Singing, dancing and other fun activities at 405 Linden Place have brightened the lives of numerous Elmira adults over the past 22 years. These happy times occurred not at a dance hall or bar, but an adult day-care facility that was once a convent.
Mercy Care Center was directed for its duration by Sisters Mary Rose Schum and Mary Howard Cowan. Their ability to minister has been reduced in recent years due to health reasons, and so they ceased operation on June 30.
“I think it was time. We had cut down quite a bit, really, only doing day care once a week,” said Sister Cowan, 82. She pointed out that Sister Schum, 83, has endured knee problems as of late — “my football knee,” Sister Schum remarked with a hearty laugh.
In late 1984 the two Sisters of Mercy brought many years of nursing experience to Elmira. With the blessings of the late Father David Gramkee, then-pastor of St. Cecilia Church, they moved into the former parish convent and spent the next four months converting it into an adult day care. They launched their operation on April 1, 1985, providing a warm atmosphere five days per week for adults who had been referred via social services and word of mouth.
The majority were elderly, and there also were younger adults with handicaps. Many clients had Alzheimer’s disease, and others were recovering from strokes. They would thrive in Mercy Care Center’s friendly environment, being treated regularly to refreshments, birthday and holiday parties, and lots of music.
“Some of the patients we could dance with. Some would be on ‘different channels,’ but that didn’t matter,” Sister Schum said.
Both sisters have fond memories of Muffy, a stray cat they took in that ended up becoming an integral part of the ministry. For example, many pictures they have saved show Muffy sitting on clients’ laps. Another popular component of Mercy Care Center was the crafts room; finished projects would be taken to local craft sales and sold to help offset expenses.
Sister Schum further noted that “Sister Cowan was the best cook, and we fed them well.” The meals were key because a good number of the clients were poor: “It was like a lunch out (at a restaurant) when they came,” Sister Cowan said.
The sisters would care for up to 10 clients at a time with only a couple of regular volunteers — Genevieve Davis, who assisted daily, and Pam Wrench, an artist who helped on Tuesday mornings. Sisters Cowan observed that religious differences mattered little, saying the two volunteers were Protestant, and they had more Protestant clients than Catholic.
In 2003 the St. Cecilia property — including the church, which had closed in 1998 — was sold to Resurrection Tabernacle Inc., an evangelical ministry from New York City. The new owner arranged with Sisters Schum and Cowan to continue operating the ministry, and they plan to still live in the convent while also visiting former clients regularly.
“We kind of keep close in touch with the people and their families,” Sister Schum said.
Sisters Schum and Cowan both graduated in 1951 from St. Mary’s Hospital Nursing School in Rochester, then worked in a number of health-care facilities including their religious order’s infirmary in Rochester. Both are recent 60-year Sisters of Mercy jubilarians: Sister Schum celebrated her anniversary in 2006, and Sister Cowan observed that milestone this year.
The sisters acknowledged the strong need for adult day-care facilities and expressed hope that others will pick up this ministry, emphasizing that such services provide much-needed sociability and stimulation for adults as well as respite for caregivers.
“It keeps people from going to nursing homes sooner,” Sister Schum said.
She further stated that the happiness derived from such a ministry is a two-way street: “We met a lot of nice people. The people were wonderful, and the families were wonderful. Honestly, I don’t think we had an unhappy day.”
“I’d have to agree with that,” Sister Cowan added.