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School of Nursing

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The Hub of Activity

One of the most important relationships the School of Nursing had at Mercy was with Madigan Memorial Hospital in Houlton (1915-1972). The Sisters of Mercy ran Madigan, (which had its own School of Nursing) along with staffing the local parish school. Several staff worked at both Madigan and Mercy Hospitals at different points in their careers.

The nursing school became a hub of activity for both lay students and those who had taken vows alike. The first administrator of the hospital, Sister Mary Annunciata Quigley, R.N., (serving 37 years from 1930 – 1967) laid the early foundation for Mercy’s policy of fostering training for its students across New England. A letter to Quigley during the 1930s mentioned that Sister Gloria LeVasseur “enjoyed the operating room experience she received at Madigan” when asking permission to attend summer workshops. In the 1950s and 1960s, Mercy developed affiliations with Seton Psychiatric Institute in Baltimore, and Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., for Psychiatric and Pediatric Nursing respectively.

Charles Burr’s life reveals the ties between Madigan and Mercy Hospitals. Burr’s father was a doctor at Madigan, and his mother was the director of nurses at the hospital. Burr attended the parish school, and remembered Sister Mary Denis Schwartz, his first-grade teacher in 1953, as well as Sister Mary Gemma Connelly who helped him buckle his winter boots that year for outdoor recess. Class sizes, Burr remembered, were “sixty students to a room” in those days. The example of his parents and his educational background helped influence Burr’s later professional affiliation with Mercy Hospital, which began in 1997.

Burr started work in imaging, and eventually became the hospital’s first film librarian. Observing their operations in later years, Burr noted the Sisters “spared no expense” to keep their members trained in the latest procedures. Burr believes that Mercy continues to fill an important need in greater Portland today, in particular because “many patients feel overwhelmed” in a large hospital, but at Mercy they “feel that they get more personal care.”

Indeed, patient feedback often mentioned this feeling in letters to the hospital’s administration, sometimes singling out the School of Nursing for particular praise.

Northern Light Mercy Hospital

A 1965 letter of thanks gushed that “These nurses in Special Care Units certainly exemplify the high class training they received in their student days.”

In the 1950s, Mercy expanded its teaching program along with the footprint of the hospital. Class sizes increased from 45 to 60 students admitted per year. As of 1951, students benefitted from new observation rooms for maternity training. The expansion came at an opportune time, as Maine suffered a significant nursing shortage during the 1950s.

By 1951, the Portland Press Herald noted that qualifications to get into the program included not only a high school diploma, but also “a psychological test, medical and dental charts, and a personality exam.”

With growth came further change. In 1956, Mercy established a Student Government organization, which gradually assumed responsibilities for most aspects of student life outside of academics. In 1967, a School Senate was established, comprised of faculty and students, designed as an advisory group on campus and academic matters. Established in 1960, the Parent’s Club facilitated better communication between parents, faculty, and students, as well as provided essential fundraising support.

The student body continued to diversify. The student body had always included a significant cohort of Canadians, and in 1967 Mercy accepted its first international student from Europe. In 1968, Mercy accepted male and married students for enrollment. Dale Sprague became the first male student to register since World War II. The once again coeducational school issued redesigned uniforms as well.

Mercy continued to receive praise for the quality of its nursing program in these years. A grateful patient writing in 1967 singled out “Miss Cyr Junior Student” for excellent conduct, and continued “Congratulations are due the school for attracting such a fine group of students especially in view of today’s competitive labor market.”

Mercy Hospital’s School of Nursing remained an important part of the institution’s contribution to the community from its opening in 1920 until the last class graduated in 1987. As Mercy celebrates its centennial, the school’s graduates continue to perform vital work not only in the Greater Portland area, but also in communities across the country.