Photo used by permission of Mayo Foundation for Medical Education
All rights reserved.
WHEN PATIENTS ARRIVE
at the world-renowned
Mayo Clinic in Rochester,
Minnesota, many are acquainted
with the story of the legendary
Drs. Mayo. But few know the
Clinic has Franciscan roots, roots that
began 117 years ago in a cornfield.
In September 1889, Mother Alfred
Moes, O.S.F., founder of the Sisters of
Saint Francis of Rochester (a teaching
order), opened Saint Marys Hospital, a
27-bed facility a mile from town. The
attending staff: Dr. William Worrall
(W.W.) Mayo and sons, Drs. William J.
(Will) and Charles H. (Charlie) Mayo.
The hospital should have failed
from the start. Dr. W.W. Mayo was
70 years old, and neither Will, 28,
nor Charlie, 24, had any hospital
experience. Greener still were the
nurses—sisters who were schoolteachers
and not used to seeing
blood and bodies. Rochester’s anti-Catholic sentiment didn’t help
matters; many townsfolk were suspicious
of the partnership between
the Protestant Mayos and the
“The cause of suffering humanity
knows no religion or
sex,” Mother Alfred (1828-1899)
said. “The charity of the Sisters
of Saint Francis is as broad as
With scalpel and prayer and a
credo that “the needs of the
patient come first,” the doctors
and sister-nurses began to heal the
sick. The mortality rate was so low
that, by 1893, patients from Montana
to New York were coming to Rochester.
When the once-skeptical public began
lauding the Mayos for the hospital’s
success, the doctors humbly deflected
the praise to the sisters.
“The grounds were purchased by the
sisters, and the building was erected
under the supervision of the Mother
Superior,” the elder Dr. Mayo said during
the 1894 dedication of the first
hospital addition. “She was a wonderful
woman, so full of hope and energy.”
The hospital expanded—as did the
practice of the Mayo brothers, as well
as the physicians and medical specialists
who had joined them. In 1914, the
brothers erected a five-story medical
office building that became known as
the Mayo Clinic.
“A sick man is not like a wagon to be
taken apart and repaired in pieces,” the
Mayo brothers explained about the
country’s first integrated group practice.
“He must be examined and treated
as a whole.”
Although the brothers retired from
surgical practice in the late 1920s, the
Mayo/Franciscan bond remained tight
as sutures. The sisters continued to
operate the hospital and Mayo Clinic
physicians continued as its staff.
Over the years, the Mayo/Franciscan
team made its mark in medical history.
In 1928, Dr. Will published an
article describing “Sister Joseph’s nodule,”
an umbilical lesion discovered by
and named for Sister Joseph Dempsey,
who was Dr. Will’s surgical assistant
and also the hospital administrator.
The nodule is often the only physical
symptom of a particular form of
In 1949, Edward C. Kendall, Ph.D.,
and Philip S. Hench, M.D., announced
the isolation of cortisone and its effective
treatment of rheumatoid arthritis;
initial clinical trials were conducted at
Saint Marys Hospital. The researchers,
who won the Nobel Prize in 1950,
praised the sisters for their contribution
to the medical feat.
Reaffirming Its Roots
If the Mayo/Franciscan connection is
astonishing, consider this: The Franciscan
spirit thrives at Mayo Clinic
today despite a near-absence of sisters!
For years, Saint Marys Hospital and
Rochester Methodist Hospital (and its
predecessors) shared the services of the
Mayo Clinic medical staff. By the mid-1980s, however, the reimbursement
process from health insurance companies
and Medicare had become increasingly
difficult and complex.
In order to care more effectively and
efficiently for their patients, the two
hospitals and Mayo Clinic integrated
operations in 1986—under the umbrella
of Mayo Foundation. While each
entity retains its separate, not-for-profit
status, the trio is collectively known
today as Mayo Clinic Rochester.
