The story of how Minnesota’s most famous hospital came to be was told in a two-part Ken Burns documentary last week, so a lot of people now know about the sisters.

The lesser known partners in a vital partnership early in Mayo Clinic history, the Sisters of Saint Francis in Rochester were given their due by Burns, who toured their home, Assisi Heights, on a hill overlooking the city while making the documentary.

It was Mother Mary Alfred Moes all those years ago who proposed to doctor William Worrall Mayo that they create a hospital. Mayo had a private office on Rochester’s Third Street in 1864, but after a tornado smashed into town in 1883, it was clear more was needed. The doors of Saint Marys Hospital opened in 1889.

To this day, a handful of Franciscan sisters live at the hospital, available as prayer partners, receptionists and in other roles.

“It was all about a handshake, and continues to be,” said Sister Mary Eliot, who worked at Saint Marys hospital for 27 years as the coordinator for Franciscan sponsorship and values. (The hospital is now known as Mayo Clinic Hospital.)

Sister Mary Eliot and Sister Ramona of the Rochester Franciscans said the nuns’ work doesn’t usually get much attention, so as the evening of Burns’ documentary neared, excitement ran high.

“This 90-year-old sister called me this morning after seeing Tom Brokaw and Ken Burns on the ‘Today’ show,” said Sister Ramona. “She said, ‘My heart was pounding so much.’ It was just so wonderful.”

And the film? “I thought it was incredible,” said Sister Mary Eliot. The documentary showed Mayo’s early commitment to innovation, how Mayo mortgaged his house to buy a microscope, she said.

“It’s very insightful that the subtitle is ‘Faith, Hope and Science,’ ” said Sister Ramona.

“What might this story say to people, to say, ‘What are we really doing to care for the common good of the people?’ ” said Sister Ramona. “If that could somehow shift in our society that could be great. It could have some subliminal messages coming through.”

The film was a smash hit in Rochester, with viewing parties planned across the city. Some of the 110 sisters living at Assisi Heights watched it together in the auditorium.

“The whole city is alive,” said Sister Ramona.


Twitter: @_mattmckinney