Sister Mary Anne Gallagher has a nickname for Tacoma.
“The promised land,” she calls it, the brogue of her Irish homeland still strong after more than half a century in America.
The 80-year-old nun uses the phrase when she speaks of coming to Tacoma as a young woman.
She’s one of six current or retired Sisters of St. Francis who still have a hand in the operational and spiritual functions of the hospital their order founded 125 year ago: St. Joseph Medical Center.
In 1890, four Franciscan sisters arrived in the Wild West boom town of Tacoma with an audacious plan: build a Catholic hospital to serve all comers, regardless of who they were or if they could pay.
On Oct. 11, 1891, St. Joseph Hospital opened its doors to become the Beacon on the Hill.
Over the ensuing decades, the Sisters of St. Francis doubled as nurses, administrators, fundraisers and spiritual guides for the hospital and the community.
Though their role has diminished over the years, the Sisters still maintain a strong presence at the hospital, serving on its board and administration.
As the hospital begins a weeklong celebration of its 125th anniversary The News Tribune spoke with Sister Gallagher and three other retired sisters whose history with St. Joe’s stretches back to the 1950s.
SISTER MARY ANNE GALLAGHER
Sister Gallagher grew up on an Irish farm, the oldest of 11 children. At 16, she found herself listening to a visiting priest speak about his impoverished parish in California and his desire to establish a school.
“I’m sitting there and I’m thinking, ‘Mary Anne, you’re young, you’re free, you’re healthy. Get up there and help that man and all he’s doing for the people.’ ”
Soon she was at the Franciscan Sisters’ Philadelphia headquarters.
Her first job was weeding the graveyard.
“I thought I was going to die in Philadelphia with the heat,” she said. “I was wishing there was an open grave so I could crawl into it for shelter.”
The young nun, who had never left Ireland, soon was traveling across the United States on the way to her first assignment in Portland.
“We never slept, day or night. There was so much to see,” Sister Gallagher said. “The mountains, hundreds of head of cattle, grain as far as you can see and beyond. I was mesmerized.”
In 1956, at age 20, she came to Tacoma to enroll in St. Joseph’s School of Nursing. She lived on the fifth floor of the hospital.
Nursing soon became more than a job for the young nun.
“I absolutely loved being a nurse,” she said. “I thought if I died, I wouldn’t get any merit at all. How could you be rewarded for something you so loved?”
But it didn’t start out that way. She clearly remembers her first day as a student. She thought anyone lying on a stretcher was dead.
“I went in to a panic and ran the other way,” she recalled. “I was green as grass.”
An older nurse took her into a patient’s room and told her to stay there while she checked on another patient.
“I took off,” she recalled. “Into the broom closet, mop buckets and all. I remained there for a while.”
When she thought the coast was clear she made a break for it and ran straight into the elder nurse.
“I thought, ‘I’m done for,’ ” she recalled. But she wasn’t.
“She taught me a great lesson,” Sister Gallagher said. “All she did was smile and said, ‘I wondered where you went.’ ”
The elder nurse knew Sister Gallagher was terrified of her new responsibilities. In the years to come she would use that lesson as she worked with new generations of young and inexperienced nurses.
“I could empathize with them, and walk the walk with them until they felt comfortable,” she said.
In those early days, the nursing nuns were required to wear a habit. The long tunics got caught in chairs that followed them down halls. Their stiff celluloid collars cracked during strenuous work.
After nursing in Oregon for several years, Sister Gallagher returned to Tacoma in 1967 when the sisters were about to expand St. Joe’s again.
The new building’s designers asked the nurses for advice. And they were more than happy to give it.
“They’d have to go back to Chicago again and change the blueprints,” she said.
After more assignments and education around the country Sister Gallagher returned to “the promised land” in 2011.
Today she volunteers as a chaplain at dialysis centers and in the emergency room. She also passes on the history and values of the Sisters of Saint Francis.
“My motivation,” she said, “is to help and to minister and to serve is just ingrained in my marrow.”
SISTER JUDE CONNELLY
For Sister Jude Connelly, the trip to St. Joe’s was short.
Though the nun, now 76, was born in San Francisco, her mother was a Tacoma native.
Eventually the family moved to Puget Sound and Sister Connelly graduated from Fife High School.
In 1958, at age 18, she enrolled in the School of Nursing and was exposed to and eventually joined the Franciscan Order in 1962.
“The reason I was inspired to become a sister was because of the teachers we had,” Sister Connelly said. “We were given a lot of responsibility at an early age.”
After nursing in Oregon for several years, she returned to St. Joe’s in 1971. Like her fellow nuns, nursing was more than an avocation for Sister Connelly. Their service came full circle over the years.
When Sister Connelly first started her career at St. Joe’s she met a young boy with what then was called Bright’s disease, a kidney disorder.
“We got to know him really well because he was in the hospital for sixth months,” Sister Connelly said.
