Book Review: Caring and Compassion: A History of the Sisters of St. Ann in Health Care in British Columbia

Southwell, Darlene. Caring and Compassion: A History of the Sisters of St Ann in Health Care in British Columbia. Madeira Park, B.C. Harbour Publishing, 2011 (296 pages, photos, index).

In Caring and Compassion: A History of the Sisters of St Ann in Health Care in British Columbia, Darlene Southwell explains how members of a teaching congregation came west from Quebec in 1858 and expanded their ministries. The Sisters worked with medical and local communities to establish St Joseph’s Hospital in Victoria in 1876, and the St Joseph’s School of Nursing in 1900. They began hospitals at Campbell River on the east coast of Vancouver Island in 1926, at Smithers in the Bulkley Valley in 1933, and at Oliver in the Okanagan Valley in 1941. The Sisters also began extended care homes, Mount St Mary Hospital in Victoria in 1940-41 and Mount St Francis at Nelson in the Kootenay region in 1947.

Darlene Southwell’s Caring and Compassion links the regional study of a religious community of women in health care into larger themes on the history of women religious and health care in Canada. She brings together research in the archives of the Sisters of St Ann in Victoria with reference to local histories such as Nan Bourgon’s Rubber Boots for Dancing and Other Memories of Pioneer Life in the Bulkley Valley (1979), and academic works such as Siobahn Nelson’s Say Little, Do Much: Nurses, Nuns and Hospitals in the Nineteenth Century (2001).

Nursing education was one area where the Sisters of St Ann did much. The first nursing Sisters at St Joseph’s Hospital, Victoria, in the 1870s had done their studies at the Sisters of Providence St Vincent’s Hospital in Portland, Oregon, but their successors trained at St Joseph’s, and after 1900 at its nursing school. The Sisters directing the school updated programs to meet developments in medical science and in the nursing profession. Sisters teaching at the nursing school studied for their bachelor and master’s degrees in nursing and participated in both the Registered Nurses Association of British Columbia and the Catholic Hospital Association of British Columbia. They expanded the St Joseph’s education programs to include instruction for x- ray technicians in 1919 and medical laboratory
technicians in 1921. By the time these programs and nursing education were transferred to other post-secondary institutions in the early 1980s, 156 X-ray technicians and 127 medical laboratory technicians as well as 2321 nurses had graduated.

Southwell points out how in local hospitals as well as in nursing education the Sisters of St Ann made significant contributions to healthcare in British Columbia. Sister Mary Osithe designed and supervised construction at Lourdes Hospital, Campbell River in 1928. General superiors sought Vatican approval to loan money for such projects. Local superiors ran gardens to feed the patients. Nursing Sisters donated salaries to pay the interest on the loans and to keep the hospitals afloat. The Sisters organized insurance programs with logging companies. Even after some government funding of healthcare began in mid- century, the Sisters’ hospitals faced financial challenges. The Sisters worked with local governments, businesses, hospital societies, auxiliaries, and community associations to meet them.

The Sisters of St Ann faced other challenges too. They aimed to serve patients of all creeds and cultures, a goal made difficult by historic religious and racial divisions in the province and the country. The Sisters worked with many hospital board members, medical doctors, lay staff and students and patients who were not Roman Catholics. They earned the support of a diversity of people, for example Anglican Doctor John Sebastian Helmcken and Sikh lumberman Mayo Singh. Their students went on to careers in community health service, for example, Rose Terry, R.N., class of 1955, St Joseph’s Hospital School of Nursing, the first Aboriginal registered nurse in the province.

By 1970s government participation in healthcare grew, the number of members of the Congregation declined and the number of lay staff increased. The Sisters transferred institutions to local hospital societies. The “gift that the Sisters donate[d] to the people of this area [was] more than land, buildings or equipment. It [was] a living institution with a long tradition of service to the sick and injured.” [110] The Sisters operate only one facility today but their caring tradition continues through their associates and students, through outreach ministry, scholarships and, now sponsorship of Southwell’s history.

Darlene Southwell’s discussion of the work of the Sisters of St Ann in building medical care in the west reminds historians that Canadian medicare had regional religious mothers as well as national political fathers. I hope her book will inspire further research and comparative studies.

Jacqueline Gresko
Corpus Christi College, the University of British Columbia

Published on: 29 May 2012
Posted by: amm098