In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Mercy Hospital

School of Nursing

Text contributions from Ian Saxine, MHS Historian. Items courtesy of Mercy Hospital.

The Queen's Hospital Training School for Nurses

Soon after Queen’s Hospital (future Mercy) opened, it responded to a growing demand for nurses as well as hospital beds. Along with the rest of the medical field, nursing underwent rapid transformation and professionalization at the turn of the twentieth century. Before 1900, nursing was primarily devoted to home care.

As a graduate from Eastern Maine General put it, “graduate nurses were capable of going into a home making a room surgically clean; preparing a patient for operation, even for abdominal surgery; administering ether anesthesia by drop method; giving nursing care, post-op, for two or three weeks.” In the 1890s the organizations that became the American Nurses Association and National League for Nursing had formed, and states began to pass laws mandating registration of nurses in the early 20th century. Maine nurses participated in this process, and in 1914 the Maine State Nurses Association was incorporated. In the following year, the Maine legislature passed a law for the state registration of nurses.

In 1920, Queen’s Hospital opened the Queen’s Hospital Training School, with Sister M. Constance McCarron as the first superintendent and instructor of nurses. The program took three years to complete, and a diploma led to an R.N. The founding coincided with a shift of most nursing work from at home care to hospital (a trend that involved the rest of the medical profession.)

Starting Small

The program began on a small scale. The class of 1924 graduated five women, although the very first graduate from the program—Loretta Kilfoil (Colton) received her diploma in 1923. Kilfoil survived until 1983, just missing her 50th class reunion, although she left a legacy behind her at the school. Margaret Hinds Bell (class of 1942) was inspired by Kilfoil, her “mother’s cousin, and my ideal” to become a nurse and train at Mercy.

The program grew from its modest start. In 1927, the number of students climbed to 15, and the school held its first public graduation ceremony in 1930 at Portland’s Cathedral Guild Hall, where eight graduates received diplomas. Students hailed from across Maine; early graduates included Ruth Attean, a Penobscot from Old Town. In the early years, the training program accepted male students, who included Edmund Richard, who graduated in 1930. (After World War II, Mercy Hospital School of Nursing discontinued the practice, and the program remained all female until the 1960s.) When Ruth Attean graduated in 1935, the school had 36 residents. Just over a decade later, enrollment had climbed to 140 students.

Customs and Rules at Mercy Hospital School of Nursing

Like all schools, Queen’s Hospital Training School developed its own customs. After six months of study, successful completion of a preclinical training period culminated in the awarding of a distinctive training cap, presented at a formal ceremony. School regulations dictated that “When not in uniform, nurses wear their caps to the dining room as well as to the classroom.”

Another institutional tradition involved the Mercy Hospital shield. Carved in stone above the door of the hospital’s main entrance, the shield was also worn on student nurses’ pins. The shield was actually the badge of the Order of Ransom, founded in 1218 in the city of Barcelona. Its members cared for the sick and ransomed prisoners of war. Mother McAuley modeled the Sisters of Mercy coat of arms on the original Order insignia.

Students were housed at the school, and between 1920 and 1952, they were expected to abide by the following rules posted in the residence area, which included:

“Washing clothes in the bathtubs is not allowed. The laundry is for such purposes.”

“Do not monopolize the telephone for any length of time”

“Standing on the steps or on the street nearby, or communicating in any way from the windows is unfavorably looked upon by well-bred persons and is strictly forbidden.”

Students rose at 6 A.M., and attended breakfast no later than 6:40. They were expected “on duty at 7.A.M. after a visit to the Blessed Sacrament.” Lights out was posted at 10 pm, except on Saturdays, when it was at 10:30 pm.

A Comprehensive Nursing Education

As a June 1936 article by Mary Osborne of Portland in the professional journal of the Maine State Nurse’s Association (The Maine R.N.) noted, “book training” was essential to success. “The ‘MODERN NURSE’ is an educated nurse,” Osborne emphasized, “and if we wish to be considered a modern nurse, let us not forget to study.” To that end, nursing diplomas at the school included credits in the humanities from St. Joseph’s College in Standish, which the Sisters of Mercy also operated.

Medical texts used by some of the early students remind the modern reader how medicine has changed over the years. Mary Elizabeth Connolly (class of ’31) used a textbook published in 1928, Modern Methods in Nursing by Georgiana Sanders. The text included explanations of the latest methods that nurses were expected to employ in 1928, which included the techniques for proper leeching of patients.

Leeches are not the only treatment contained in Connolly’s textbook that might surprise twenty-first century readers. Some of the state of the art drugs prescribed for assorted conditions included strychnine, which in 1928 was classified as “a general tonic” useful for treating constipation, or conversely, castor oil as a purgative, or even “tincture of opium” or “brandy, taken raw (1 to 2 drams.)”

Along with the skills necessary to treat patients, Connolly’s textbook included a chapter on “domestic work” with advice for proper methods of sweeping, mopping, and scrubbing. Such duties were expected of the nursing students (and nurses) until after the Second World War. Mary Elizabeth Lyden (class of ’42) remembered that “We did more than just nursing. We had to keep the rooms clean. We were like the housekeepers, as well. We dusted all the windows. We washed all the floors…We did work hard. It was just normal. I mean, we expected it.”

Connolly and her classmates appear to have received a comprehensive education; her schoolbooks included Studies in Ethics for Nurses, by Charlotte Aikens. The book walked through various ethical situations a nurse might encounter, while also including multiple chapters on “Old-Fashioned Virtues” as well as suggestions for leading a balanced life.

This was all part of standard medical training at the time, which was growing in complexity as new advances continued. A 1930s publication emphasized the rise of “an entirely new idea of a nurse” that was concerned not just with treatment but prevention of illness. Prevention was interwoven with “the science called Bacteriology.” Treatment of various germs and the destruction of tissue required the study of pathology, and recovery required knowledge of physical therapy, not to mention X-Ray and radium treatments.

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.

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.