The sisters of St. Joseph

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(HOST) This week VPR celebrates Women’s History Month by recognizing Vermont women who made significant contributions to our history and culture. Their remarkable stories will be told by Vermont women notable in their own right. Today, commentator Marcelle Leahy honors an order of Catholic nuns – who transformed care for the sick in Vermont.

(LEAHY) The sisters of the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph’s began their trek to Vermont in France in the year of 1630 , with the founding of a congregation of women who lived their Catholic faith through hospital work.

A small group of the sisters moved from France to the settlement of Montreal, and established a hospital there, enduring extremely difficult conditions. They were led by Jeanne Mance, for whom the nursing school at the Degoesbriand Hospital, in Burlington, was named.

The Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph established a bond with Vermont when the daughter of Ethan Allen, Frances “Fanny” Allen, joined their order in the early 19th century, the first Vermonter to do so. One hundred years later, when the Bishop of Burlington wanted to establish a Catholic hospital in Vermont, a group of the sisters came from Montreal to Colchester to open the hospital, which was named for Fanny Allen, and is now a part of Fletcher Allen Health Care.

At seventeen years old, as a recent high school graduate, I became a student at the Jeanne Mance School of Nursing. Along with my classmates, I was taught by the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph. For the three years of our training, there were no compromises or short cuts.

We studied and learned to deliver the best patient care, while at the same time we learned to respect our patients, and do everything possible to preserve their dignity. We were taught to maintain the same values in ourselves as well as our classmates. Our education with the nuns began when we were teenagers, and by the time we left, we were young women with leadership skills and a mission to care for the sick.

I don’t believe it’s possible to measure the impact of the Sisters’ influence on me – and also the thousands of young women like me – who learned from them the skills to work in their professions as Registered Nurses, Licensed Practical Nurses and Nurses Aides. The quality of care for our patients, our families and our communities owes a great deal to the Sisters. The schools of nursing are gone, but their high standards continue to influence Fletcher Allen Health Care and the Fanny Allen Corporation. Through this corporation the sisters continue to live their vows to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless.

Vermonters have been truly blessed by the presence and the legacy of all of these women. We are fortunate for the vitality of their mission and even more fortunate that they continue their selfless work today.

Marcelle Leahy is a Registered Nurse and the wife of Senator Patrick Leahy. Our theme music is by “Childsplay”.

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