(In addition to Mayo Clinic Rochester,
Mayo Clinic today operates
clinics and hospitals in Jacksonville,
Florida, and in Scottsdale and Phoenix,
After nearly a century of service, the
Sisters of Saint Francis relinquished
day-to-day control of the hospital. It
was the end of an era but not a ministry. As part of the merger, an endowment
was established to fund the mission
of the newly created Saint Marys
Hospital Sponsorship Board: to preserve
the Catholic identity of the hospital
and to perpetuate the Mayo/
Franciscan values throughout the
“Saint Marys Hospital has been a primary
ministry of our congregation since
1889,” says Sister Mary Eliot Crowley,
O.S.F., administrator for Sponsorship
and the only sister employed full-time
at the hospital today. “While we don’t
own or operate the hospital, we do
influence the way health care is provided.
This Midwest town takes care
of patients from all over the world.”
Just as importantly, Mayo Clinic
physicians wanted the Franciscan ethos
to continue. “We know who we are
with the sisters,” said Dr. W. Eugene
Mayberry, vice chair of Mayo Foundation
at the time of the merger. “But we
don’t know who we’d be without them.”
Composed of Franciscan sisters and
lay colleagues, the Sponsorship Board
has a far-reaching mission statement.
Sponsorship seeks to strengthen the
spiritual dimension within Mayo Clinic;
reinforce trust among staff and the
anticipation of trustworthiness by
patients and their families; and nurture
the Mayo/Franciscan values of primacy
of the patient, trust, commitment
to excellence through teamwork, spiritual
support and compassion/respect
for those served and serving.
Important when formed, Sponsorship
is even more critical today. “Until
recent years, most new staff members
were familiar with the spiritual roots
and background of Mayo Clinic,” continues
Sister Mary Eliot. “Mayo Clinic Rochester today has more than 29,000
employees, including researchers, scientists
and doctors from around the
world, of all faiths and all cultures.”
Imparting the Vision
The Sponsorship Board didn’t look to
management consultants for help but
rather to a pair of spiritual mentors:
Francis and Clare of Assisi. In 1997,
the Sponsorship Board invited the first
group of Mayo leaders to participate
in the Franciscan Leadership Pilgrimage,
an annual program that brings to Assisi
lay leaders from Franciscan-sponsored
There are parallels between the lives
of these saints and Mother Alfred and
Dr. W.W. Mayo, explains Sister Mary
Eliot about the 11-day pilgrimage.
Francis and Dr. W.W. Mayo forsook
all to follow their hearts, pilgrims learn.
Francis left his father’s cloth business
and Dr. Mayo his family in England.
Francis tended to the lepers and outcasts;
Dr. Mayo treated all regardless of
social status or ability to pay.
Clare founded the Poor Ladies (known
today as the Poor Clares); Mother Alfred,
an immigrant from Luxembourg, established
Franciscan congregations in Joliet,
Illinois, and Rochester, Minnesota. Clare
cared for the sick at her convent in San
Damiano; Mother Alfred built Saint
Nearly 80 Mayo leaders have now
made the ecumenical pilgrimage, which
includes a daily lesson from Francis’
or Clare’s life, Eucharist, prayer and
time for reflection. Group discussions
further help pilgrims discern ways to
apply Franciscan principles to life in
the 21st century.
“What happens on pilgrimage is no
less astounding than what happened
when people encountered the living
St. Francis,” says Sister Ramona Miller,
a Rochester Franciscan who has led various
pilgrimages to Assisi for 20 years.
“When Mayo pilgrims realize they’re
connecting with a mission that’s 800
years old, they get fired up! They’re part
of something big and it’s from God!”
The spirituality of each site affects
pilgrims differently; testimonies are
as diverse as the pilgrims, their jobs
and their religious affiliations. Mary
Ayshford, a Methodist and the art director
in the Department of Development,
found inspiration at La Verna, the
mountaintop where Francis received
“Nature is my cathedral and that is
where I felt the closest to Francis and to
God,” says Ayshford, adding that, as
with many pilgrims, Assisi instilled in
her a greater need for servant leadership
and bonum, the Franciscan value of
doing good. “We owe it to others to be
good people and to do good things and
to help out wherever we can.”
