On September 30, 2011 the Sisters were honored and humbled to be joined by Archbishop Aymond as well as Bishops Muench, Duca and Herzog plus almost 50 clergy who concelebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving.
One hundred years ago, six brave nuns trekked from Europe to the United States to begin taking care of the people of Louisiana. These Sisters trace their origins back over 800 years to Saint Francis of Assisi, whose mission was to serve the sick and the needy. Since 1911, more than 150 Sisters have served in various ministries throughout this state, taking care of 40 percent of Louisiana’s population. Recently, the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady celebrated its landmark anniversary of their journey to the U.S. with a week-long celebration: A Century of Faith and Service.
The adventure began in 1911, when Bishop Van de Ven of Alexandria, La. requested that the Franciscan Sisters of Calais, France send nuns to help open a hospital in nearby Pineville. On Sept. 18, 1911, six brave Irish and French nuns, led by an astute Irish woman named Mother Marie de Bethanie Crowley, embarked on a two-week voyage to the United States. After arriving at New York harbor, the contingent boarded a train for a two-day journey to Louisiana. But, plans changed when the funding for the Pineville hospital fell through. Fortunately, the mission continued with the help of Father Ludovic Enaut, who gave the Sisters money and property to launch a hospital in Monroe.
Transitioning to life in America proved challenging for the European-based nuns. “Obviously, the French had some difficulty with the language, because it was not their native language,” observed Sister Kathleen Cain, OSF. “And, while the Irish Sisters spoke English, they had heavy brogues.” But, though very few Catholics lived in Monroe, the people warmly welcomed the nuns and appreciated their greatly needed care. During construction of the hospital, the Sisters administered their own version of “home health,” tending to the sick in their residences. The St. Francis Sanitarium and Training School for Nurses opened two years later in 1913. Over the years, the hospital expanded, but remained on the original site in downtown Monroe.
This single group of nuns helped pioneer healthcare in Louisiana. In 1921, the Sisters were summoned to Baton Rouge by Monsignor Gassler, Pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church. Under the guidance of Mother de Bethanie, 10 nuns opened Our Lady of the Lake Sanitarium and School of Nursing in November, 1923 on University Lake (Capitol Lake). The hospital moved to a new facility on Essen Lane in 1978. “When we moved to Essen Lane, they told us we were too far out and we would never receive patients out there,” Sister Kathleen said with a laugh.
From the Capitol, the Sisters expanded to Lafayette, where they launched our Lady of Lourdes Hospital on St. Landry Blvd. in 1949. Last year, Lourdes moved to a new state-of-the-art location on Ambassador Caffery Parkway on the fast- growing south side.
In 2000, the Sisters, who had officially changed their name to the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady in 1964, acquired an existing hospital in Gonzales, La. which they dubbed St. Elizabeth Hospital. Next came Assumption Community Hospital in Napoleonville in the 1990s. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Sisters operated a clinic in St. Bernard Parish. The nuns continue to manage this clinic, which was given to St. Charles Parish last year and became a federally qualified clinic.
Besides these medical facilities, the Sisters’ U. S. ministries include Our Lady of the Lake College and St. Clare Manor and Ollie Steele Burden Manor nursing homes in Baton Rouge; Elderly HUD Housing; Programs for All Inclusive Care of the Elderly (PACE) and St. Anthony’s Home for HIV and Aids Patients. For more than 20 years, the Sisters have operated a mission in Haiti. “We have never planned any of our moves,” Sister Kathleen said. “We kind of respond if there is a need.”
Part of the Sisters’ success is attributed to their comforting rapport with patients. “It’s Christian-based, so we bring a spiritual dimension in the care of our patients – not a Catholic dimension, but a spiritual dimension,” Sister Kathleen explained. “When people are sick, they usually turn back to religion or their God because they are scared, more than anything else, of dying. We have a strong a pastoral care department in our institution. We have Catholic priests, deacons, sisters, lay ministers and other people in the church participating in the care of the patient, which we believe is part of the healing process. We provide care to those most in need.”
Another is their changing approach to healthcare through initiating wellness programs. “In the past, we have been known in healthcare to care for the sick,” Sister Kathleen said. “We are trying to change that viewpoint and look at how to keep people well so they don’t need healthcare. Which is counterintuitive, but it is something that we believe is very important. Because, healthcare dollars are going to be more and more scarce, but people are still going to be sick. So, the longer we can keep them well, the better opportunities we have in caring for them.”
For their 100th anniversary, the Sisters held a week-long celebration in all of their locations throughout the state. Nearly 900 people, including The Most Reverend Gregory Aymond, Archbishop of New Orleans; fellow Bishops Robert Muench, Michael Duca and Ronald Herzog; 50 priests, Gov. Bobby Jindal, congressmen, senators and mayors attended the final event – a special Mass and celebration at Maryville Convent in Baton Rouge. As a reward for their accomplishments, the healthcare system bestowed the nuns with a gift to establish gardens on a portion of each of their facilities. “We are going to produce fruits and vegetables, especially that the poor can’t afford,” Sister Kathleen explained. “Many of the poor eat starches that aren’t healthy. But, to buy fruits and vegetables, it’s very expensive. So, we are going to make fruits and vegetables accessible to start the poor, as well as people with conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, on the road to health.”
For the future, the Sisters are continuing their mission of providing healthcare to those most in need – with a little help. “We are working with several different Catholic facilities in New Orleans with the city right now,” Sister Kathleen shared. “And, as healthcare changes in the future, we believe there are going to be a lot more affiliations. Because, you are going to need to in order to be able to control costs and get supplies and goods at the lowest possible price. You can’t do that as a standalone facility. So, we see the future as making considerable changes both as to how healthcare is provided as well as how it is organized.”