WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH: SCNs still play role in local hospital, health care

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By Kacie Goode

When Nelson County’s first hospital opened in 1951, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth filled many of the roles.

“The Sisters were the nurses, they were the administrators, they ran the finances, they did everything,” said Kathy Hertel-Baker, archival director at Nazareth.

The leadership roles of women in the hospital — Flaget Memorial — continue today, with the past two presidents being women. Current Flaget President Jennifer Nolan, who is also the president of Our Lady of Peace and previously worked with Sts. Mary and Elizabeth Hospital, said continuing the SCN legacy is important, and the compassion demonstrated by the Sisters is a model for how the facility should operate.

The initiative of women such as the SCNs helped fill a critical need in Nelson County. At the time discussion of the hospital started in the 1940s, Hertel-Baker said, residents had to travel to Louisville and other areas for medical care — often by train. A citizens committee formed and approached the Sisters about starting a county hospital, and the SCN’s agreed to purchase property with the committee helping to raise funds. Construction started a few years later, and just after New Year’s in 1951, Flaget Memorial Hospital opened its doors. Sister Bridgid Garvey was the hospital’s first administrator, Hertel-Baker said, and in the first year, there were 352 admissions, 72 births and 90 surgeries.

Today, an updated building on New Shepherdsville Road replaces the original location and the staff includes men and women outside of the SCN community. But the Sisters still play a role in the hospital through volunteerism and other services. In leadership meetings, the Sisters’ work and the hospital’s foundation is often referenced, Nolan said, and the hospital continues to look at ways to better serve the community.

“Think of the responsibility that we have,” Nolan said, referencing what the Sisters created. “I try to reflect on that every time I have to make a decision … It’s really inspirational.” 

On Wednesday, Sister Joan Wilson and others representing the SCNs had a table set up in the hospital’s main lobby taking prayer requests from whomever approached and wishing them a blessed day. Behind them, photos of SCNs — including Wilson — depicted just some of the national and global outreach.

Wilson started out as a teacher, and moved to pastoral ministries. For the last 21 years, she has worked in the health care field serving with an Appalachian outreach program to provide medical care for families in Eastern Kentucky. She serves through Saint Joseph Hospital in Lexington. Her work and others’ is about recognizing and addressing a need to care for the most vulnerable of the population and carrying out the healing ministry of Jesus.

The work of SCNs in health care dates back prior to the Civil War and their roles have been large and small. Over the years, the sisters have administered 14 different hospitals in the United States and India, starting with St. Vincent Infirmary (later St. Joseph Infirmary) in Louisville in 1836, an extension of an orphanage that had opened four years prior.

“They were really ahead of their time,” Hertel-Baker said, and they continued to pioneer important health care, education and relief initiatives internationally.

Those interested in learning more about the SCNs’ work will have the chance to do so March 24 during an open house exhibiting SCN response to disaster ranging from cholera in the 1830s to current relief efforts. The event will take place from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. in O’Connell Hall on the Nazareth campus.