By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — St. Joseph’s Medical Center was founded by three Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in a 10-room Quality Hill mansion at what is now 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. This was the first private hospital in Kansas City and west of the Mississippi River and could accommodate 12 patients. The year was 1874.
One of the sisters had served as a teacher at St. Teresa’s Academy, which might explain the early commitment to education. In the 140 years since, Catholic nursing has truly grown up, with a legacy of education, skill and compassion. St. Joseph’s Medical Center is a familiar name in the Kansas City metropolitan area.
A new exhibit, two years in the making, details in photographs and text the history of nursing in Kansas City. Sepia tones from the early years bump up against black and white from the middle years to color photos of more recent decades. Videos and Question & Answer activities add an interactive dimension to the exhibit. Located in the Medical Center’s Heritage Hall, it rounds out the History of Medicine exhibit that has been open a number of years.
The grand opening Nov. 12, attracted current and retired nurses, both religious sisters and lay nurses, as well as friends and donors. Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet Mary Margaret Lazio, who began a 5-year term on the CSJ Province Leadership Team in July, said that more than 300 Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet have served St. Joseph’s in the past 140 years, and more than 100 were nurses.
Sister Mary Margaret entered the congregation in 1963 and was received into the novitiate in 1964. She received a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Avila College in 1970 and a master’s degree in medical surgical nursing from The Catholic University of America in 1978. She began as a nurse at the St. Joseph Medical Center in Kansas City in 1970. She went on to serve as the associate administrator in mission and values; vice president and director of nursing, and as the chief operating officer in 1993. Sister Mary Margaret completed 28 years of service in Kansas City as the executive director of special projects at Carondelet Health Corporation.
Joan Hilger-Mullins, the medical center’s museum director, told assembled guests that, “with all the history walking around this hospital, it wasn’t hard to find the story to tell. What was hard was boiling it all down into one exhibit!”
She said that 15 years of organizing the medical center’s archives convinced her that the story needed to be told, which led to her saying to the Sisters that a history of nursing was needed. “They agreed, which enabled us to get the backing we needed to put the exhibit together.”
The exhibit, Healing in Body, Mind and Spirit, begins with the 1870s, just a few yards from the History of Medicine display. Walking through Heritage Hall, a visitor sees instruments and various articles used by nurses to assist the doctors. A Turn of the Century Doctor’s Office gives the visitor an idea of what a patient would have seen during a doctor’s appointment in 1900. The doctor wears a black suit. The nurse wears a white uniform, which was an innovation in nursing at the time.
A few steps away the visitor sees a nursing Sister in a white habit. This was also an innovation. According to the exhibit’s text, nursing Sisters wore cotton gowns or aprons over their black habits. The white nursing habit was officially adopted by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Aug. 11, 1936, when permission was received from Rome. The white habit was worn until 1965, when Vatican II closed.
At that time, nursing Sisters were given a choice: white habits on duty, traditional black habits off duty, or a modified habit or street clothes with a short veil. Many of the Sisters had made the transition by 1970. In the 1980s, most nursing Sisters switched to scrubs, mirroring the uniforms of lay nurses.
Whatever the uniform, long-time donor Richard Reeves praised the nursing Sisters for their 140 years of care in Kansas City, with distinction, compassion and skill.
“Their story is deserving to be told,” he said, “it is ready to be told. I hope it continues many generations into the future. There are angels in heaven, but the St. Joseph nurses are medical angels here on earth!”
The hospital moved from Quality Hill to a brand new building at the corner of Linwood Blvd. and Prospect Ave., in 1916. The medical center relocated again to I-435 and State Line Road in south Kansas City in 1977.
Education is one of the commitments made by nurses at St. Joseph Medical Center, a commitment begun in 1874. Training for the first nursing Sisters was on the job, with the doctors as instructors. At a time when nursing required no training the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet decided to train. This decision became a commitment to education and professionalism, which was manifested during the Spanish American War in 1898, and later and closer to home in 1957, during the Ruskin Heights tornado.
The exhibit shows the skill, the commitment and the love of the nurses at St. Joseph’s through the years. Modern nursing is the exhibit’s final piece, showing that education is still vital to nursing at St. Joseph’s. In 1873, Dr. Jefferson Davis Griffith asked for nurses from the Archbishop of St. Louis and from Belleview Hospital in New York. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet who had answered his call opened a nursing school for themselves in 1890, followed by one for lay women in 1901. In 1948 the first Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree awarded in Kansas City by the College of St. Teresa, now Avila University. Current nurses have a 73 percent BSN degree rate while the national rate is 54 percent.
The video features today’s nurses commenting on having what it takes, that special touch that helps a patient heal. “Nursing is an honor; God doesn’t choose just anyone to be a nurse.” “Nursing needs backbone, courage, compassion and a heart.” “A nurse requires a tremendous amount of intellectual ability — the art of getting to know the patient and make impossible times a little more bearable.” “It’s a privilege to have been part of the some of the most profound, sacred moments in a patient’s life.” “It’s very simple: take care of a patient like you would want to be cared for. Do good and it comes right back at you.”
Heritage Hall now has a time capsule of 140 years of nursing, embodying the spirit of Catholic nursing over the years.
“The spirit that came from Quality Hill to Linwood and Prospect to I-435 and State Line is still very much alive,” Sister Mary Margaret Lazio said.
In her blessing, Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet Gabrielle Smits, of the medical center’s chaplaincy, summed up the exhibit, “It’s going to take the next 140 years to take this all in!”