Friday, May 15, 2020

The Sisters of St. Joseph

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

In spring 1907, Mother Agnes of the Order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester knelt in the chapel of the Nazareth Convent waiting for a sign from god. J. John Hassett and Dr. John A. Westlake of Elmira had approached Bishop McQuaid of Rochester about opening a Catholic hospital in Elmira in the old Academy of Our Lady of the Angels school. The Sisters of St. Joseph were selected to run it and Mother Agnes was praying for guidance on who to send when Sister Alice Rose Conway walked in. She would serve as St. Joseph’s Hospital administrator until her death in 1939.

Sister Alice Rose Conway

The Order of the Sisters of St. Joseph was founded in Le Puy, France in 1650. They established their American chapter in upstate New York in 1836 and have served the Diocese of Rochester, which includes Chemung County, since 1868. Prior to establishing St. Joseph’s Hospital, the sisters were strictly a teaching order. Sister Alice Rose was a French and math teacher at Nazareth Academy. Of the seven sisters who helped to establish the hospital, only two, Sister St. Ann and Sister Jerome, had any previous hospital experience. The former teachers had a lot of learning to do.

St. Joseph’s Hospital opened for patients on September 24, 1908 after extensive renovations. The first few years were incredibly hard and the hours were brutal. The sisters rose at 3am to do laundry in the kitchen before seeing to their nursing duties. At the end of their shifts, they ironed before dinner and then attended classes on nursing after. Money was tight. While the sisters made sure the patients had food, they, on several occasions, had nothing more than soup made from potato skins. Gas and electric service was spotty and wards were often lit by candles stuck in potatoes.

Original St. Joseph's Hospital and adjacent convent

The hospital grew rapidly under the guidance of Sister Alice Rose. Despite her limited experience, she was an able administrator and skilled fundraiser. In 1909, they held their first fundraiser, a baseball game between Elmira and Wilkes-Barre. The following year they built a laundry building and almost immediately launched into a campaign to fund construction of an annex. By the time Sister Alice Rose died in 1939, the hospital had expanded from a tiny converted school with 26 beds to a goodly-sized hospital complex with 5 buildings, 245 beds, and a dedicated nursing school with dormitory.

Care at St. Joseph’s had a uniquely Catholic flavor. The sisters believed it was crucial to heal patients both physically and spiritually. Patients could pray with the sisters, receive sacraments, and attend mass. At the tail end of the 20th century, they could even watch an in-house religious channel on their room’s TV. The nursing school was decidedly Catholic too. Each floor of the dormitory was overseen by a resident nun who kept the girls from sinful behaviors like dating. Students not only took classes on nursing and health, but also on the Catholic faith. Everyone, Catholic or not, was required to attend chapel at 6:50 am and Mass twice a week. It’s no surprise, really, that over the years, upwards of 40 students ended up as nuns themselves.

Sisters of St. Joseph on hospital steps, ca. 1930s

Sister Ruth Schicker, the last of the founding sisters, died at age 81 in 1967, but there where still plenty of nuns at St. Joseph’s Hospital. At the Order’s peak in 1947, there were 40 sisters working as nurses, administrators, and clerks. As the 20th century progressed, however, the number of nuns across the nation as a whole began to decline from a peak of 180,000 in 1965 to 92,107 in 1996. By the turn of the 21st century, there were only four sisters still working at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Sister Marie Castagnaro was the last, finally stepping down as administrator in 2010, shortly before St. Joseph’s merged with the Arnot Health System. 

An interesting side note: in 1942, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester established a mission in Selma, Alabama and founded Good Samaritan Hospital for the treatment of impoverished blacks who could not be admitted to the local white hospital. Sisters from St. Joseph’s Hospital in Elmira and the mother house in Rochester took turns working there. On March 7, 1965, Civil Rights activists lead a march for voting rights which was supposed to be from Selma to Montgomery. Instead, the marchers were brutally beaten by state troopers and white supremacists at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Four sisters from St. Joseph’s were working at Good Samaritan at the time and helped to care for the wounded from the march. Within six hours, the hospital treated over 100 patients and admitted 15. Martin Luther King later visited the hospital to thank the sisters personally. In 1989, Margaret Hanley, formerly Sister Michael Ann Hanley, gave an interview about her time in Selma. Thanks to a grant from the South Central Regional Library Council, we were able to digitize the interview and make it available on YouTube. A quick warning before watching: it’s an hour long, so maybe grab some popcorn first.

1 comment:

  1. My great Aunt, Sister Ignatius, was a Nun at St. Josephs. She established the Radiology Department.