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Holy Cross Nursing School in 1969. The school trained 1,100 women from 1901 to 1973. Students came from a variety of faiths.

Could Catholic nuns have helped forestall the current nursing shortage in Utah and throughout the Intermountain West? What if Salt Lake Regional Medical Center was still Holy Cross Hospital, with its nursing school taught by sisters in white habits?

It's a question that likely has no definitive answer, but the history of how that school trained generations of nurses — and tried to foster something of an interfaith "laboratory" in the process — is being explored this weekend in Salt Lake City.

For Sisters of the Holy Cross, establishing a Catholic school and hospital in the 1875 Utah Territory was a pioneering venture based not only in religious faith and care for the poor, but in the hope of building bridges with Latter-day Saints through charitable works.

The legacy of education and health care they built for future generations is being celebrated this weekend, as a national conference focusing on their history in Utah plays out at the Red Lion Hotel.

The Holy Cross History Association began its annual meeting here Thursday, drawing several dozen people from across the country to examine Catholic heritage in the Intermountain West. A particular focus is the Holy Cross Nursing School, which trained nearly 1,100 women from 1901 to 1973, when the school was closed as nursing training moved from hospitals to colleges and universities. Many were Catholic, some were LDS and others came from a variety of faith backgrounds.

Jessie Embry, oral history director at the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at Brigham Young University, said she began exploring what has become something of a forgotten chapter in the history of Utah's Catholic Church after her mother — who trained as a nurse at the Holy Cross Nursing School — died a few years ago.

The task was complicated because there were no written records at the Sisters of the Holy Cross mother house at Notre Dame, and only a few at the Utah State Historical Society. As a result, she tried to recapture some of what occurred there through 30 oral history interviews with women who attended the school, mostly in the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

The first Sisters of the Holy Cross came to Utah in 1875, where they set up a hospital for Catholic miners and other poor migrants who had come to the territory looking for work amid the majority LDS population. While many outside the area thought their efforts foolhardy, their work drew praise from many. As the success of the hospital grew, the sisters opened the Holy Cross Nursing School in 1901, seeking to ameliorate a critical shortage of nurses in the area.

Embry said the school opened nearly 20 years after Latter-day Saint women had begun a nursing school at Deseret Hospital in 1882, but it had closed in 1890, and another reopened the same year the Holy Cross school was established. The Episcopal Church had also established a training school for nurses at St. Mark's Hospital in 1872.

The Holy Cross school drew students from around the Intermountain West, Embry said, including those she and her team did interviews with. A majority were from rural areas and small towns, often the oldest in their families. "They frequently mentioned that they could not afford to attend college," Embry said.

The emphasis on Catholic religious tradition set the school apart from others, she said. Though written records are not available to determine the religious affiliation of students who attended, several of those interviewed said it was "one-third Catholic, one-third Mormon and one-third other religions," while one student in the 1940s said she was the only practicing Mormon in her class.

Embry's paper, which was delivered at the conference on Friday, focused on the interviews with LDS students she was able to find. Their stories reflect a dichotomy not often experienced by Latter-day Saints in Utah — being of the minority faith immersed in a majority faith community.

Aside from the school's geographic location, LDS students chose to attend, Embry said, in part based on the school's reputation as "one of the finest in the country," though both St. Mark's and LDS Hospital's training programs in 1949 were rated in the top 25 percent nationally, while Holy Cross was ranked in the top 50 percent.

Bessie Witt, who grew up in Levan — then a town of about 400 people — and attended the school in the 1950s, said she decided to attend after visiting the school and receiving a "totally warm" welcome from students and administrators. "Her father was an (LDS) church leader, and some people told him that she should not go to a Catholic school. She would lose her testimony. But Bessie and her father believed that it was a good way to meet other people."

The girl's father would tell people, "If she hasn't gained a testimony by now, she will gain a testimony of the gospel, and she will learn to defend her religion." Witt praised her father's wisdom, saying the experience "taught me about other people and other religions and ethnic backgrounds which I'd never had an opportunity to learn about until that particular time."

Most LDS students had never had contact with Catholic sisters, and many "were a little intimidated or afraid at first," Embry said.

Teri Weidman, a student who grew up in Cache Valley, recalled her shock to realize that the nuns "were people and not weird characters because they did the same things we did. They chewed gum and they ate popcorn. It was kind of scary ... Some of them were great and some of them were ornery. But we had a good time down there."

Several recalled how some of the nuns would hike up their habits to play tennis with the students, and that Catholic Mass and prayers were often part of their experience. Some expected it as part of their training at the school, while others resisted, Embry said.

The former LDS students said they were uncomfortable performing Catholic sacraments, particularly infant baptism.

Former student Shirlynn Campbell told Embry she was directed to take a fetus to a third-floor location one day. "I was coming down the stairs and a nun stood there. She said to me, 'Did you baptize that fetus?' I said, 'No.' She said, 'You get right back up there and do it."'

Campbell then told of being among a group of students who decided to visit LDS Church President David O. McKay one evening because one of them was his neighbor and he had asked why she didn't come and chat with him. During their visit, he asked how he could help them, and one student mentioned the infant baptisms.

"President McKay told them to do it just as they did the other things that they learned. But he also told them about his friendship with Catholic Bishop (Duane) Hunt." The two girls later recalled that they weren't sure what happened in the interim, "but about a week after that, Bishop Hunt announced in an ethics class that Mormons did not have to baptize fetuses. They should find a Catholic student to perform the sacrament."

Fred Woods, a professor of religion at Brigham Young University specializing in interfaith relationships, said while there was an uneasy peace between Catholics and Latter-day Saints throughout much of the state's history, President McKay and Bishop Hunt built a bridge of friendship whose legacy endures to this day.

"There were definitely some bumps in the road, but I can't think of an instance where it wasn't worked out ... Not only had LDS Church leaders extended an olive branch to greater degree," at that time than ever before, Woods said, the relationships "have gotten better over time."

Today, the nursing school is gone, and the hospital they founded is no longer under their control but has become Salt Lake Regional Medical Center. A lone photograph of a student nurse, hung outside the hospital's chapel, is the only remnant of the nursing school's history, Embry said.

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