marys School of Practical Nursing, instructing nurses destined to provide home care.
Sister Generose reminisced about providing food for the "queen mother" of Egypt. She was worried about special requests, but the queen mother enjoyed simple fare.
"What she liked was like chicken and rice baked together," Sister Generose said.
Eventually, she became administrator of Saint Marys Hospital in Rochester, from 1975 to 1981.
When the top administrator of any organization retires or steps down, the retiree can sometimes be seen as a threat to the incoming manager, if a well-meaning one.
But Sister Generose wasn’t like that, Frederick said. Sister Generose "doesn’t want to talk about her days as the administrator as much as what can she do today to help our patients," she said.
Instead, she has focused her attention on leading the Poverello Foundation, an organization, as its first president, that she helped start. It aids Saint Marys patients who are unable to pay their hospital bills.
She regularly helps the Poverello fund by selling her locally famous jams and jellies, which in the past numbered up to 57 varieties. She learned how to can the treats from her mother.
"I see her coming down the hall; oftentimes, it’s carrying empty jars, because she’s going to fill them with jellies and pickles," Frederick said.
During canning season, Sister Generose often tinkers late at night in the Saint Marys kitchen after food service is done for the day, said Sister Moira Tighe.
There’s a saying that applies to Sister Generose, said Weinandt: "Preach always and, if necessary, use words."
"So she’s preaching all the time," Weinandt said.
Sister Generose has served on multiple boards, said Sister Mary Lou Connelly. She’s served on the Madonna Towers Board of Directors as chairwoman; the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis board; as president of the Board of Trustees of the Catholic Health Association of the United States; and, to this day, as president of the Poverello Foundation.
"She’s always a very committed person, very dedicated, especially to values and goals of Saint Marys and the Mayo Medical Center," Connelly said. "She has always said that the greatest challenge is to commit to the values and the goals of Saint Marys and the Mayo Medical Center, and we must always be aware of the blessing God has bestowed upon us for what the medical center has become — and that heritage is ours."
Expert historian on Mayo
Sister Generose is one of Mayo’s most well-versed historians, with a focus on the role of the Sisters. She related how Mother Alfred Moes and the Sisters of Saint Francis raised the money to build the first Saint Marys Hospital after the 1883 tornado, which devastated Rochester and made it clear that a hospital was needed. Dr. William Worrall Mayo had agreed to work there if they raised enough money.
The facility that opened Sept. 30, 1889, was cutting edge for its time, with windows to allow fresh-air breezes to make the rooms aseptic, Sister Generose said. There were high ceilings with fresh-air ducts.
"Honestly, Saint Marys is the beginning of Mayo," Sister Generose said. "If the doctors had never had an operating room to operate in, they’d never have had a Mayo Clinic."
The hospital mortality rate of 2.1 percent was unheard of at that time, she said. It was that low because of aseptic technique brought from Europe to Saint Marys.
Within eight years, patients were coming from eight states because so many people had heard about the success of Mayo Clinic. About every five years, beds had to be added.
"My own dad was a patient in 1899," Sister Generose said. "He was 7 years old, got his foot caught in a mower."
The local doctor told her grandfather to take her father to Rochester.
"So Grandpa put Dad and Grandma on the train and sent them to Rochester, and Dr. Will treated my dad," she said.
Sister Generose has seen much change in medicine and Saint Marys, as technology has allowed wondrous treatments.
Faith makes a difference
Other things haven’t changed.
The continued presence of the Sisters, including Sister Generose, helps "instill that sense of that value of caring for all patients," Frederick said.
"Sometimes I think we forget to thank them for all they continue to do," Frederick said.
There is a difference between caring for the sick "and doing it as Jesus did," Sister Generose said.
"Faith is a gift from God, and we have to nurture that faith in order not to lose it," she said. "Life is a mystery. We can never understand it."
When she’s not helping the hospital, Sister Generose raises cucumbers, squash and tomatoes in her garden.
Sister Generose is also a diehard Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Vikings fan, often listening to the Twins on the radio.
"She can tell you more than you’d ever care to know" about the teams, Sister Tighe said.
The Generose Building, according to MayoClinc.org, was named for her in 1993. It "consolidates mental health care services for adults, adolescents and children."
"That must be quite a feeling, because most buildings are named after you die," Sister Connelly said. "But this one is named while she is living. I’m sure she’s proud of that. But you know it’s probably very humbling, too."
Sister Generose is approachable. She often spends a few moments with patients and visitors. That’s the kind of attention she loves — close, personal opportunities to share in the way Jesus shared.
The future of Saint Marys
Sister Generose said she expects ethical questions to increasingly confront medical workers.
"With all the things we can do technologically, the question is, should we do them?" she said.
She hopes Saint Marys will "continue the healing mission of Jesus, as Jesus healed. That’s how we started, and that is how we will continue, using all the advances of science and technology to provide the best patient care."
Said Frederick, "I think the sisters … have set the groundwork for those values, and I believe Mayo, as a whole, holds those values today. And I think those values are kind of the foundation for our future."
What’s your favorite flavor of jelly made by Sister Generose?
"I think I like strawberry or raspberry, either one." — Sister Lauren Weinandt.
"She won’t like me saying this, but she knows it’s rhubarb cherry." — Lynn Frederick, administrator of Saint Marys Hospital
"I like strawberry or orange marmalade." — Sister Moira Tighe. "The pickles are very good."
Sister Generose Gervais gives away copies of her favorite prayer.
Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi
Lord make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
For information about Sister Generose, Saint Marys Hospital and the hospital’s history, go to www.postbulletin.com/weblinks.
Saint Marys Hospital
Tornado and the hospital