Pilgrim Michael W. O’Brien oversees
a staff of 110 in the sections of medical
social services, patient education and
the child-abuse program. For him, the
lesson of Francis’ stigmata—a sharing in
Christ’s suffering—meant a reordering
of work priorities so he could share in
the suffering of his employees. Compassionate
suffering, O’Brien learned, takes
a conscious effort.
Returning to work after a vacation,
O’Brien was informed that several employees had lost loved ones. With 30
minutes until his next appointment, he
decided to visit the bereaved staff members
and extend his condolences, a gesture
that elicited tears and words of
gratitude for his concern.
“Before the pilgrimage, I would have
used that half hour to organize my
day,” reflects O’Brien, a Catholic. “Assisi
taught me to take care of and respect
Paula Menkosky, executive director of
a Mayo-owned health benefits management
company, “encountered” Francis
before she ever left Rochester. “I
learned it’s not Sister Frances but Saint
Francis,” laughs Menkosky, a Unitarian,
who is striving to emulate the Franciscan
“power of one.”
“We often say, ‘I’m only one person.
What can I do?’ Look at Francis and
Clare and see the immense good they
were able to accomplish,” encourages
Menkosky, who was profoundly moved
at the Portiuncula, the tiny stone chapel
where Francis began his mission and
where he died. “What you do today is
making a difference, whether now or in
Yet another pilgrim discovered at
San Damiano a deeper compassion for
the sick in the story of Francis and
“Lepers had to wear cowbells to
warn people they were coming,” says
Paul S. Mueller, M.D., an internist
and a nondenominational Christian.
“Instead of being repelled, Francis
embraced the leper and, for a moment,
saw the face of Christ. That is
something I reflect on, how we can
see the face of Christ in our patients.”
Continuing the Legacy
While the number of pilgrims is minuscule
compared to the overall Mayo
population, the “lessons from Assisi”
are having a ripple effect. Inquiring
employees want to know what happened
to their leaders in Assisi. And
when pilgrims are transferred or promoted
across the Mayo organization,
they infuse their new work departments
with this spirit.
“What I found remarkable is that
the expectations I had for myself
were changed as a result of the pilgrimage,”
says Steven C. Adamson,
M.D., a self-described reluctant leader
before his journey to Assisi. He was
recently named chair of the Department
of Family Medicine in Rochester.
Pilgrimage is just one way Sponsorship
impacts the Mayo culture. Sponsorship
also presents educational
programs, such as “Application of Franciscan
Values in Healthcare,” presented
by Father André Cirino, O.F.M., and
helps fund research on values-related
topics, such as the “Efficacy of Intercessory
Prayer,” led by pilgrim Stephen
A Sponsorship Values Review process
assists departments in assessing, on
both a departmental and individual
basis, how well Mayo/Franciscan values
are being lived.
“The values that the founding Franciscan
sisters and Mayo physicians
embraced as basic to their mission guide
our decisionmaking to this day,” says
Glenn S. Forbes, M.D., chief executive
officer, Mayo Clinic Rochester, about
the unique secular-religious heritage.
But it was Dr. Will Mayo who predicted
the Franciscan presence as
important for success. “What we
accomplish in the future will not be
due to bricks or mortar,” he said in
1922, “but to the soul and spirit that
resides in Saint Marys Hospital.”
That spirit and that soul remain a
vital force today.
To learn more about Mayo Clinic,
visit www.mayo.edu. For information
on Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs,
check www.franciscanpilgrimages.com or call 414-427-0570.
A Legendary Work of Mercy
HOW SAINT MARYS HOSPITAL—and the Mayo/Franciscan
connection—began is a legend in itself. It
was born of a disaster.
The greenish-black sky cast an ominous feeling
over Rochester, Minnesota, during the early
evening hours on August 21, 1883. Even the thick air hinted
of doom. Then calamity struck. A tornado roared through
the town, killing dozens and injuring hundreds more. One
third of Rochester, population 5,300, lay in ruin.
Townsfolk worked through the night, searching the
twisted rubble for survivors and taking them to the “emergency
rooms”—hotels, offices and the local Franciscan convent.
