Steven Geis' childhood memories include an unlikely mix of hijinks and hospice.
The fourth of five children, Geis' mother Dorothy was a nursing professor and his father LeRoy was a family practice physician who began seeing dying patients in 1967 at Our Lady of Good Counsel hospice, just off Interstate 94 in St. Paul's Merriam Park neighborhood. Dr. Geis regularly invited a couple of his kids to join him as he made the rounds, visiting patients in their last days.
The hospice, now known as Our Lady of Peace Home, opened in a converted Tri-State Telephone Co. building 80 years ago this week on Dec. 7, 1941 — just as Pearl Harbor came under attack 4,000 miles away, launching the United States into World War II.
About 40 years later, Steven Geis was tagging along with his dad at the hospice.
"I can remember the tile floors left from the old phone building and the open corridors with patients curtained off," recalled Geis, 51, of Woodbury, now principal at North Trail Elementary School in Farmington. "There was a nun named Sister Imelda who roller-skated through the halls and we would giggle and slide along on those tile floors."
That fun "came screeching to a halt one day when one of us clipped a patient's catheter bag," Geis said. "It didn't hurt the patient but made a mess."
At 5 p.m. Tuesday, Our Lady of Peace will commemorate its 80th anniversary with a candle-lighting ceremony. Stars and angels will be illuminated on the building in memory of more 25,000 people who have died there since 1941.
"No one called it hospice back then," said Geis, said to be the home's longest-running volunteer. "The sisters were originally known as Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer."
Founded to help dying cancer patients who were without financial means, today's 21-bed hospice now cares for all terminally-ill people of any ethnic and faith background at no cost beyond what Medicare covers. Donations offset much of its expenses.
Geis' father once said the hospice was "the closest thing to heaven on earth." He and Dorothy believed in giving their kids first-hand experience in end-of-life care.
"They taught us the dying shouldn't be hidden, because death is part of life's journey," Steven Geis said. "They would bring us along and we'd hold patients' hands, roll the piano to different spots for music on holidays, and be present during people's last stages."
Sister Joan Marie Cheuvront, who served at the facility in the early 2000s, said the Geises "were like family to us, coming all the time" — including once when Steven's brother, David, brought a buffalo from his farm in southwestern Minnesota. The sisters, in turn, would visit the family's St. Paul home for special events like graduation parties.
Unlike many Catholics who give up something during Lent, the Geises would give their time to the home, often washing dishes and serving meals. Steven's sister, Juliann Geis of St. Paul, still volunteers and donates floral arrangements, while Steven answers phones and visits patients every Sunday. The oldest of Steven's four children, Faith Imelda, took her middle name from that rollerskating nun.
"They always had a sandwich waiting for our father," Geis said. "As kids, we were always impressed by how much meat they piled on those sandwiches."
The hospice's story dates back to 1900 and Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, the daughter of 19th-century American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. She nursed cancer patients in New York City in the late 1800s before founding the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, an order she led as Mother Maria Alphonsa. When "Mother Rose" died at 75 in 1926, she was lauded for her work helping the poor, sick and dying, and is now being considered for sainthood in the Catholic Church.
St. Paul's hospice was the farthest west of the Hawthorne Sisters' seven care centers. The order replaced the phone building with a new building in 1981, expanded services to in-home patient care in 2001 and transferred control to the Franciscan Health Community in 2009.
And it all started for the St. Paul hospice on Dec. 7, 1941, an otherwise infamous date. Raymond Wey, 88, attended an open house at the hospice center that day with his parents and grandmother.
"They dragged me along and I remember people milling around and listening to the radio as the news from Hawaii took over the day," said Wey, a former priest and Catholic Charities director. He visited terminal patients at the hospice as a seminary student in the 1950s.
"We used to call it the cancer home and it took in the people no one else wanted or those who couldn't afford to pay," Wey said. "It still carries on that same mission and gets little attention, but gives people some peace at the end."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.