Next year will mark one century since seven Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester — five of whom had no previous medical experience — arrived in Elmira to begin St. Joseph’s Hospital. Although Kathleen Huddle never met any of these women religious, she nonetheless considers them friends.
In 2001 the Elmira artist, photographer and writer was commissioned by the hospital’s foundation to create a canvas painting of Sisters Rose Alice Conway, St. Ann Murphy, Mary John Monaghan, Jerome Owen, Ruth Schicker, Hedwig Fechner and Caroline Goeser. Huddle decided to first do some research on the seven founding sisters, and ended up delving deeply into their lives.
She accessed extensive archives from St. Joseph’s Hospital and the Sisters of St. Joseph in Rochester, as well as additional material through the Chemung Historical Society and Steele Memorial Library. Among her resource materials were newspaper articles, photographs and two hospital histories authored by Sister Schicker.
Huddle completed her research and painting over a period of four to five months. The finished product is on display near the hospital cafeteria. Though her work has been done for six years, the experience has left a lasting impression on Huddle.
“The more I learned about the seven pioneer nuns, the more I admired them. I felt as if I actually knew them,” remarked Huddle, a parishioner of Our Lady of Lourdes who also attends Mass regularly at the Dominican Monastery of Mary the Queen. “I admired the sisters so much. I actually missed the first painting, so I painted a canvas for myself.”
Among the interesting pieces of information Huddle uncovered during her research:
* Sister Conway arrived in Elmira in June 1908 with only $50 to begin the process of converting an unused building into a hospital — in fact, she and Sister Murphy had to wade through weeds and high grass to get to the building.
* The nuns were at first rejected locally but, with Sister Conway leading the way, gradually won over the support of many Elmira doctors and business leaders.
* The hospital’s gas and electric worked only part of the time, so when power was down, the nuns placed candles into potatoes, which served as makeshift candle holders. They also bathed newborn babies in the kitchen next to the stove to keep them warm.
* Sister Conway had a steadfast commitment to the poor, providing them with food and gifts at holiday time and referring to homeless men who rode trains during the Great Depression as “knights of the road” rather than “hoboes.” The sisters also made sure that patients had the better food, occasionally limiting themselves to a watery soup made from potato skins.
* The sisters, though they worked hard, also knew how to have a good time. Once, Sister Goeser, who ran the kitchen, asked Sister Conway why she wasn’t eating or talking — yet upon closer inspection found that it wasn’t Sister Conway, but a dummy in her likeness that the sisters had made as a practical joke.
* Sister Conway maintained a legendary devotion to St. Joseph and St. Anthony in such matters as keeping adequate food supplies and meeting major expenses. Sure enough, unexpected money always seemed to arise when it was needed the most. Even at the end of 1929, the year the Depression began, the hospital had $5,000 in unpaid accounts — but after Sister Conway prayed to St. Joseph, a bequest of $5,000 surfaced.
Huddle observed that St. Joseph’s Hospital has weathered such difficulties as a flu epidemic in 1918; floods in 1946 and 1972; a polio epidemic in the 1950s; and “endless financial crises, state battles and political warfare.”
More recently, a New York state commission mandated in 2006 that the hospital close if it did not begin consolidation talks in good faith with Elmira’s Arnot Ogden Medical Center. Prior to this edict, St. Joseph’s had reached an agreement to align with Guthrie Healthcare System of Sayre, Pa., asserting that St. Joseph’s Catholic principles would be better respected under such an arrangement. Nonetheless, St. Joseph’s began discussions with Arnot Ogden in early 2007 as directed by the state. Denis Sweeney, St. Joseph’s spokesperson, said the hospital is not commenting further until talks are completed and did not indicate when that might be.
Regardless of the hospital’s immediate future, Huddle believes that the spirit of charity and mercy on which it was founded is “greater than the politics that tries to invade it.”
“St. Joseph’s Hospital is cloaked in a higher power,” she stated.