The nuns of Rochester

I needed to hear some good news. Relentless reporting of sexual abuse in the Church and elsewhere has left me quite disheartened, but then came Ken Burns’ excellent documentary on PBS about the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

“Mayo” has long been a synonym for outstanding medical care, and Burns, as is his extraordinary talent, carefully described the medical successes at Mayo over the years. The clinic pioneered many measures to treat disease that have become routine, such as antiseptic conditions, refining the use of insulin to treat diabetes, advanced radiotherapy and diagnostics, and complicated surgeries.

He stressed another component as essential to the clinic’s excellent reputation. This reference uplifted my soul.

That special component was the presence of the Franciscan Sisters at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester. For many years, St. Mary’s was the hospital to which people diagnosed with illnesses by the Mayo physicians went.

It began when a severe tornado struck Rochester, which was not much more than a wide place in the road. Many people were injured. Dr. William W. Mayo was one of the few doctors in the area. Desperate to find persons to help him with the injured, he went to the mother superior at the local parochial school. Could the sisters assist, even if they were not nurses? The nuns agreed. Eventually, St. Mary’s Hospital came into being and with it the presence of the Church through the nuns.

Again and again Burns mentioned the Franciscan Sisters’ faith. When asked what would Mayo have been without the sisters, a doctor said that they brought something precious to the clinic’s entire philosophy. The nuns’ vows did not remove them from ordinary human life but gave them a special insight into humanity. Another physician said the nuns saw in every patient someone whom the Lord loved, so caring for the sick was a way to imitate Jesus, to love all as the Lord loved all.

The program spoke of the sisters’ “Franciscan” instincts. For example, they never refused care at St. Mary’s to anyone unable to pay for services or to anyone who was not a Catholic. Everyone was important. Everyone was special.

Nothing was beneath them, or too much, if imitating Christ required it. In an epidemic, the sick swarmed into the hospital; the nuns gave up their own beds. During the Depression, the hospital fed people who were not patients, but who had no money to buy food for themselves.

At times, the sisters cooked the patients’ meals, ran the laundry, mopped the floors and even stoked the furnace. It was about Christ, so always, the sisters prayed for patients.

One former patient at Mayo’s recalled going with little hope of being cured. Yet, after receiving fine medical attention that led to her cure, she credited the nuns’ prayers for her good fortune as much as the doctors’ skills.

Summer and fall of 2018 have been a dark time for the Catholic Church. My heart aches as I see the pain that people are experiencing, the horrors that victims of sex abuse have endured at the hands of the Church.

It is heart-breaking and disillusioning. Is the Catholic Church a fraud?

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe now in print or digital.

Stories like the nuns in Rochester remind me that the Catholic faith works, when all else limps or fails, and that the sweetness and goodness of the Lord indeed lives in the world through the Church. Through Catholics, Jesus lives again.

This fact has been seen spectacularly for 20 centuries. Wrongs must be righted, but it is not just about repairing damage caused by problems.

Modern life in so many respects is troubled. But the Church has so much to offer.

Msgr. Owen Campion is OSV’s chaplain.