Book Review: The Mustard Seed
October 1, 2011

Bellamy, Kathrine E., RSM, The Mustard Seed: The Story of St. Clare’s Mercy Hospital. St. John’s:  Flanker Press, 2010. (219 pages, photos, index.)

The Mustard Seed tells the story of St. Clare’s Mercy Hospital from 1922 to the present.  It is very much a local history that will appeal to St. John’s Catholics, who will recognize the dozens of personal stories and the close to one hundred photos of people, buildings, and artifacts.

While the Sisters of Mercy provided health care from the time they arrived in Newfoundland in 1842, the hospital grew out of home for working girls, which the Congregation opened at the end of the First World War. The original St. Clare’s Mercy Hospital, with twenty-two beds, opened in 1922 after two Mercy Sisters completed three-year nursing programs in Pittsburgh.  Staffing the hospital with qualified sister-hospital workers was a great challenge in the hospital’s early years due to a couple of unexpected deaths and some illness among the Sisters themselves, as well as a lack of funds.  The hospital was nevertheless well used, and by 1937, fundraising began to construct a larger, four-story, one hundred-bed hospital, which opened in 1939. The new hospital included a School of Nursing, which accepted approximately 35 student nurses a year into a three-year diploma of nursing program.  The students were provided with tuition, board and laundry, but did not receive a stipend until 1956.

The hospital continued to grow, increasing to 375 beds in a major renovation completed in 1972. The years after World War II also saw growth in the services offered, the governance structure, and the collaboration with other institutions. For example, the first board of governors was appointed in 1956, a new obstetrical wing was added in 1960, a teaching hospital designation was created with Memorial University in 1968, a pastoral care department opened in 1975, and a detoxification centre opened in 1975.

In the early 1990s, St. Clare’s mercy Hospital faced some tough challenges connected to government funding. With some sadness, the Sisters closed their obstetrical department, which meant all the city’s obstetrical cases were sent to the Grace General Hospital. 83,000 babies had been born at St. Clare’s between 1922 and 1992. In an exchange, the psychiatric wing at Grace General Hospital closed and the one at St. Clare’s was expanded. This was, in many ways, the beginning of the end of the Sisters of Mercy’s management of St. Clare’s Mercy Hospital. Questions increased about the necessity of eight separate hospital boards in the St. John area, and the provincial government announced an amalgamation into a single hospital board, which was achieved in 1994. In the same year, the Sisters of Mercy sold St. Clare’s to the provincial government. In the transfer and board amalgamation, the Sisters were able to negotiate several things to ensure the hospital continued to be run according to the mission, philosophy, and ethics in which it was founded. Most notably, the Sisters had the right to nominate two members to the newly amalgamated Board of Directors and to approve the person who had direct management of St. Clare’s Hospital.

Sister Bellamy’s research includes material from six archives, seven newspapers, and two dozen secondary sources. It is an affectionate account of the hospital, replete with the names of many patients and visitors to the hospital. Because the author never veers from the local focus, some readers will be left with questions about how outside forces influenced the operation of the hospital. For example, did Vatican II, feminism, or the widespread decrease in entrants to religious congregations affect the human resources and management of St. Clare’s as it did so many Catholic hospitals in North America?

Heidi MacDonald, University of Lethbridge