Lifetime Achievement Award - With heart, head and hands, Sr. Gervais champions Catholic values

July 1, 2011

To the best of Sr. Generose Gervais' memory, she never stepped foot inside a hospital until her first day of work at one. Her sister was a neurosurgical nurse and, quite honestly, she found medicine terrifying.

"The idea of drilling holes in someone's head seemed horrible to me," recalled Sr. Gervais, OSF. "I had said as a novice I would just die if I ever had to go to the hospital. Well, I found out that you don't die that easy."

Some 65 years later, Sr. Gervais is a recipient of CHA's 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award. At age 91, she still serves patients at Saint Marys Hospital in Rochester, Minn., the very hospital where she first worked as a dietetic intern. Saint Marys is one of the largest not-for-profit hospitals in the nation with 1,157 beds and 58 operating rooms.

Sr. Gervais was instrumental in that growth. During her career, which included a decade as administrator of Saint Marys followed by a post as the hospital's executive director from 1981 to 1985, she oversaw construction of a surgical, intensive care and trauma center. At the time it was the largest building project in Minnesota. She started the Poverello Foundation in 1983 to assist needy patients in a manner that upheld their dignity. She is still the face of the foundation and the creative force behind the top-selling item at its annual Sister's Sale — jars of pickles and jams she makes from berries of all kinds, rhubarb and crab apples.

Even in the lean times of the recent U.S. recession, the foundation has distributed about $1 million a year to struggling patients. Since its founding, it has helped more than 9,000 patients and raised more than $16 million.

Sr. Gervais is as adept in a boardroom as she is in a hospital kitchen. In 1979, she was appointed as the first female member of the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. She chaired CHA's board in 1982.

Sr. Gervais was instrumental in integrating Saint Marys into the Mayo Clinic in 1986, an arrangement that maintained the sponsorship of the Sisters of St. Francis. Now a sought after speaker at Mayo Clinic, Sr. Gervais continues to spread the values of Catholic health care and the benefits of combining appropriate care with gentle, spiritual healing.

"I tell them what the wayfarer told St. Francis — 'Be sure that you are as good as the people believe thee to be because they have great faith in thee,'" said Sr. Gervais. "We are like St. Francis, and the people are saying, 'Be sure you are as good as we think you are because we have great faith in you.'"

Dr. Michael G. Rock, chair of the Mayo Clinic Hospital Practice Committee, said Sr. Gervais "is the constant reflection and model of the dignity and respect that we attempt to convey to each of our patients and the collegiality and support we give each other as providers. Her vast experience in years and contribution make her an invaluable resource for staff confronting challenging clinical and ethical issues.

"She makes people want to be better citizens, to assist others less fortunate and help all to appreciate that life is precious and a life of giving is a life fulfilled," said Rock. "It is very difficult to imagine Mayo Clinic and more specifically Saint Marys Hospital without Sr. Generose."

Sr. Gervais' special calling to care for the addicted and the mentally ill is recognized and honored in the function of her namesake building, the Generose Building, which is Saint Marys' mental health facility.

Putting people first
Of all her accomplishments, Sr. Gervais says she is most proud of her work with the staff at Saint Marys.

"The people are your most important assets," said Sr. Gervais. "That seems very simple, and in a sense it is. Your buildings aren't worth anything if you don't have the personnel who can use the technology properly, who can give the good patient care. And our employees always put the patient first."

Those employees have a devoted teacher in Sr. Gervais. One of her favorite sayings is, "Values are caught, not taught" and, indeed, Sr. Gervais leads by example. Even as a busy administrator, Sr. Gervais made it a priority to visit patients and their families. She continues to seek out patients, families and staff.

Sr. Gervais said of her sojourns through the hospital: "I walk around to see how the employees are doing, to see how they treat each other, to see how they treat the patient's relatives and how they treat the patient. If you stop in a patient's room, they will tell you pretty fast whether they are happy or unhappy."

Employees also stop by Sr. Gervais' office for guidance and support. Saint Marys Administrator Lynn Frederick turns to Sr. Gervais whenever she needs a spiritual boost.

"I always feel her love and support," said Frederick. "It is the simple things — she offers me a handful of M&M'S and tells me to sit down and rest for a few minutes. It's not typically the words that are said, but the understanding and care I feel from her. Sr. Generose's presence helps me place things in perspective and center myself. She also teaches us about work/life balance. She works very hard, but does take time to watch, listen or attend the Twins baseball games."

Living the Gospel
Sr. Gervais grew up on a farm in the small farming town of Currie, Minn. She and her six siblings were all delivered at home by midwives. The family had little contact with "modern medicine." Her father was once, as a child, operated on atop the kitchen table. Afterwards, he went to Rochester, where the beloved "Dr. Will" checked his progress. That would be Dr. Will Mayo, of the family of doctors who founded the Mayo Clinic and were the first three physicians to join the staff when Saint Marys Hospital opened in 1889.

Almost a century later, Sr. Gervais embraced the union between Saint Marys and the Mayo Clinic while working to protect and foster the hospital's Catholic identity.

"We are first of all a Catholic hospital, and we have to remain true to ourselves," said Sr. Gervais. "I don't think a day goes by that not at least one person stops by to tell me what wonderful care they are getting and that there is something different about Saint Marys. I believe that difference is the living values of the Gospel, not just practiced by sisters but practiced by all."


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.