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Sisters instill Franciscan values at Mayo Clinic

  • Article by: JEFF HANSEL
  • Associated Press
  • March 10, 2014 - 1:05 AM

ROCHESTER, Minn. — As Pope Francis joyously displays his faith, he models Saint Francis, who lived simply, served the vulnerable and considered all beings — including insects — to be his brothers and sisters.

His example has inspired the Franciscan sisters of Rochester to reaffirm their own efforts to live Franciscan values, from tending to bees to helping the poor in various missions.

The sisters have helped build Rochester from the time Mother Alfred Moes convinced Dr. W.W. Mayo that a hospital should be built in Rochester after the devastating 1883 tornado.

Saint Marys opened in 1889 and succeeded so well with surgical survival that the Mayo brothers were soon famous, and Mayo Clinic has become a worldwide medical presence.

It's unlikely Mayo Clinic would have grown in the same fashion were it not for the construction of Saint Marys Hospital.

In the early years, said Sister Jean Keniry, medical staff worked "elbow-to-elbow" with sister-nurses and the sisters openly lived the essence of their Francisan values alongside members of the medical staff.

"I suppose they caught it," Keniry told the Post-Bulletin (http://bit.ly/1i15T7y).

She arrived at Saint Marys in 1955.

"The values were the very center; respect, compassion, healing and integrity were just paramount," she said. They "just flowed right out of the Gospel."

Franciscan values have become so much a part of Mayo Clinic and Rochester, the sisters say, that their own physical presence isn't necessary to maintain them. The sisters no longer directly govern the Saint Marys campus.

"We have to rely on the staff to carry them out now, because we're thinning out," said Saint Marys archivist Sister Lauren Weinandt.

"We've planted seeds, grown something," said Sister Tierney Trueman.

About 140 to 145 pilgrimages have been made by Mayo Clinic leaders to Assisi, Italy, where Saint Francis was born. The pilgrimages were begun by the hospital Sponsorship Board to help Mayo leaders learn about the Franciscan values firsthand.

"As we were moving away from the sisters being closely involved, we were looking for ways to help leadership," Keniry said.

The values, Keniry said, are Mayo Clinic values. They're Franciscan values. And the values of the Mayo and Francisan founders, including Mother Alfred, the Mayo brothers and other doctors and sisters who helped form Saint Marys and Mayo.

So they're ingrained in the community and into Mayo Clinic.

But, Keniry said,"I do think they have to be nurtured."

To that end, there are currently 96 "cojourners" (both men and women) who undergo a two-year preparation to live the Franciscan values, according to Sister Ann Redig.

Historically, "the values were our focus, along with maintaining the Catholic hospital," said Keniry, who served as president of the Saint Marys Hospital Sponsorship Board before the hospital officially became part of Mayo Clinic Hospital, which now includes the campuses of Saint Marys, Rochester Methodist and Mayo Eugenio Litta Children's hospitals.

The Franciscans try to instill values through how they live.

For Keniry, a nurse, "care of the sick has always been a focus." She worked at an AIDS hospice in Chicago during the late 1980s when the HIV epidemic was devastating lives nationwide and effective treatments were not yet available. She worked on the U.S. border, focusing on the public health impact coming to the U.S. had upon immigrants.

Sister Generose Gervais, for example, spent countless hours over the decades cutting cucumbers to make pickles and canning berries to make jams to sell for fundraisers to support the Poverello fund that serves patients unable to pay their own hospital bills (Poverello literally means "little poor man").

Sister Joseen Vogt traveled to serve at a teacher training center in Sierra Leone, West Africa to serve the impoverished.

"That's where I saw poverty in its greatest effect," she said. Schools had "absolutely nothing. No blackboards. No books. Nothing."

Vogt started an English training center in Cambodia and teaches adult literacy at Hawthorne Education Center in Rochester. She evenfigured out how to teach science to the blind, coming up with ideas spontaneously and using balances to help teach weights and measures.

Pope Francis has encouraged priests and sisters to directly interact with people in need of ministry. The sisters have tried to do that in Rochester, and across the globe.

"Literally and metaphorically, if we are doing the pastoral work, we will 'smell the sheep,'" said Sister Ramona Miller.

Sister Alice Thraen has taken to heart the love Saint Francis had for all creatures.

Thraen tends to honeybee hives at Assisi Heights, which provide honey for Assisi Heights. Hers is an effort to save the honeybee, which has struggled for survival over the past decade.

"We have bee meetings here every month; 60 to 70 beekeepers," Vogt said during a recent conversation at Assisi Heights.

Thraen said Saint Francis asked "ordinary people to become the protectors of humanity, respecting each of God's creatures and the environment in which we live. I have great respect for our bees and what they can do for our environment."

