Sixty Years After Graduating, St. Mary’s Nurses Return to Reminisce

July 9th, 2018

When Mary Flanagan, Betty Walter and Marlene Greulich were nursing students at the St. Mary’s School of Nursing 60 years ago, students were required to have short hair, no bangs and pass a daily inspection to ensure they had clean hands and polished shoes.

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They lived in residence with the Sisters of St. Joseph in what is now the Administration Building at St. Mary’s General Hospital. Sister Paula, the Director of Nursing, closely monitored the comings and goings of the students from her office, just inside the main entrance of the residence. If you missed your curfew, you were in trouble. If you wanted to go out wearing pants, you slipped out the back door to avoid her.

At that time, wages for newly-graduated nurses were $10 a month the first year, $12 a month the second year and $15 a month in the third year.

From the left Marlene, Mary and Betty

From the left Marlene, Mary and Betty

The three women, now 80 years old, visited their former residence at St. Mary’s recently on the eve of their 60th class reunion lunch. The graduating class of 1958 have remained close, reuniting regularly over the years.

Most of the students were 18 when they enrolled in nursing, but Marlene and Mary were just 17. Training and discipline were tough, but the trio recall how the students and later nurses at St. Mary’s were like a family – a legacy that remains at St. Mary’s today.

“What I liked the most was that the nuns taught us to be resourceful,” says Marlene. Adds Mary, “They were our companions,” particularly the fun-loving Sister Mary Austin, who used to tap dance in the kitchen.

Students attended early morning mass in the chapel each day, looked after patients all morning and had their classes in the afternoon. It wasn’t unusual for them to be called to assist in surgery through the night.

In addition to providing patient care, they sterilized equipment, worked in the laundry and made linseed and mustard poultices to treat inflammation and congestion. They delivered babies, sponge-bathed each patient from head to toe each day and rubbed their backs.

“That is how we learned,” says Betty.  “We had to do everything ourselves.”

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In the kitchen of the hospital, the Sisters cooked for patients and staff and made a hot breakfast for those working nights. Sister Zita’s butter tarts were legendary and Sister Mercedes was known for fresh asparagus on toast.

All three women worked in obstetrics and Marlene became head nurse at only 24 years old, holding the post until obstetrical care was transferred to Grand River Hospital in the 1980s. Mary’s obstetrical training came in handy when she was sent home from work by her mother’s doctor who couldn’t immediately get to the family’s home when she went into labour. Before he arrived, Mary safely delivered her brother who recently turned 60 – the youngest of the family’s 18 children.

In the early days of their careers, husbands were banned from the delivery room and new mothers were required to stay in bed for the first three days of a minimum five-day stay. There was no paid maternity leave and many nurses took just three months off after the birth of their children.

Marlene recalls when family-centred maternity care was introduced in 1971. “Fathers were allowed in the delivery room and mothers could keep their babies in their rooms. That was the way it always should have been,” she says.

“We nursed through a time of change. We used to do everything for patients and then we started to teach patients how to do things for themselves.”

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The trio recall their time at St. Mary’s with great fondness, even the run-ins they had with Sister Paula. In the late 1950s young people frequently hitchhiked and one day Marlene and another student were hitchhiking back to Kitchener from the town of Arthur. A car carrying nuns passed them, drove a short distance, then turned around and came back. To their horror, a disapproving Sister Paula was at the wheel, ordering them to get in the car. Marlene laughingly recalls the scolding she got for leading her more junior companion astray.

But Sister Paula also had a soft side. Marlene recalls 13 patients dying on her unit when the Asiatic flu went through St. Mary’s. Eventually Marlene got sick and was placed in isolation in her residence room for six days. “Sister Paula nursed me,” she says. “She sat by my bed and talked to me.”

Through good times and bad, the close-knit team rallied around each other.

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“Everybody worked so well together,” recalls Betty. “If someone made a mistake, we supported her and talked her through it. We were a unit.”