Book Reviews - Beyond Measure

November-December 2009


Beyond Measure —A Legacy of Mercy, The Sisters of Mercy in Health Care 1879-1976
By Elizabeth Mary Burns, RSM
Gold Leaf Press, 2009 Limited availability

Elizabeth Mary Burns has done a wonderful service to the history of Catholic health care. In detailing the ministries of the Sisters of Mercy in Iowa and Michigan over nearly a century, she offers an alluring array of accounts that paint a picture of life in another era. Burns offers brief accounts of every health care facility opened by the Mercy sisters in those two states, beginning in 1879, and each is accompanied by at least one letter or journal entry from a sister who served there.

Many have written about how Catholic health care came to be: how sisters responded to requests to meet the needs in communities across the United States. What we hear less often is what happened when the need was no longer there, or when the times called for a different model of care. In many stories, Burns includes the often emotional departure of the sisters from hospitals where they had served for years. In Dowagiac, Mich., for example, the sisters reluctantly decided to leave the area after many years of operating a sanitarium. This painful decision was made after they learned people in the area were planning to build a new hospital without their help. One sister wrote: "It has certainly brought about a disagreeable feeling, to think that after all the years of service we have rendered to the doctors and citizens … that we are not more appreciated."

Facility by facility, Burns tells the story of the founding, the operating, and, in some instances, the sisters' departure, using quotes from their letters and journals. She writes of a simpler world than today, but one no less stressful, particularly in regard to finances. Because the sisters did whatever they could to serve the poor, their financial worries were relentless. One sister decried the rising price of nursery beds. A bed she once paid $12 for had increased more than 11 times, to $135 apiece — what with all the "paraphernalia the Public Health requires to be attached to the bed." And another wrote: "But bills … seems like we never get any place with them … I wonder if anyone had such troubles as we do here in Dubuque."

In fact, life was so difficult for the sisters in Dubuque that one confessed in a letter that she dreamed about how lovely it would be "to just sit in jail and have your meals brought to you, say your prayers and maybe do a bit of knitting. … Anyway," she wrote: "the Republicans are in after the elections here in Iowa so things can't be any worse."

In 1953, when a mother provincial wrote to deny a request for additional funds from the sister-administrator of a hospital in Fort Dodge, Iowa, she suggested instead, "Let the druggist go, and have the prescriptions sent out and charged to the patients' bills and have them collected, and get a hold of the situation and do something about your bills."

In Grayling, Mich., the sisters lived in the attic of the hospital. Below, "kerosene lamps provided the only illumination, but later electricity was available from seven until nine in the morning on Wednesdays and Saturdays." And we think we have it tough.

But there were benefits too. In 1890, after the sisters opened a hospital in Manistee, Mich., one wrote in a magazine article, "The exquisite sunsets seen from the hospital fix themselves indelibly on the memory of those who return to their homes as convalescents or cured." Another entry from their hospital in Grayling, Mich., explains that the sisters "persuaded the lumber camps to provide dairy cattle in exchange for health care."

In Big Rapids, Mich., a listing of the countries of origin of the patients at Mercy Hospital from the late 1800s witnesses to the influx of immigrants who had come to settle the land: "We have one Negro, two Indians, one Russian, one Spaniard, about four Englishmen; hundreds of French, Swedes, Canadians and Americans, many Irish and Germans. We had some Finns, Lapps, Dutch and Poles; yet they never seem to quarrel about nationalities." That very same hospital burned to the ground three times, the last in 1918, when the sisters decided not to rebuild.

Burns' accounts demonstrate the changes over time in religious life, as well. In the late 1950s, the sisters were granted a new benefit: a day off each week. In 1961, a new policy meant sisters no longer needed approval slips to attend overnight professional meetings, and they could even travel alone to those meetings when necessary.

With the transition from a matriarchal operating model to a business model came a decline in the number of sisters. With fewer sisters and increasing financial pressures, in many instances the sisters transferred their ministries to the laity. The book ends with the formation in 1976 of the Sisters of Mercy Health Corporation, Detroit, which included 17 hospitals.

In her introduction, Burns recounts that tracing the story of the Mercy ministries was an "exciting and rewarding treasure hunt." She has passed that benefit on to her readers. She has indeed given us a treasure.

Suzy Farren

Editor's note: Suzy Farren is the author of Call to Care, The Women Who Built Catholic Healthcare in America (St. Louis: Catholic Health Association of the United States, 1996), a book of stories about the many ways Catholic sisters have been meeting health care needs from the early 18th century through today. Here she reviews two recent books related to that history. Ms. Farren, founding editor of Catholic Health World at the Catholic Health Association, is vice president for communications at SSM Health Care, St. Louis.


Copyright © 2009 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Book Reviews - Beyond Measure

Copyright © 2009 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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