Tevlin: A legendary nun ponders history, pickles at Mayo Clinic

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 25, 2012 - 12:19 AM

Even though she's 93 and officially retired as hospital administrator in the 1980s, Sister Generose Gervais is conducting business from her office most days.

Sister Generose Gervais

ROCHESTER - On a sunny November day, Sister Generose Gervais huddled over her desk inside St. Mary's Hospital, surrounded by well-stocked book shelves, mounted certificates and religious figurines.

Even though she's 93 and officially retired as hospital administrator in the 1980s, she is conducting business from her office most days, pulling out a file to crunch the most recent numbers of the fall bazaar, a charity event that has helped more than 10,000 low-income patients over the years.

"Wait!" she said. "I want to get the numbers right. Here: ten thousand, four hundred and eight people. The amount of money raised, well, let's just call it $17 million."

Sitting on the sister's desk is a pickle jar with a photo of her on it. Over the decades, she has sold thousands of jars of pickles and as many as 8,000 jars a year of jams and jellies. The money goes to patients at St. Mary's who need a little help.

Often, years later, the people the sisters have helped show up with donations to pay back the program, called the Poverello Fund, named after St. Francis of Assisi.

Some years, people lined up for the annual bazaar, mostly to get a hold of Sister Generose's pickles, which she and the other Sisters of St. Francis made over arduous 12-hour stints in the kitchen.

This year, however, age and health issues prevented Sister Generose from canning. Instead, they decided to stuff each pickle jar with Sister Generose's recipe and charge $5 for a piece of the legend. It's up to others now to carry on with tradition.

Sister Generose's pickles are not the only thing that is legendary. One of the hospital buildings is named after her. ("They didn't ask me, they told me.") Her face is on the cover of a history book about the Sisters of St. Francis and their role in building St. Mary's and thus starting the famed Mayo Clinic.

But Sister Generose is one of the last of a storied tradition. At one time, there were 1,000 sisters of St. Francis. Now there are 264. There is only one novice, from Colombia.

"We're dying off," she said.

Until then, Sister Generose is left to tell the stories. Stories about how a tornado destroyed Rochester and how Mother Alfred Moes convinced the Mayo Brothers -- bullied them -- into building a hospital, then set about funding it.

She can still vividly recall the days when she made her vows, back in 1941. She and the other sisters virtually ran the hospital, each the head of one of the departments. She remembers sleeping in beds that were "not fit for the patients. They were under stairwells and in hallways," she said.

At one point, 120 sisters actually lived inside St. Mary's. Now, 16 still do, including Sister Generose, who lives in a small former patient room. Two of the remaining sisters are over 100 years old, and several are in their 90s.

"We sisters have gone from control, to influence," said Sister Generose.

"I used to tell the nurses they didn't work for me, they worked for the patients. The hospital is still run that way."

Sister Generose is also steeped in the history of the place. She tells stories of taking care of the famous, such as the queen mother of Egypt ("all she wanted was a glass of water"), but she bristles when asked about other "important patients."

"Everyone is a VIP," Sister Generose said. "Because we're all children of God."

Dr. Bruce Fye, a cardiologist at Mayo Clinic who has become kind of a historian on the relationship between the clinic and St. Mary's Franciscan sisters, marvels at Sister Generose and the other sisters' roles in the creation and culture of the medical complex.

"She's a treasure, an absolute treasure," Fye said. "She has this incredible institutional memory. She was administrator of the hospital for 16 years, yet she is very humble. She has a national reputation, but you wouldn't get that from a person who sits there and makes pickles. And she's got great comedic timing."

Relieved of administrative duties, but still tightly connected to the hospital, Sister Generose is involved on a few boards and committees. She spends her free time "reading and praying." And she is a huge sports fan, especially of the Twins and Vikings.

Asked what she thought of quarterback Christian Ponder, Sister Generose didn't hesitate.

"Sometimes he Ponders too long," she said with a sly smile.

"Get rid of the ball!"

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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