When patients arrive at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, many are acquainted with the story of the legendary Drs. Mayo. But few know the Clinic has Franciscan roots, roots that began 117 years ago in a cornfield.
In September 1889, Mother Alfred Moes, O.S.F., founder of the Sisters of Saint Francis of Rochester (a teaching order), opened Saint Marys Hospital, a 27-bed facility a mile from town. The attending staff: Dr. William Worrall (W.W.) Mayo and sons, Drs. William J. (Will) and Charles H. (Charlie) Mayo.
The hospital should have failed from the start. Dr. W.W. Mayo was 70 years old, and neither Will, 28, nor Charlie, 24, had any hospital experience. Greener still were the nurses—sisters who were schoolteachers and not used to seeing blood and bodies. Rochester’s anti-Catholic sentiment didn’t help matters; many townsfolk were suspicious of the partnership between the Protestant Mayos and the Catholic sisters.
“The cause of suffering humanity knows no religion or sex,” Mother Alfred (1828-1899) said. “The charity of the Sisters of Saint Francis is as broad as their religion.”
With scalpel and prayer and a credo that “the needs of the patient come first,” the doctors and sister-nurses began to heal the sick. The mortality rate was so low that, by 1893, patients from Montana to New York were coming to Rochester. When the once-skeptical public began lauding the Mayos for the hospital’s success, the doctors humbly deflected the praise to the sisters.
“The grounds were purchased by the sisters, and the building was erected under the supervision of the Mother Superior,” the elder Dr. Mayo said during the 1894 dedication of the first hospital addition. “She was a wonderful woman, so full of hope and energy.”
The hospital expanded—as did the practice of the Mayo brothers, as well as the physicians and medical specialists who had joined them. In 1914, the brothers erected a five-story medical office building that became known as the Mayo Clinic.
“A sick man is not like a wagon to be taken apart and repaired in pieces,” the Mayo brothers explained about the country’s first integrated group practice. “He must be examined and treated as a whole.”
Although the brothers retired from surgical practice in the late 1920s, the Mayo/Franciscan bond remained tight as sutures. The sisters continued to operate the hospital and Mayo Clinic physicians continued as its staff.
Over the years, the Mayo/Franciscan team made its mark in medical history. In 1928, Dr. Will published an article describing “Sister Joseph’s nodule,” an umbilical lesion discovered by and named for Sister Joseph Dempsey, who was Dr. Will’s surgical assistant and also the hospital administrator. The nodule is often the only physical symptom of a particular form of abdominal cancer.
In 1949, Edward C. Kendall, Ph.D., and Philip S. Hench, M.D., announced the isolation of cortisone and its effective treatment of rheumatoid arthritis; initial clinical trials were conducted at Saint Marys Hospital. The researchers, who won the Nobel Prize in 1950, praised the sisters for their contribution to the medical feat.
Reaffirming Its Roots
If the Mayo/Franciscan connection is astonishing, consider this: The Franciscan spirit thrives at Mayo Clinic today despite a near-absence of sisters!
For years, Saint Marys Hospital and Rochester Methodist Hospital (and its predecessors) shared the services of the Mayo Clinic medical staff. By the mid-1980s, however, the reimbursement process from health insurance companies and Medicare had become increasingly difficult and complex.
In order to care more effectively and efficiently for their patients, the two hospitals and Mayo Clinic integrated operations in 1986—under the umbrella of Mayo Foundation. While each entity retains its separate, not-for-profit status, the trio is collectively known today as Mayo Clinic Rochester.
(In addition to Mayo Clinic Rochester, Mayo Clinic today operates clinics and hospitals in Jacksonville, Florida, and in Scottsdale and Phoenix, Arizona.)
After nearly a century of service, the Sisters of Saint Francis relinquished day-to-day control of the hospital. It was the end of an era but not a ministry. As part of the merger, an endowment was established to fund the mission of the newly created Saint Marys Hospital Sponsorship Board: to preserve the Catholic identity of the hospital and to perpetuate the Mayo/ Franciscan values throughout the Rochester campus.
“Saint Marys Hospital has been a primary ministry of our congregation since 1889,” says Sister Mary Eliot Crowley, O.S.F., administrator for Sponsorship and the only sister employed full-time at the hospital today. “While we don’t own or operate the hospital, we do influence the way health care is provided. This Midwest town takes care of patients from all over the world.”
Just as importantly, Mayo Clinic physicians wanted the Franciscan ethos to continue. “We know who we are with the sisters,” said Dr. W. Eugene Mayberry, vice chair of Mayo Foundation at the time of the merger. “But we don’t know who we’d be without them.”
Composed of Franciscan sisters and lay colleagues, the Sponsorship Board has a far-reaching mission statement. Sponsorship seeks to strengthen the spiritual dimension within Mayo Clinic; reinforce trust among staff and the anticipation of trustworthiness by patients and their families; and nurture the Mayo/Franciscan values of primacy of the patient, trust, commitment to excellence through teamwork, spiritual support and compassion/respect for those served and serving.
