Mary Reifsteck of Gates has to think back to her high-school days to pinpoint when she first began working for St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester.
During her last year of high school, she worked as a cashier in the hospital’s cafeteria. It was a family affair; her mother worked at the hospital’s diet office, and her brother volunteered as an altar boy.
“We lived down the street,” she said.
Reifsteck, who graduated from St. Mary’s nursing school in 1961, has been working at the hospital on a part- or full-time basis for 46 years. She even gave birth to three of her children at St. Mary’s, which is now called Unity Health Genesee Street Campus.
“It’s like a family,” Reifsteck said.
The St. Mary’s family reunited at 89 Genesee St. Oct. 5 to mark the hospital’s 150th anniversary with a Mass celebrated by Bishop Matthew H. Clark, a reception and a group photo of current and former employees, patients and friends.
Many of those at the anniversary reception had vivid memories of the Daughters of Charity and their work at the hospital. Reifsteck, who worked in St. Mary’s maternity unit, recalled that the sisters gave Miraculous Medals with pink and blue ribbons to all the newborn babies.
“They used to say the prayers over the loud speaker every morning and evening,” said Peggy Weber of Brockport, who worked with Reifsteck in obstetrics for 31 years.
Odetha Sparkman of Rochester, who worked in central supply and in the hospital’s pharmacy from 1962 to 2005, recalled that the sisters carried bells. As one supervising sister walked toward central supply, her bell would jingle, alerting employees that she was headed in their direction, Sparkman recalled.
Though they are no longer involved in the hospital, the Daughters of Charity left a long legacy of caring for patients’ health and spiritual well-being, employees said.
“It was a privilege to work with the Daughters of Charity, and to see their perspective of helping people, their goodness, their dedication,” said Sister of St. Joseph Elaine Hollis, a member of Unity’s spiritual-care department. “I can’t say enough about the Daughters and the spirit they brought.”
Although St. Mary’s is no longer a Catholic hospital, a bevy of chaplains continue to provide spiritual support to patients there.
“I’ve been here three months, and there is a very friendly spirit and a very helpful spirit,” said Father Walter Plominski, Unity’s new Catholic chaplain.
Former employees said that atmosphere helped them get through difficult days.
“The most amazing thing happened when I was in the trauma emergency room,” recalled Katie White of Hilton. “There was a gunshot victim moved into one cubicle, and into the next cubicle was his assailant, and he was going, ‘That’s the guy who shot me.’”
Stella Rayam of Rochester, a unit secretary in the emergency room for 38 years, recalled another unforgettable experience.
“A man was shot, and I had to hold his intestines,” Rayam said.
Michelle Genaro of Henrietta, a registered dental hygienist who has worked at the campus for four years, said one of the most fulfilling parts of her job is treating homeless patients who come from area halfway houses, rehabilitation programs and group homes.
“It’s a great program,” Genaro said.
St. Mary’s founded after epidemic
The Daughters of Charity, a religious order founded by St. Vincent de Paul in France in 1633 and established in America by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in 1809, came to Rochester on the invitation of Buffalo Bishop John Timon, whose diocese at the time covered the territory now known as the Diocese of Rochester. He asked the sisters to establish the city’s first hospital following cholera epidemics in 1855 and 1856.
According to a 1957 history of the hospital, three sisters — Martha Bridgeman, Felicia Fenwick and Sister Superior Hieronymo O’Brien — arrived in Rochester with 50 cents to their names. Area residents donated bedding, other supplies and money.
The sisters began a makeshift hospital in two dilapidated stone stables in Rochester’s Bull’s Head neighborhood. The first patient was received Sept. 15, 1857, and St. Mary’s Hospital was incorporated four days later. By the end of their first year, the sisters had admitted 250 patients, pledging to admit the poor for free and to serve people of any religion or of none. In their second year, the sisters built a two-story building to connect the stables. A three-story wing was added in 1859.
Father Robert F. McNamara’s history “St. Mary’s Hospital and the Civil War” notes that several thousand Civil War soldiers received treatment at the hospital, and that it was officially declared a government hospital in 1863. Government payments for the care of the soldiers helped augment the fund used to build the new hospital, which was completed in 1863.
The original hospital was destroyed by a fire in 1891. Though more than 300 patients, employees and sisters were in the building during the nighttime fire, only one person was injured: Frank Jaynes, who would later become chief of the Rochester Fire Department. Within days, the community had raised enough money to begin rebuilding the hospital, which reopened that year.
In 1892, St. Mary’s opened a school of nursing, which operated through 1971. The hospital introduced the first horse-drawn ambulance to Rochester and in 1915 purchased the city’s first motorized ambulance.
The facility’s current main building was built in 1941, and underwent several additions in later years. In 1985, the hospital finished a $40 million construction and renovation project. In 1996, the hospital’s commitment to care for the poor and vulnerable earned a national prize.
In 1997, St. Mary’s Hospital merged with Park Ridge Hospital to create Unity Health System; Park Ridge was renamed Unity Hospital in 2006. The Daughters of Charity withdrew from the hospital in 2000.