WATERTOWN — Mercy Hospital School of Nursing closed in 1970, but the camaraderie, sense of shared devotion and lessons learned at the Stone Street facility live on through its alumnae association.
The Mercy Hospital School of Nursing Alumnae Association meets twice a year, in the spring and fall, for business meetings. Late last month, some alumnae met informally at St. Patrick’s Church.
The association’s annual banquet is held in September. At each banquet, it honors the 50-year anniversary of a class. This year, at the banquet on Sept. 7 at Savory Downtown, the Mercy class of 1969 will be specifically recognized. In 2018, 106 people attended the September banquet, about 85 of them graduates. The banquet is not open to the public.
Among its activities and community involvement, the association provides two annual $1,000 scholarships and two $100 pinning awards for nursing students at Jefferson Community College. Decorating deceased Mercy sisters’ graves at Glenwood Cemetery is also important to members. A yearly newsletter is maintained to update alumnae on happenings.
The school graduated 908 nurses in its 65 years of existence.
The Mercy Hospital building on Stone Street was demolished in 2014. A plan by COR Development Co., Syracuse, to build something on the site — “a multiuse redevelopment project” — has stalled. On May 29, about a dozen Mercy nurse graduates met a block from the empty lot in the back chapel of St. Patrick’s Church at 123 S. Massey St.
“So much went on on that piece of land and building,” said Anna Miller Guyette, class of 1955. “We grew up together. We climbed the ladder.”
Mercy Hospital was renamed over the years with various owners and the building was shuttered in 2012.
Originally known as St. Joachim’s Training School for Nurses, it received its charter from the New York State Board of Regents on May 1, 1905. The length of the curriculum was two years and two months. Students were required to live at Mercy and were taught by nuns. The first class, consisting of six students, was graduated Oct. 30, 1907 at Watertown High School.
In 1916, the length of the course was extended to two years and six months. In 1926, the hospital, with a new wing and bed capacity of 100, reopened under the name of Mercy Hospital and the school changed its name to Mercy Hospital Training School, and in 1939 to Mercy Hospital School of Nursing. In 1934, with the addition of psychiatric nursing courses, the program was lengthened to two years and nine months. In 1944, a three-year program began. In 1965, the school became affiliated with Jefferson Community College.
For many years, the school was situated in the east wing of Mercy Hospital. A separate building, McAuley Hall, was built in 1944.
In the 1960s, both Mercy Hospital and the House of the Good Samaritan agreed to discontinue their schools in favor of proposed programs at JCC.
In the mid-20th century, the emphasis on nursing education shifted from the hospital-educated nurse to the academically educated nurse.
“The deal with schools of nursing in those days wasn’t college,” said Linda D. LaFontaine Peterson, president of the Mercy alumnae association and a 1966 graduate of the school. “We were taught right there. We lived upstairs.”
Mrs. Peterson said that until the 1960s, many programs were called “nursing schools” and were run by Catholic hospitals, state hospitals as well as private hospitals, like Watertown’s House of the Good Samaritan.
“These had evolved to three-year programs starting in the 1900s,” Mrs. Peterson said. “Mercy Hospital School of Nursing focused on serving God by caring for the sick and needy. It was almost the same as a vocation to the convent.” When students graduated and passed the state board exams, they were licensed as registered nurses.
“The college programs today are either a two-year program like JCC, associate’s degree, or the four-year model like Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree,” Mrs. Peterson said. “There are no longer the three year diploma programs like ours was.”
Mrs. Peterson said the nuns taught students everything from pharmacology to sociology, with no college credits.
“I recall a week after entering Mercy being assigned to one of the floors at Mercy (hospital) and having to give some poor captain from Fort Drum a bed bath,” Mrs. Peterson said. “I was 16 years old and terrified. That’s how they taught us.”
She said nursing students staffed the floors during the day hours, usually 7 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. with lunch and then class time in the afternoon until 5 p.m.
“We worked all summer with a week or two off, sometimes also having class in the afternoon,” Mrs. Peterson said. “Our year started in early September and we graduated around the same time, three full years.
“When we graduated, we had a nursing diploma,” Mrs. Peterson said. “Some people worked their whole lives with just a diploma, and that was legal then.”
Mrs. Peterson, native of Smithville and a graduate of Sackets Harbor High School, went on to receive a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. She was asked if that was her plan when she graduated from Mercy in 1966.
“Heavens no!” she said. “We were just so excited to get to work.”
Mrs. Peterson and Joan Zembiec Todd, also a 1966 graduate, went to work at Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse.
“We got paid more down there,” said Mrs. Peterson. “I think when we started it was like $10,000 a year. We all moved to Syracuse and got apartments, wore our little caps and went to work.”
Among the places that Katherine (Kay) Lorite O’Brien, class of 1961 worked, was at an intensive care unit in Rhode Island.
“I worked several places around the country after training,” said Mrs. O’Brien. “Our training held us in great status. I only had one other nurse who I thought had more superior training than I did. She was from New York City. We had excellent training. It wasn’t easy but it was very good.”
