97-year-old seamstress honored for six decades of volunteer work at Holy Cross Health

May 2024
Carmel Provencal (second from front) sews with other volunteers at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale.


It may be no coincidence that Carmel Provencal arrived in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, from Michigan on the same day in 1959 as a group of Sisters of Mercy from Pittsburgh.

It may be no coincidence that Carmel Provencal arrived in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, from Michigan on the same day in 1959 as a group of Sisters of Mercy from Pittsburgh.

When Provencal, now 97, first met them that summer, the sisters wore black wool habits.

She told the women she was a seamstress and could make them white cotton habits that would feel cooler in the Florida heat. She sewed three habits each for the 10 sisters.

"That was quite a number," said Provencal, "especially with all those pleats."

Carmel Provencal stands in front of Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 1960, when she had been volunteering there a year.

Holy Cross recently honored Provencal for 65 years of volunteering, mostly as a seamstress. The hospital said she had logged 45,360 hours over the years. Holy Cross in Fort Lauderdale is a member of Trinity Health.

Many hats
Provencal said that she has actually sewed for the hospital for about 60 years, since she has slowed down in recent years and her hands don't give her the ability to do as much work as she used to. But she was thrilled with the recent recognition.

"I am so glad that this has come to the surface, what I have done in the past," she said. "I really feel rewarded."

She also worked in other areas as a member of the hospital auxiliary, including the front desk, gift shop and auxiliary office. She was also a Mercy Associate Associate for about 15 years. Mercy Associates partner with the Sisters of Mercy to share in their spiritual life and service to others.

Carmel Provencal shows off a collection of newly created Christmas stockings in 1985.

Over the years, she has stitched countless items for the hospital, including knit caps and blankets for babies, bags that attach to walkers, mats for surgical instruments in the operating room, and quilts for patients in palliative care and hospice.

"Carmel embodies the core values of Holy Cross," Mark Doyle, president and CEO of Holy Cross Health, said in a statement.

He presented Provencal with a plaque and flowers at a celebration for her in April, which is National Volunteer Month. "She is an integral part of Holy Cross and a true treasure to us," Doyle said. "Over the years, she has touched the lives of so many here at Holy Cross and in our community."

Mission Leader at Holy Cross Health Mary Carter Waren, volunteer Carmel Provencal, Holy Cross Health President and CEO Mark Doyle and volunteer services manager Chrissy Turner pose during a celebration for Provencal in April.

Lifelong skill
Provencal has been interested in sewing since around age 4, and learned from her mother and later in home economics classes in high school. She studied home economics as an undergraduate and earned a master's degree in the field at Michigan State University. She taught at the college and high school level.

She and her husband moved from St. Clair Shores, Michigan, to the Fort Lauderdale area, where she first met the sisters. She started volunteering because she wasn't certified yet in Florida to teach.

After she sewed the habits, she would frequently take home a load of sewing, usually gowns or items for the nursery. She also sewed with members of the hospital auxiliary in a sewing room on campus, and she'd frequently make trips to the hospital's "rag room" for useful materials.

The Sisters of Mercy wear white cotton habits sewn by volunteer Carmen Provencal. She made the habits after the sisters arrived in Fort Lauderdale from Pittsburgh with only black wool habits.

"Oh, we made so many things," she said. The group was resourceful, she said, "but it was also fun. And I'd bring some stuff up to the sewing room, and say to the ladies, 'And what can we make out of this?'" They would make pads for surgical instruments out of old hospital gowns, for example.

Since she was a teacher, she helped many other volunteers with their sewing skills. She eventually taught high school in Florida and continued sewing for the hospital when she retired.

Ready for more
Provencal, now widowed, lives in a retirement community in nearby Pompano Beach. She uses one of the two bedrooms in her apartment as a sewing room. She has two sergers, a sewing machine, and a closet full of fabric. She uses a walker to get around and continues to sew despite needing occupational therapy for her hands.

She sews for family, including grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren, and would like to sew more for the hospital and for Catholic Charities. With the maternity unit of the hospital closed, she's looking for another outlet for baby items.

"I've got to keep trying," she said, laughing. "I've got to empty that closet."


Copyright © 2024 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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