Like many frontier towns at the time, Rochester lacked
Dr. W.W. Mayo, who had come to Rochester in 1863 as
the examining surgeon for the Union Army’s enrollment
board, soon realized the medical effort needed a central
location. He converted a dance hall into a makeshift hospital
and had the injured transported there. He also recruited
the sisters as nursing supervisors, according to The Sisters’ Story, by Sister Ellen Whelan, O.S.F., a compelling account
of the hospital’s first 50 years.
“There ought to be a sister down there to look after those
fellows,” Dr. Mayo petitioned Mother Alfred Moes, founder
of the Sisters of Saint Francis of the Congregation of Our Lady
of Lourdes, a namesake that, coincidentally, was associated
with healing. Mother Alfred immediately dispatched two sisters
to the temporary hospital.
When the worst was over, the dead buried and the injured
recovering, Mother Alfred paid a visit to Dr. Mayo. A “tornado”
herself, Mother Alfred had already established two
Franciscan congregations of sisters, plus several Catholic
schools across the Midwest. Now the 55-year-old visionary
had another dream: a hospital for Rochester.
“Mother, the city is too small to support a hospital,”
replied Dr. Mayo, recalling the conversation at the 1894 dedication
of the hospital’s first addition. “Moreover, we have
no assurance of the hospital’s success.”
Dr. Mayo desisted, but Mother Alfred persisted. As was
often said of her, “To think was to do.”
“How much money do you need?” she asked.
“Forty thousand dollars.”
“Just promise me to take charge of it and we will set the
building before you at once,” Mother Alfred said. She again
put her assurance in Psalm 37:5, “Commit your way to the
Lord; trust that God will act.”
Mother and her sisters scrimped and saved, fasted and
prayed. When Saint Marys Hospital—a three-story, 27-bed
brick facility—opened in a cornfield on September 30, 1889,
Mother Alfred was $20,000 under projected cost. Founded
as a teaching order, the congregation now had a new ministry:
Sister-nurses tended to the sick, cooked the patients’
meals, did the laundry, stoked the furnace and even used the
hair of convent horses to make surgical sutures.
During an era when hospitals were viewed as pestholes or
places to die, the Mayo doctors’ extraordinary surgical skills
and use of antisepsis (a relatively new discovery) began
“From September 30, 1889, to January 1, 1893, 1,037 patients
were admitted and the number of deaths was 22,”
reports The Sisters’ Story.
While the sisters and the Drs. Mayo respected and admired
each other, they had their differences, some humorous.
One day in 1905, Drs. Will and Charlie asked Sister Joseph
Dempsey, the hospital administrator, to put up another
addition. Sister Joseph, who said she would pray about it, later
informed the doctors that God had said to wait.
“That’s odd,” replied Dr. Will. “Charlie and I consulted God
and he told us to go ahead and build.” And build they did.
By 1912, five additions had been added to the hospital and,
in 1922, a seven-story surgical pavilion went up. More additions
and buildings followed in the decades to come. Today,
Saint Marys Hospital counts 1,157 beds and 58 operating
rooms, and is believed to be the country’s largest not-for-profit,
Sisters of Saint Francis of Rochester
FOUNDED BY Mother Alfred Moes, O.S.F., in 1877, the Sisters of Saint
Francis of Rochester are 300 strong today. From Assisi Heights Convent,
built to resemble the Sacro Convento of St. Francis in Assisi, sisters
have gone forth into many parts of the world.
Continuing the congregation’s first ministry of teaching, sisters serve
as tutors, college and university professors and seminary instructors, and
they operate and staff two schools in Bogotá, Colombia. Yet other sisters
are therapists, lawyers, artists, writers, social workers, pastoral workers
or retreat directors.
Perpetuating the Catholic/Franciscan tradition at Saint Marys Hospital,
other sisters serve on the Hospital Sponsorship Board, while retired
sister-nurses do hospital volunteer work and minister to patients.
To learn more about the Rochester Franciscans, visit www.rochesterfranciscan.org or call 1-888-277-4741.
Marion Amberg is a freelance journalist from Minneapolis, Minnesota.