MADISON -- It is a bittersweet time for Srs. Mary Ellen Lewis and Priscilla Weber. The two Franciscan Sisters of Mary have spent many happy years working at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison. They will be leaving Madison to live in a retirement community near St. Louis, Mo., joining other Sisters in their religious order.
They also happen to be the last two of 168 Franciscan Sisters of Mary to work at the Madison hospital, founded 100 years ago by two Sisters who came to Madison to open the area’s first faith-based hospital.
In an interview, the last two Sisters discussed their lives in Madison and their plans for the future. They said they believe that the Sisters are leaving St. Mary’s Hospital in good hands.
Sr. Priscilla Weber
Sister Priscilla graduated from St. Mary’s School of Nursing and worked at St. Clare Hospital in Baraboo and then at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison. She was not yet a Sister at that time.
“I learned that the Sisters were human,” she said. “Sr. Mary Kiernan was my supervisor on 3North. I told her I was interested in joining the Army and she encouraged me to join the army of Christ and become a Sister. I did.”
Sister Priscilla celebrated 50 years as a Franciscan Sister of Mary in 2009. Besides nursing, she has worked in development at St. Mary’s Hospital, at St. Mary’s Adult Daycare Center, and most recently at St. James Parish in Madison as a parish nurse and pastoral associate.
She believes the Sisters who still own the hospital through the SSM Health Care System have left a lasting legacy. “We have a special culture of caring and we always strive for excellence,” said Sister Priscilla. “I think everything is in good hands.”
Sr. Mary Ellen Lewis
Sister Mary Ellen agrees. “I feel very good about the future of St. Mary’s Hospital with all the good people here,” she said. She noted that the hospital’s mission awareness programs help give the hospital staff “inspiration and awareness” of the hospital’s mission, which says: “Through our exceptional health care services, we reveal the healing presence of God.”
The hospital’s five “core values” are also emphasized with the staff: compassion, respect, excellence, stewardship, and community.
“We have emphasized an expression of caring based on our Catholic faith and the Franciscan tradition, and we always strive for a sense of excellence and stay on the cutting edge of science and medical treatment,” observed Sister Mary Ellen.
She served at the hospital in administration from 1967 to 1974 and then returned to work from 1994 to 2009 in pastoral care, serving as director when she retired. She, too, has been a Franciscan Sister of Mary for over 50 years.
Sister Mary Ellen said she and the other Sisters have appreciated living and working in Madison. “Madison and St. Mary’s have been favorite places for the Sisters,” she said. “They have a warm feeling about the city, the people, and the staff.”
Sister Priscilla wiped away a few tears as she talked about leaving Madison. “It’s hard to leave, but it’s a better opportunity to be with the Sisters in the St. Louis area,” she said.
The two Sisters will be living in a retirement community in Bridgeton, Mo., built by five religious congregations, including their order. The community features a continuum of care, including the retirement center with independent apartments where they will live. Lay people also reside in the community.
The Sisters of St. Joseph have a homecare program there, and there is a hospital on the grounds. Sister Priscilla hopes to get involved as a volunteer in one of the programs there.
“I’ll do some volunteering but I also want to spend some time with the Sisters in the nursing home there,” said Sister Mary Ellen. “I’ve been retired almost two years, and in some ways you’re busier when you’re retired.”
“I’m actually looking forward to it,” said Sister Priscilla. “We will have an evening meal in common with the others living there.”
In the meantime, the Sisters are busy packing and giving away some of their household items as they downsize for the move.
Will the Franciscan Sisters of Mary return to St. Mary’s Hospital in the future? Sister Mary Ellen said it’s unlikely but not impossible. “The average age of our Sisters and the declining numbers make it unlikely,” she said. The youngest Sister in their order is 56.
Leaving a legacy
However, St. Mary’s Hospital retains its Catholic identity in many other ways. There are three Sisters of other denominations in the pastoral care department, along with priests and lay volunteers who visit and give Communion to patients. Mass is offered every day at St. Mary’s.
And the new gardens dedicated to the Sisters remain as a reminder of the Sisters who built the hospital and left their legacy to those who carry on the hospital’s mission of compassion and healing.
Those interested in remembering the Sisters may give a donation to the hospital’s Parish Nurse Program through St. Mary’s Foundation at www.stmarysmadison.com