Important when formed, Sponsorship is even more critical today. “Until recent years, most new staff members were familiar with the spiritual roots and background of Mayo Clinic,” continues Sister Mary Eliot. “Mayo Clinic Rochester today has more than 29,000 employees, including researchers, scientists and doctors from around the world, of all faiths and all cultures.”
Imparting the Vision
The Sponsorship Board didn’t look to management consultants for help but rather to a pair of spiritual mentors: Francis and Clare of Assisi. In 1997, the Sponsorship Board invited the first group of Mayo leaders to participate in the Franciscan Leadership Pilgrimage, an annual program that brings to Assisi lay leaders from Franciscan-sponsored institutions.
There are parallels between the lives of these saints and Mother Alfred and Dr. W.W. Mayo, explains Sister Mary Eliot about the 11-day pilgrimage.
Francis and Dr. W.W. Mayo forsook all to follow their hearts, pilgrims learn. Francis left his father’s cloth business and Dr. Mayo his family in England. Francis tended to the lepers and outcasts; Dr. Mayo treated all regardless of social status or ability to pay.
Clare founded the Poor Ladies (known today as the Poor Clares); Mother Alfred, an immigrant from Luxembourg, established Franciscan congregations in Joliet, Illinois, and Rochester, Minnesota. Clare cared for the sick at her convent in San Damiano; Mother Alfred built Saint Marys Hospital.
Nearly 80 Mayo leaders have now made the ecumenical pilgrimage, which includes a daily lesson from Francis’ or Clare’s life, Eucharist, prayer and time for reflection. Group discussions further help pilgrims discern ways to apply Franciscan principles to life in the 21st century.
“What happens on pilgrimage is no less astounding than what happened when people encountered the living Saint Francis,” says Sister Ramona Miller, a Rochester Franciscan who has led various pilgrimages to Assisi for 20 years. “When Mayo pilgrims realize they’re connecting with a mission that’s 800 years old, they get fired up! They’re part of something big and it’s from God!”
The spirituality of each site affects pilgrims differently; testimonies are as diverse as the pilgrims, their jobs and their religious affiliations. Mary Ayshford, a Methodist and the art director in the Department of Development, found inspiration at La Verna, the mountaintop where Francis received the stigmata.
“Nature is my cathedral and that is where I felt the closest to Francis and to God,” says Ayshford, adding that, as with many pilgrims, Assisi instilled in her a greater need for servant leadership and bonum, the Franciscan value of doing good. “We owe it to others to be good people and to do good things and to help out wherever we can.”
Pilgrim Michael W. O’Brien oversees a staff of 110 in the sections of medical social services, patient education and the child-abuse program. For him, the lesson of Francis’ stigmata—a sharing in Christ’s suffering—meant a reordering of work priorities so he could share in the suffering of his employees. Compassionate suffering, O’Brien learned, takes a conscious effort.
Returning to work after a vacation, O’Brien was informed that several employees had lost loved ones. With 30 minutes until his next appointment, he decided to visit the bereaved staff members and extend his condolences, a gesture that elicited tears and words of gratitude for his concern.
“Before the pilgrimage, I would have used that half hour to organize my day,” reflects O’Brien, a Catholic. “Assisi taught me to take care of and respect my colleagues.”
Paula Menkosky, executive director of a Mayo-owned health benefits management company, “encountered” Francis before she ever left Rochester. “I learned it’s not Sister Frances but Saint Francis,” laughs Menkosky, a Unitarian, who is striving to emulate the Franciscan “power of one.”
“We often say, ‘I’m only one person. What can I do?’ Look at Francis and Clare and see the immense good they were able to accomplish,” encourages Menkosky, who was profoundly moved at the Portiuncula, the tiny stone chapel where Francis began his mission and where he died. “What you do today is making a difference, whether now or in the future.”
Yet another pilgrim discovered at San Damiano a deeper compassion for the sick in the story of Francis and the leper.
“Lepers had to wear cowbells to warn people they were coming,” says Paul S. Mueller, M.D., an internist and a nondenominational Christian. “Instead of being repelled, Francis embraced the leper and, for a moment, saw the face of Christ. That is something I reflect on, how we can see the face of Christ in our patients.”
Continuing the Legacy
While the number of pilgrims is minuscule compared to the overall Mayo population, the “lessons from Assisi” are having a ripple effect. Inquiring employees want to know what happened to their leaders in Assisi. And when pilgrims are transferred or promoted across the Mayo organization, they infuse their new work departments with this spirit.
“What I found remarkable is that the expectations I had for myself were changed as a result of the pilgrimage,” says Steven C. Adamson, M.D., a self-described reluctant leader before his journey to Assisi. He was recently named chair of the Department of Family Medicine in Rochester.
Pilgrimage is just one way Sponsorship impacts the Mayo culture. Sponsorship also presents educational programs, such as “Application of Franciscan Values in Healthcare,” presented by Father André Cirino, O.F.M., and helps fund research on values-related topics, such as the “Efficacy of Intercessory Prayer,” led by pilgrim Stephen Kopecky, M.D.
A Sponsorship Values Review process assists departments in assessing, on both a departmental and individual basis, how well Mayo/Franciscan values are being lived.