Honeybees are needed for pollination of agricultural crops, and, at Assisi Heights, of apple trees in particular.

Sister Mary Goergen, who spends six months each year growing and harvesting produce for the Rochester Franciscans, said Thraen's work and its basis in the examples of Saint Francis, speaks to "knowing our relationship with all creation."

"When I was a little girl, I grew up on a farm in Southeast Minnesota. I spent my growing-up years being amazed by creation," she said.

The sisters grow produce like kohlrabis, beets, beans, carrots, strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes and cucumbers outdoors at Assisi Heights under God's watchful eye.

"I have a sense of being next to Him when I'm out there," Goergen said.

Sister Lauren Weinandt volunteered when emergency planners asked hospitals around the country to each train an amateur radio operator.

As she became known among amateur radio users, she met a man over the airwaves who needed to come to Mayo Clinic from Guatemala.

"So I helped him get into the Mayo Clinic," Weinandt said. As a thank-you, he invited her to visit his family in Guatemala. If she took care of the airfare, his family would provide food and lodging while she visited for a week.

She rode with her biological sister, who was already heading to Florida by car, and caught an affordable flight from there.

"Every day, they put on my pillow a place that we would see the next day," Weinandt said. And there was always a little gift to remember each day's journey.

For Weinandt, it was a joyous experience, because her dream had been to serve as a missionary. But health limitations prevented her from the physical obligations often required of missionaries. During her journey around Guatemala, though, "I saw how terribly poor these people were."

Upon her return, Weinandt wanted to help. Although she became a "missionary in place" — serving patients from around the globe who visited Saint Marys, she also served internationally by organizing rummage sales to raise money to send to two Franciscan sisters serving in Guatemala.

Eventually, she was able to gather enough donated materials — sheets, pillow cases, wheelchairs, bed stands — that a 20-bed hospital could be opened in Guatemala. She enlisted the help of the Technical Airlift from the National Guard base in the Twin Cities to fly the materials to Guatemala.

After that was accomplished, money from the rummage sales started flowing into the Saint Marys development fund during the 1980s, and later to the Poverello fund.The sisters, over the years, "with our sisters' projects, have raised over a million for the Poverello Fund."

With her amateur radio experience, Weinandt befriended a Rochester woman who lived at a local nursing home. The woman was a polio survivor unable to use her fingers, and Weinandt helped her get a radio and learn how to use it.

"It opened up the world for her. She couldn't wait to get up and talk to people," Weinandt said.

Pope Francis, Trueman said, like Saint Francis, is raising awareness about the poverty, and he's trying to bridge the gap between the rich and poor.

Keniry said Pope Francis exhibits "symbols" of faith, such as warmly touching and kissing the head of Vinicio Riva, who has lived with the effects of a genetic condition called neurofibromitosis, which causes skin growths.

Such symbols, Keniry said, "are very 'alive' ways of bringing to the forefront his emphasis on the disenfranchised, however they present themselves. He really is out on the street embracing."

"I think he must have been educated by Franciscans," Saint Marys archivist Sister Lauren Weinandt said, with a smile.

Miller said reaching out to immigrants, who often deal with poverty, has been part of the Franciscan story all along.

Immigrants to the U.S. suffer, said Sister Ruth Snyder, especially when they travel.

"Every time they hit the road, they're afraid they're going to be deported," she said.

The pope was asked where faith leaders should go first, and he answered, Snyder said, "to the poor."

St. Francis peace prayer includes the phrases, ". where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon .."

The sisters have many wishes for the future of Rochester and Mayo Clinic, including continuation of Franciscan values.

Vogt said she would like in the future to see no more victims exposed to human trafficking.

"And no more victims of immigration," said Sister Anne Walch.

Snyder said affordable housing and affordable transportation included in Destination Medical Center is important to her.

The sisters have a left a lasting impact upon the Saint Marys campus, Mayo Clinic, Rochester and the world. And they're continuing their work in that regard.

Keniry said about 140 to 145 pilgrimages have been made to Assisi, Italy, where Saint Francis was born. The pilgrimages were begun by the hospital Sponsorship Board to help Mayo Clinic leaders learn about the Franciscan values firsthand.

"As we were moving away from the sisters being closely involved, we were looking for ways to help leadership," Keniry said.

The values, Keniry said, are Mayo Clinic values. They're Franciscan values. And the values of the Mayo and Francisan founders, including Mother Alfred, the Mayo brothers and other doctors and sisters who helped form Saint Marys and Mayo.

"I do think they have to be nurtured," Keniry said.

An AP Member Exchange Feature shared by Post-Bulletin

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