In the 1970s, when the late Mother Marie Gertrude Hennessy, provincial of the North American Province of the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady, was thinking about moving Our Lady of the Lake from its original location near the Capitol to Essen Lane, many people told her she was making a mistake.
“People said she was foolish. People told her that no one is going to come this far out,” said Sister Kathleen Cain, present provincial.
The Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady sponsors the activities of the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System. Our Lady of the Lake is an affiliate of the health system.
At the time Essen Lane was a gravel road.
“The only thing out here was the Baton Rouge Country Club, Ollie Steele (Burden Manor Nursing Home), the Provincial House and a Burger King,” Cain said.
Today, Essen Lane is a major thoroughfare, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center is a huge medical complex that includes a 720-bed hospital, and the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System sponsors four general acute-care hospitals, numerous other health-care facilities and 54 joint ventures with physicians and other health-care providers throughout Louisiana.
“I don’t think Mother Gertrude made a mistake,” Cain said. “She was a visionary. She trusted God. She listened to the people around her and then did what she thought was the right thing to do.”
This year, the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady commemorates a century of trusting God and doing what the sisters think is the right thing to do - a century of service to Louisiana.
“When our sisters first came, I guarantee they never envisioned the health-care system we have today,” Cain said. “We care for about 40 percent of the population of Louisiana.”
“They call us 'Our Lady of the Perpetual Construction,’” said Sister Barbara Arceneaux, immediate past provincial.
The work of the sisters in Louisiana started with six members who traveled from France at the invitation of the bishop of Alexandria. They were led by Mother Marie de Bethanie Crowley, a native of Ireland. The sisters arrived in Monroe on Sept. 30, 1911, and went to Pineville, where they had been asked to start an orphanage or work with local physicians to build a hospital.
“They were interested in a hospital but could not work out a deal with the physicians at that time,” Cain said.
So at the urging of the Rev. Ludovic Enaut, they returned to Monroe to open St. Francis Sanitarium in July 1913.
At the time, Baton Rouge was a town of 22,000 residents with a small infirmary operated by Dr. and Mrs. W.B. Chamberlain. For years, the Chamberlains had sought a religious order to run the infirmary.
Then the bishop of Baton Rouge was injured in a car accident, and there was no Catholic hospital in the area to care for him.
In 1921, the Chamberlains along with a group of influential local citizens and Monsignor Francis Leon Gassler, of St. Joseph Cathedral, invited Crowley and her nuns to come to Baton Rouge.
“Mother de Bethanie worked with St. Joseph Cathedral and community leaders to build a hospital here,” Cain said.
The Baton Rouge General was located in downtown Baton Rouge.
“They wanted us to build the hospital right next door,” Cain said. But Crowley had other ideas.
On a tour of the downtown area, she asked the driver to stop at an overgrown mule yard near the old LSU campus and the University Lake.
“She said I want to build it right here, right in this pasture,” Cain said. “And she did.”
According to the State-Times of Nov. 3, 1923, community leaders contributed $30,000 to build the new four-story, 100-bed, steel and concrete hospital. The total cost including property and furnishings was $300,000.
Almost half of Baton Rouge’s residents attended the hospital opening Nov. 4, 1923.
“The procession of automobiles across the dyke or around the lake from the east started long before 2 o’clock, the hour of opening, and there was a continuous stream of callers until after dark,” the Morning Advocate reported.
The Stanocola Band performed such popular numbers as the “Star Spangled Banner,” “The Merry Widow,” “Colossus of Columbia” and “The Heart of Paddy.”
Although the hospital was not scheduled to open until the day after the dedication with surgery a day after that, Dr. Ben Chamberlain had to perform an emergency caesarean on Mrs. J.S. Peck on the opening Sunday. The baby girl he delivered weighed only a pound and a half and was “doing fine” in the hospital’s modern incubator, the Morning Advocate reported.
Crowley’s diaries and letters, which in her early years were written in French, tell how patients often paid for services with eggs or chickens.
The hospital made international news? in 1935 when Gov. Huey Long was rushed there after he was shot at the State Capitol. As he was wheeled into the operating room, he asked Sister St. Michael O’Shea to pray for him.
