Elizabethans pioneers of health care in Saskatchewan

By Paul Paproski, OSB

The number 12 has a historical connection to the nursing order of the Franciscan Sisters of St. Elizabeth (Elizabethans), formerly of Humboldt. In 2012 they moved out of their convent, located at 1212 on 12th Street, at the intersection of 12th Avenue. The hospital building they once owned and managed was levelled in 2012 after the wrecking ball entered the final stages of demolition. A century earlier, in 1912, the sisters built their first hospital.

A few Elizabethans remained in Humboldt in 2012 to supervise the vacant convent and oversee the sale of the convent and property. The remaining sisters moved to Saskatoon. There are presently two Elizabethans residing in Humboldt: Sister Philomena Dobmeier, and her biological sister Sister Regina Dobmeier. They will be joining 13 other members of their order in the fall at the new retirement home of Trinity Manor in Saskatoon.

The decision to close the Humboldt convent and relocate to a long-term care home in Saskatoon was made several years ago, after consultation and reviewing the options for the community, said Sister Philomena Dobmeier, mother superior of the order. Leaving Humboldt has not been an easy task for the sisters who have close ties to the community, but many health services needed by the sisters are available in Saskatoon and not in Humboldt. The legacy of the sisters will not be forgotten in Humboldt, she said, as it is commemorated in the large mural in the local hospital, on a plaque at city hall, and at St. Elizabeth Park.

TREATING A PATIENT — Sister Perpetua Haag, OSE, supervises a blood transfusion in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Humboldt. Sister Perpetua served with the Elizabethans from 1926 to her death in 1980. The Elizabethans who were nurses supervised each floor of the hospital and trained or supervised other nurses or nurse-aids. This photo was likely taken in the old Elizabethan hospital between 1940 and 1955, prior to the opening of the new hospital in 1955. (St. Peter's Abbey Archives)

The Elizabethans are true pioneers of Saskatchewan, first coming to Muenster from Austria in 1911 at the request of Abbot Bruno of St. Peter’s Abbey. Three sisters came that year and their first impression of their new home may have been a premonition of their future. The sisters had to “walk the extra mile” after disembarking from the train in Muenster. Due to a communication problem there was no one to greet them and they carried their luggage one mile north to St. Peter’s Monastery. The sisters were warmly welcomed by the monastic community and assured there was a bright future for them. The Austrians soon learned that future would only be successful if they were prepared to “walk the extra mile.”

Abbot Bruno took them to Humboldt where they were introduced to the community. Local physician Dr. Len Barry operated a temporary clinic and hospital and two sisters agreed to work with him in nursing care while the third became employed in the kitchen and laundry at the abbey.

The first challenge of the Austrians was to adapt to a new land with a foreign language and few amenities. They battled homesickness as they longed for the presence of their religious community. The health care setting did not offer the modern equipment and conveniences of Austria. There were no hospital beds for patients so the Elizabethans provided nursing care in people’s homes. The sisters spent long hours with patients that often left them fatigued and hungry. The families of the first patients did not even offer them any food. When the sisters finally mustered the courage to ask for food, the requests were met with surprise by the ladies of homes who did not know that sisters needed food. Religious never ate meals in public.

The prospects for the Elizabethans slowly began to improve when another seven arrived in 1912 and the first Canadian candidate entered the convent. Another four Elizabethans came from Austria in 1913. During that year the community gained its independence as a canonically erected religious congregation enabling it to accept new members (novices).

A major milestone was reached in 1912 when the Elizabethans built their first hospital, with 18 beds. Patients were accepted immediately even though many hospital rooms were not finished. The hospital was funded through local donations, contributions from Humboldt and surrounding communities and the Ladies’ Auxiliary of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, formed in 1912. The sisters sometimes went on “begging tours” asking for donations from local communities.

The Elizabethans earned a reputation for providing quality health care. Doctors praised them for their excellent nursing skills and patients often requested that they be looked after by the Elizabethans. The credentials of the sisters were not recognized by the province, which subsidized only provincially certified nurses. The Elizabethans were determined to meet the standards of the province. By 1917, four of the sisters became registered nurses and another six, who had proven themselves as good nurses, were granted a waiver to nurse.

The demand for health care services brought the sisters to oversee the expansion of the hospital in 1918 and 1929 and the building of a new hospital in 1955. A new hospital was constructed in Cudworth in 1926 and in Macklin in 1927. The St. Elizabeth’s Hospital School of Nursing opened in 1923 in Humboldt, which enabled the sisters to both receive local instruction and teach nursing.

The success of the Elizabethans in health care encouraged vocations from local communities. By 1922 the membership increased to 34. The number steadily grew, reaching the highest level of 107 in 1957. The increase in numbers never offset the increasing demand for health care services, which meant many sisters sacrificed their sleep to work long days. Another major obstacle facing the order was insufficient income. Religious who owned their own hospitals were not paid salaries and they received only a 50-cent per day grant for each patient. Other income came from the generosity of patrons, local taxation and a $2 per day fee for patients. However, funds from municipalities largely dried up during the Depression and most patients could not afford their fees. Some paid their hospital bills with produce or meat raised on a farm. A farm and garden operated by the sisters provided food for the hospital and themselves.

A major break came in 1945 when the province began paying for all hospital services that met government criteria. For the first time, the Elizabethans had a reliable source of income. Federal health grants, beginning in 1948, provided funds for hospital construction. Government regulations, in 1960, forced the sisters to purchase their hospital food and sell their farm. The loss of the food supply was offset in 1962 with the medicare plan that paid salaries to all hospital workers and that now included the sisters.

The expertise of the sisters expanded beyond nursing. They worked in other centres and communities as administrators in nursing homes, as well as catechists and teachers, cooks, bakers, launderers and missionaries. During the 1980s, they began to withdraw from many programs due to a decreasing and aging membership. Changes in government regulations affected their role in health care. In 1993, St. Joseph’s Hospital in Macklin was closed and it opened in 1996 as an integrated health care facility that is now governed by the Catholic Health Care Corporation. St. Michael’s Hospital in Cudworth closed in 1998 and in 1999 it reopened as an assisted living centre that is owned by the local municipality. In 2000, ownership of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital was transferred to the Saskatchewan Catholic Health Corporation. In 2007 the hospital became public. The convent and property, once owned by the Elizabethans, was sold in 2014 to the City of Humboldt.

SISTERS OF ST. ELIZABETH — The stained-glass window, created by Sister Salesia Zunti, OSE, appears to emit rays of divine love. It was originally displayed in the dining room of the convent of the Order of the Sisters of St. Elizabeth (OSE) in Humboldt. The window expresses how the Franciscan Sisters of St. Elizabeth live the Gospel with a simple and joyful heart. The Tau (T) or Franciscan cross is prominent in the centre. It indicates that one is chosen or has freely chosen to be a follower of the Lord. Superimposed on the Tau are the letters OSE, Order of St. Elizabeth. The letters link the sisters with their European heritage and identify them as Elizabethans. The rose symbolizes the miracle God worked for St. Elizabeth because of her concern for the poor. The rose is also a symbol of reverence for life. (Paproski photo)

Paproski, a historian of St. Peter’s Abbey, gathered information for the article from: The Prairie Does Flourish, Sisters of St. Elizabeth, by Joan Eyolfson Cadham, and A Journey of Faith: St. Peter’s Abbacy, 1921-1996, published by the Muenster diocese.

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