“The values that the founding Franciscan sisters and Mayo physicians embraced as basic to their mission guide our decision-making to this day,” says Glenn S. Forbes, M.D., chief executive officer, Mayo Clinic Rochester, about the unique secular-religious heritage.
But it was Dr. Will Mayo who predicted the Franciscan presence as important for success. “What we accomplish in the future will not be due to bricks or mortar,” he said in 1922, “but to the soul and spirit that resides in Saint Marys Hospital.”
That spirit and that soul remain a vital force today.
A Legendary Work of Mercy
How Saint Mary’s Hospital—and the Mayo/Franciscan connection—began is a legend in itself. It was born of a disaster.
The greenish-black sky cast an ominous feeling over Rochester, Minnesota, during the early evening hours on August 21, 1883. Even the thick air hinted of doom. Then calamity struck. A tornado roared through the town, killing dozens and injuring hundreds more. One third of Rochester, population 5,300, lay in ruin.
Townsfolk worked through the night, searching the twisted rubble for survivors and taking them to the “emergency rooms”—hotels, offices and the local Franciscan convent. Like many frontier towns at the time, Rochester lacked a hospital.
Dr. W.W. Mayo, who had come to Rochester in 1863 as the examining surgeon for the Union Army’s enrollment board, soon realized the medical effort needed a central location. He converted a dance hall into a makeshift hospital and had the injured transported there. He also recruited the sisters as nursing supervisors, according to The Sisters’ Story, by Sister Ellen Whelan, O.S.F., a compelling account of the hospital’s first 50 years.
“There ought to be a sister down there to look after those fellows,” Dr. Mayo petitioned Mother Alfred Moes, founder of the Sisters of Saint Francis of the Congregation of Our Lady of Lourdes, a namesake that, coincidentally, was associated with healing. Mother Alfred immediately dispatched two sisters to the temporary hospital.
When the worst was over, the dead buried and the injured recovering, Mother Alfred paid a visit to Dr. Mayo. A “tornado” herself, Mother Alfred had already established two Franciscan congregations of sisters, plus several Catholic schools across the Midwest. Now the 55-year-old visionary had another dream: a hospital for Rochester.
“Mother, the city is too small to support a hospital,” replied Dr. Mayo, recalling the conversation at the 1894 dedication of the hospital’s first addition. “Moreover, we have no assurance of the hospital’s success.”
Dr. Mayo desisted, but Mother Alfred persisted. As was often said of her, “To think was to do.”
“How much money do you need?” she asked.
“Forty thousand dollars.”
“Just promise me to take charge of it and we will set the building before you at once,” Mother Alfred said. She again put her assurance in Psalm 37:5, “Commit your way to the Lord; trust that God will act.”
Mother and her sisters scrimped and saved, fasted and prayed. When Saint Marys Hospital—a three-story, 27-bed brick facility—opened in a cornfield on September 30, 1889, Mother Alfred was $20,000 under projected cost. Founded as a teaching order, the congregation now had a new ministry: Sister-nurses tended to the sick, cooked the patients’ meals, did the laundry, stoked the furnace and even used the hair of convent horses to make surgical sutures.
During an era when hospitals were viewed as pestholes or places to die, the Mayo doctors’ extraordinary surgical skills and use of antisepsis (a relatively new discovery) began changing mind-sets.
“From September 30, 1889, to January 1, 1893, 1,037 patients were admitted and the number of deaths was 22,” reports The Sisters’ Story.
While the sisters and the Drs. Mayo respected and admired each other, they had their differences, some humorous. One day in 1905, Drs. Will and Charlie asked Sister Joseph Dempsey, the hospital administrator, to put up another addition. Sister Joseph, who said she would pray about it, later informed the doctors that God had said to wait.
“That’s odd,” replied Dr. Will. “Charlie and I consulted God and he told us to go ahead and build.” And build they did.
By 1912, five additions had been added to the hospital and, in 1922, a seven-story surgical pavilion went up. More additions and buildings followed in the decades to come. Today, Saint Marys Hospital counts 1,157 beds and 58 operating rooms, and is believed to be the country’s largest not-for-profit, acute-care hospital.
Sisters of Saint Francis of Rochester
Founded by Mother Alfred Moes, O.S.F., in 1877, the Sisters of Saint Francis of Rochester are 300 strong today. From Assisi Heights Convent, built to resemble the Sacro Convento of Saint Francis in Assisi, sisters have gone forth into many parts of the world.
Continuing the congregation’s first ministry of teaching, sisters serve as tutors, college and university professors and seminary instructors, and they operate and staff two schools in Bogotá, Colombia. Yet other sisters are therapists, lawyers, artists, writers, social workers, pastoral workers or retreat directors.
Perpetuating the Catholic/Franciscan tradition at Saint Marys Hospital, other sisters serve on the Hospital Sponsorship Board, while retired sister-nurses do hospital volunteer work and minister to patients.
Marion Amberg is a freelance journalist from Minneapolis, Minnesota.
This article originally appeared in the October 2006 issue of St. Anthony Messenger.