“She told him, 'Pray for yourself,’ but she did pray with him,” said Sister Brendan Mary Ronayne, a past provincial.
Cain said the sisters always believed O’Shea had the bullets from Long’s body, “but she never admitted one way or the other.”
From the beginning, the sisters worked with members of the community and of other religious denominations to carry out the order’s mission of healthcare.?
“Ever since, we have always worked the same way,” Cain said.
She and Arceneaux recalled some of the many community leaders who have served with them over the past century - such people as Jane Boyce and the late Joe Cohn, Sidney Duplessis and Ira Woodfin.
“They just embraced what we stood for,” Cain said.
They recalled the late Steele Burden, a self-described atheist.
“Back in the ‘60s, the Burden family offered to give a group of Episcopalian sisters land if they would build a nursing home here, but they never did,” Cain said.
Steele Burden later made the same offer to Hennessy, who worked to build Ollie Steele Burden Manor and the Provincial House adjacent to the nursing home.
“Steele Burden and Mother Gertrude landscaped this place,” Cain said.
In his last years, Steele Burden lived at Ollie Steele. He and the sisters became fast friends.
“He would love to come with us in the evenings and pray with us,” Arceneaux said.
“He was no more an atheist than we are,” Cain said.
Burden and the sisters would conduct what they called “Vatican 3” on a stump on the grounds.
“We would talk about church, talk about life,” Cain said.
In 1949, the sisters opened Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center in Lafayette, and in 2000, St. Elizabeth Hospital in Gonzales became an affiliate of the health system.
The sisters and their extended community have commemorated the 100th anniversary throughout 2011.
Every meeting at every facility begins with a special 100th anniversary prayer of gratitude and thanksgiving.
“The prayer is probably said 100 times a day,” Cain said. “It is shared over the intercom system at all of our facilities.”
On each of the last 100 days of the celebration, the morning also begins with the announcement of a fact of history in the sisters’ 100-year journey in Louisiana.
The public celebrations begin Saturday with the annual meeting of the Our Lady of the Lake College.
Other celebrations are scheduled for St. Elizabeth Hospital, Ollie Steele Burden Manor, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, St. Clare Manor, Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center, St. Francis Regional Medical Center and at Sacred Heart Parish in Pineville, where it all started.
The big celebration will be Friday on the lawn of Provincial House at Maryville Convent on Essen Lane. Some 800 to 1,000 guests are expected to attend Mass celebrated by Archbishop Gregory Aymond, of New Orleans; Bishop Robert Muench, who will be host bishop; Bishop Michael Duca, of Shreveport; Bishop Ronald Herzog, of Alexandria; and some 30 priests.
“The Mass and reception will be outside because no parish is big enough to handle that many,” Cain said. “We didn’t want to be in a public place. We wanted it to be somewhere that meant something to us.”
The sisters are certain the weather will be perfect. When the celebration began, Sister Magdalen O’Donovan, one of the group’s beloved elderly sisters, was put in charge of praying for a beautiful day.
On April 29, O’Donovan died, but the other sisters are not worried.
“She went and died on us, but she is still in charge of the weather,” Cain said.
As the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady enters its second 100 years in Louisiana, the sisters still have the same devotion to duty as has always been the calling of the order.
“We believe our work is a mission, a ministry, not a job. I have a master’s in business. I know what the dollars and cents mean, but we truly have a ministry here. As long as we’re here, we’ll do it,” Cain said.
Many times in the last century, the sisters have made monumental decisions and undertaken monumental projects.
“Nuns always do what needs to be done,” Cain said. “We’re not afraid of getting in trouble. We’ll take care of the rest later.”
She recalled how Hennessy handled the move to Essen Lane.
The sisters had already acquired the present Mall of Louisiana property on Bluebonnet when Hennessy decided to move the hospital instead to Essen Lane. At the time, the interstate was under construction.
“The people who were involved with the interstate told her that there was already an exchange for Bluebonnet,” Cain said.
Hennessy knew how to solve that problem.
“She just told them to move it,” Cain said with a smile.?