'Spiritual presence': The nuns of St. Benedict's say goodbye to Utah

Published: Saturday, June 8 2013 8:00 a.m. MDT

Warm farewells Tuesday, June 4, 2013, in Ogden as five sisters of St. Benedict say goodbye to staff and public at Ogden Regional Medical Center before returning to St. Benedict's Monastery in St. Joseph, Minn. They served more then 200 combined years at the hospital.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

OGDEN — Carol Vicker promised herself she wouldn’t cry.

But her tears flowed freely Tuesday evening as she said goodbye to the Catholic sisters of St. Benedict, whose 69-year ministry in northern Utah is coming to an end.

Much too soon, if you ask Vicker.

“I’ve known the sisters since 1984, when my first child was born,” she said Tuesday, her eyes still red with emotion. “They’ve been there for me through all the joys and sorrows of my life since then. When my husband passed away three years ago, they were there to give me comfort and love when I had to make the decision to take him off life support. I can’t imagine what it will be like without them.”

Nor could any of the others who formed long reception lines for four hours Tuesday as hundreds of doctors, nurses, patients and friends gathered at what is now the Ogden Regional Medical Center — formerly St. Benedict's Hospital — to honor the “powerful and gentle spirit of Christ” the nuns brought to the hospital and to the rest of the community.

“Their presence is interwoven within the fabric of this hospital,” said Mark Adams, hospital CEO. “Because of them, we have a reputation as a hospital with a powerful and gentle spirit of healing. Their spirit permeates this entire community. They truly care for the sick as if they were ‘Christ in person.’ ”

Adams was quoting from the nuns’ guiding Rule of St. Benedict, which states, “Above all things, care must be taken of the sick as if they were Christ in person.” The rule is engraved on a monument that stands outside the hospital as a reminder of its legacy of loving service. But more, it is engraved upon the hearts of the 120 sisters who through the years have not only created the physical hospital but also imbued it with a unique spiritual nature.

The first Benedictine sisters arrived in Ogden in 1944 on a mission from their monastic community in Minnesota to give glory to God through service to his children. They opened the first St. Benedict’s Hospital on Ogden’s Polk Street in 1946. By 1977, that facility became inadequate both in terms of space and technological accommodation, so a new hospital was constructed in Washington Terrace.

In the 1990s the nuns organized the Mount Benedict Monastery, an autonomous, self-governing Benedictine community within the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. They also established the St. Benedict’s Foundation, which has provided nearly $5 million in funding through the years to various nonprofit organizations, and which will continue to disburse funding to area charities for the next 5-10 years, or until all of the foundation’s remaining assets are gone.

It was also during the 1990s that the hospital was sold (it is now part of the Hospital Corporation of America) and its name was changed. But the sisters and their “presence” have remained.

“This is now the Ogden Regional Medical Center, but for many people it will always be St. Benedict's,” said Dr. D Joan Balcomb, who specializes in emergency medicine at the hospital. “The sisters are a unique presence, from the earliest days of the hospital to today, and that presence influences everyone who works here or who passes through here. It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not, they treat everyone with kindness and compassion and impart an underlying spirit — even a spirituality — to everything that happens here.”

That spirituality is not limited to those who share their faith.

“They don’t care that I am LDS,” said Dr. Norman Walstrom. “They just want to know that you love the patients like they do, that we all treat everyone with respect and love. They don’t care what religion you are. As far as they are concerned, you’re just a child of God and they love you for that.”

As a result, Walstrom said, “I feel uplifted here.”

“If I have a day when I don’t run into one of the nuns, I feel it is a day deprived of their spirit,” he said.

Which means Walstrom and others in Ogden are going to be feeling a lot of deprivation in the near future. In an open letter to the community, the current sisters — Sister Danile Knight of Minneapolis; Sister Mary Zenzen of Elrosa, Minn.; Sister Stehanie Mongeon of Thorne, N.D.; Sister Luke Hoschette of St. Paul, Minn.; and Sister Jean Gibson of Price, Utah — said “after much prayerful thought, we have determined that the time has come for us to move back to our original home in Minnesota.”

Adams characterized the decision as a “calling” that the sisters accepted with “total grace and humility.”

“Who could do that?” Adams said, his voice edged with respect and awe. “Most of these sisters have been here for more than 30 years — some for almost 50. But they don’t question the call. Sister Stephanie just told me, ‘I’ll go where God needs me.’ That’s who they are.”

Sister Danile, who has been in Ogden for 49 years, called the move back to Minnesota “bittersweet."

“We’re going home,” she said, “but we are leaving wonderful people we’ve grown to love. It’s difficult.”

Julie Smith, whose parents, Joe and Jane Featherstone, both preceded her in working with the nuns at St. Benedict's, thinks the difficult part is going to be maintaining the nuns’ legacy of compassionate service in their absence.

“They are going to be missed,” Smith said. “But they are our mentors. They’ve been teaching us. They show us how to do this through everything they do at the hospital and everything they do in the community. And now they are urging us to continue the work they have started. We want to carry it on.”

In fact, Adams said, “we are completely committed and focused on continuing their legacy here.”

But, he acknowledges, that won’t be easy.

“They have been tireless, working sunup to sundown providing tender support to patients and families,” Adams said. “We are all inspired — and a little intimidated — as we watch these 70- and 80-year-old sisters work us all under the table.”

He recalled a radio interview Sister Stephanie did recently, during which she outlined the work she and the other sisters do and their total commitment to Christian service. At one point the reporter said, “I don’t understand why anyone would do what you do.” To which Sister Stephanie replied, smiling: “I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t.”

email: jwalker@deseretnews.com

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