She came across him again as teenager, receiving newly invented dialysis treatments. As an adult he got a kidney transplant, married and began working as a technician at St. Joe’s.
“I see them now in the grocery store,” Sister Connelly said. “He’s retired now.”
In the 1960s, when the sisters realized their hospital was too small and outdated, they considered moving to the suburbs — where Tacoma Community College is now.
In the end, they decided to stay put.
“It was our home,” she said. “We had a commitment to the people here and the idea that we belonged in this neighborhood.”
That was shortly after the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, which changed the Catholic Church’s relationship with the non-Catholic world.
“Vatican II really opened up the Catholic Church to be more ecumenical, to be more pluralistic,” Sister Connelly said. “We used to have all sisters on the board and then we decided this is kind of insular.
“But we still follow the ideals of a Catholic institution: our respect of life, care of the poor, all these critical things that make us who we are.”
SISTER JOAN RODDY
Sister Joan Roddy, 78, has had more than one career as a Franciscan sister.
She received her marching orders after graduation from Kennewick High School.
“My parents, who were not church attenders, informed us that our first year away from home had to be at a Catholic nun school,” Sister Roddy said. “It was a way of keeping an eye on us, I guess. This was the 1950s. Things were different in those times.”
At Holy Names College in Spokane, she was drawn to the orphanage. But it wasn’t just the kids that attracted her.
“There was this one sister that used to cook up this beans and ham that smelled so good,” she recalled.
She became a sister at age 20 and went to teach at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School in Tacoma.
“I loved it,” Sister Roddy said. “I loved the excitement. I loved getting ready every September. I loved going through the tears when you said goodbye to them.”
After 26 years she decided she needed a change and became a chaplain at St. Joe’s.
“It was the beginning of a love affair with this hospital,” Sister Roddy said. “I loved coming to work. I loved being with the staff and with the chaplains.”
After 18 years, she retired and then went to work again, at a hospice in Hawaii.
She sees her role as an adjunct to medical care. Her goal is to fix the spirit.
“Not religious, but spiritual,” she said. “What brings meaning to this person? How can you help this person heal?”
She learned over the years to tune into patients’ spiritual needs.
“No one heals when they’re tense, when they’re worried, when they’re suffering,” Sister Roddy said.
Guilt, she found, is a frequent cause of emotional pain. So is the death of a loved one.
“We let them go through the pain, the suffering, but then get them up to a situation where you could send them home without worrying about them,” she said.
As a chaplain Sister Roddy had no denomination.
“If (the patient was) Mormon, we would get the bishops to come pray with them,” she said.
Today Sister Roddy lives on the campus of St. Ann Convent in Tacoma. After her multiple and intensive roles with the sisters she’s enjoying her current vocation: the convent’s dish washer.
MARY ELLEN CASEY
Like Sister Gallagher, Mary Ellen Casey, now 76, was born on an Irish farm.
She entered the Sisters of St. Francis order in 1956 at age 16. Her first vocation was teaching, first at St. Charles and then at St. Charles in Spokane.
“Fifty little children … which was quite an experience,” she said. “All the energy that was pent up.”
Half a century later the memories are still strong.
“I had one little wiggler. A charming boy, named Patrick,” she recalled. “And he knew he would worm his way into your heart. But he was the biggest torment in school. He could upset everything.”
After two years she switched to nursing, which led to turns in anesthesia, human resources, and employee health and safety.
She arrived at St. Joe’s in 1974, just before the new tower opened.
“People lined up for blocks to try to get in and see the building,” she recalled of the crowds who toured operating rooms and other facilities from whichthe public are normally barred. “They were so excited to see the hospital.”
Today, though no longer a sister, Casey still works one or two days a week at the hospital in Employee Health. She’s currently in the middle of the hospital’s flu shot campaign.
It’s a time of year she looks forward to.
“It is the people who make all the difference,” Casey said. “God has blessed us. I'm grateful, it is a wonderful life.”
St. Joseph Medical Center’s 125th Anniversary
When: 10:30-11:30 a.m. Monday.
Where: CHI Franciscan Health’s St. Joseph Medical Center, 1717 S. J St., Tacoma. The ceremony will be under a tent in the North S2 parking lot, between South 16th and I streets.
What: City officials, staff members and the Sisters of St. Francis kick off 125th anniversary. Tacoma gospel singer Crystal Aiken will perform her anthem to the 125th anniversary. Hospital leaders will speak. A historical display will be revealed.
Anniversary Party Street Fair
When: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Oct. 15.
Where: South I Street, between 16th and 17th streets, Tacoma.
What: A free event that will include food, entertainment, games and giveaways. Attendees of all ages who were born at or gave birth at St. Joseph Medical Center have been invited to take part in the “world’s biggest baby photo” at noon.
In Sunday’s News Tribune
CHI Franciscan CEO Ketul Patel and St. Joseph Medical Center President Syd Bersante on the future of medicine in Pierce County.