Mrs. O’Brien recalled being asked what she did for a living.
“They’d say, are you a teacher or whatever, and I’d say no, I’m an RN,” Mrs. O’Brien said. “It was immediate respect. I hope it’s still true. I’ve been retired a while now, so I’m not sure.”
Mrs. Peterson, alumnae president and the one among the group still working as a nurse, assured Mrs. O’Brien and others: “Nurses remain one of the most respected professions in our country.”
Patricia Donahue, class of 1956, said nursing was the “most wonderful” thing to happen to her.
“When you became a nurse, you had so many skills that you could have taken any path in nursing, which to me, was almost a miracle,” Mrs. Donahue said. “I was very fortunate because I got to teach nursing as well as practice nursing. I got to pass along the skills that I loved.”
“Our nurses have done a lot of different things,” Mrs. Peterson said. “We’ve been school nurses, hospital nurses and in public health. We’ve got nurses who served in the military, as late as Vietnam.”
Other graduates became administrators. Elaine Sholett Grant, class of 1966, worked at Mercy Hospital for 23 years after graduating. While there, she earned a bachelor’s degree from SUNY Utica/Rome. She earned her master of professional studies degree from the New School for Social Research, Syracuse campus, in 1991. She became director of Clinical Services and Occupational Medicine of Lewis County at Lewis County General Hospital, Lowville, and retired in 2006 as a nurse manager for the clinics at Samaritan Medical Center.
At Carthage, she co-created a program that sought out registered nurses who had left the profession, urging them to return to it. She said she told the nurses: “You will always be a nurse and you should be proud of that. It’s indelible to your personality and to who you are.”
Sharon Harris was promoted in 1971 to assistant administrator at Mercy Hospital’s Madonna Home, which was a long-term care facility. She was required to attend administrative educational programs developed by the state in New York City to fulfill the requirement for a nursing home administrator license.
“Madonna Home provided the community with excellent care for many years,” Mrs. Harris said. “Many Mercy Hospital School of Nursing alumnae worked there in a variety of nursing positions from 1963 until closure in the 1990s.”
Looking back on her years at Mercy School, Mrs. Harris, a 1954 graduate, said, “They taught us to be adults, to be serious and to take our careers seriously. It was a good education, but hard work.”
And even though as a Watertown resident she was still required to live at Mercy School, Mrs. Harris recalled that she had an advantage over other students when it came to homefront connections:
“My dad was a cop on the American Corner,” she said. “That’s where I’d go if I needed a little extra money.”
Students at Mercy received experience in pediatric and outpatient nursing at Kings County General Hospital in Brooklyn. It was a four-month stint.
“That was an interesting place,” said Mrs. Peterson. “A bunch of Catholic girls getting a sense of New York City.”
“For a bunch of little girls from the north country, when you stepped off that train and into Manhattan — I fell in love with it then and I’ve never gotten over it,” said Patricia Donahue, class of 1956.
Beverly Byers Sheppard, class of 1966 and association treasurer, also became a nurse practitioner. She worked at Mercy Hospital, doctors’ offices and performing long-term care. But she said she got the most rewards at a primary care clinic in Cape Vincent that Mercy Hospital ran, where she was the primary caregiver.
“It was a family atmosphere,” Mrs. Sheppard said. “It was just very satisfying helping people. Everybody looked out for everybody else and there was a lot of respect both ways around.”
That sense of respect also attracted nurses like Mrs. Peterson. She recalled that she once worked as a nurse at an elementary school in Maine, N.Y., in Broome County.
“The nurse in that school, I think, was more respected than the principal,” Mrs. Peterson said. “When anybody had a problem, like if two parents got in a fight and were going to split or something, they would come in and talk to me about it because they knew their kids were going to have a hard day. It was very rewarding just to be a part of peoples’ lives and to know they trusted you.”
Now, Mrs. Peterson works for a long-term care facility for senior citizens in the Binghamton area, performing employee health physicals and assessments. She’s been there for 13 years working as a nurse practitioner. In her job, she also interacts with teenagers who work in the dietary department or outside landscaping.
“I give them the speeches about smoking drugs and all that,” she said. “I try to keep them healthy. They listen to me because I’ve got gray hair now and I’m like their grandma and I can do it. I still love doing it.”
The Mercy nursing classmates, at their May 29 gathering, renewed their sense of camaraderie. Specifically, Mrs. Peterson and Beverly Byers Shepard discovered that day that their aunts, who inspired them to pursue nursing careers, were classmates in 1945.
Mrs. Shepard’s aunt was Mary Herlehy Gerken.
“When she graduated, I was very sick,” Mrs. Shepard said. “I was just a baby. They said I wasn’t going to make it. It was before penicillin and I had pneumonia. She stayed around the clock. I heard such stories of what she did.”
Mrs. Peterson’s aunt was Margaret Collins LaFontaine.
“She was the one who took care of everybody,” said Mrs. Peterson. “If somebody got a wound and it might need stitches, you’d call Margaret. She went to look at it and decided whether you needed to go to the ER.”