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Mercy Hospital

Mercy & the Community

Frances Tryon, Portland, 1946
Frances Tryon, Portland, 1946Item Contributed by
Mercy Hospital

Mercy Hospital has a long history of community involvement that stretches back to the founding of the Sisters of Mercy. The Sisters of Mercy’s reputation as the “walking nuns” among Dublin residents spoke to their commitment to aiding those in need wherever they might be found, as did the addition of the Mercy Rule, which gave the Sisters the freedom to travel wherever the poor, sick, and uneducated needed help. During her lifetime, Mother McAuley insisted that although “the spirit of prayer and retreat must be most dear to us,” that spirit “would never withdraw us from these works of mercy.”

The Sisters of Mercy carried out that mission even before the establishment of the hospital in Portland. In 1873, the Sisters founded St. Elizabeth’s Home, which in 1887 became St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Orphan Asylum, and in 1968 St. Elizabeth’s Child Development Center. Residents like Deborah Minton, who lived at St. Elizabeth’s between 1966 and 1968, remembered the security the home provided. “Most of the girls that lived there came from homes that were unstable,” Minton related. Regarding the Sisters, Minton recalled trips to Diamond Island, where “We did silly things like sneak down to the beach to watch the Sisters swimming then report what color hair they had or what color bathing suit they wore.”

Upon its founding, Mercy Hospital represented one of the largest visible commitments made by the Sisters in Portland to their mission. The decade from 1905 - 1915 had seen construction of their Motherhouse, establishment of Saint Joseph's College in Portland and of Madigan Memorial Hospital in Houlton, and more openings of parochial schools. One of the stated core values of the Sisters of Mercy as set forth by Mother McAuley, is commitment to the poor. The Sisters of Mercy—and Mercy Hospital—give priority to those whom society ignores.

Mercy Hospital’s spirit of service extended to other venues as well. After the United States joined the Second World War in December 1941, the hospital (already home to a school of nursing) helped the U.S. Nurse Corps with recruitment. In 1947, an emergency struck closer to home. Known as the Great Fires of 1947, a series of blazes from York County to Mount Desert Island hit Maine during an extremely dry autumn. The entire Mercy staff stood on high alert to deal with the fires, which eventually killed 16 people and destroyed 200,000 acres.

By this time, Mercy had garnered a reputation for treating those unable to afford their own cost of care. A grateful parent wrote from Auburn in 1955 to inform hospital administrators that “Twenty-seven years ago my son was born…[and] I did not have the money to pay the bill,” and enclosed a check for the $70 bill in the note.

Although a Catholic hospital, Mercy’s charitable outreach was distinctly ecumenical. Reverend Nathaniel Guptill of Andover Newton Theological School wrote in 1951 to ask if Mercy could admit the wife of one of his students—a reverend at another congregation—for childbirth. The family was already struggling to pay the bills, and the student would have to drop out to help pay them if unaided. Sister Mary Annunciata Quigley, the hospital administrator, agreed to admit the patient for the lowest possible rate.

Albert Lucas, a retired Episcopal priest spent several weeks receiving emergency care at Mercy in 1965, and insisted “I have never known such Christian charity, patience and love” as at Mercy, and later gushed that “Never shall I forget the loving kindness I received there.”

A South Portland resident writing in 1964 went even further. After a three-day stay following an operation, “I have never, in any hospital, had such good care, such kindness, and thoughtfulness from all those in every position, that I had while with you. Although I suffered, and don’t feel strong yet, my days with you will be a happy memory.”

Mercy became known for boosting spirits as well as healing bodies in those days. The Superintendent of the Boys Training Center in South Portland wrote Sister Annunciata to say “thank you for permitting the Singing Nuns from the Mercy Hospital to visit us.” Many teenagers participated at Mercy as Candy Stripers. In 1966, a patient confined for 26 days thanked not only his nurses, but also the “Candy Stripers, Miss Foley, Miss Ward, and Miss Welch. They are nice well -mannered girls.” Volunteering as a Candy Striper was, for some, the path to lasting involvement at Mercy Hospital. Kate Hartig of Portland volunteered as a Candy Striper during high school, and then became Director of Volunteers in 1979.

Only a year before, in 1978, Mercy made a more substantial institutional commitment to ministering to those in need by opening a prenatal clinic designed to serve patients who would otherwise go without care. The prenatal clinic offered medical care and personal counseling to pregnant women who lacked a private physician or were unable to afford care anywhere else. In 1982, Mercy added a Recovery Center, providing evaluation, medical detox, and rehabilitation services to those in need of treatment for patients suffering from drug and alcohol addiction.

In 1988, the Sisters opened the McAuley Residence, as a small transitional housing program for women and children in various states of need, geared towards living addition free. About ten years later, in 1997, the Sisters transferred McAuley Residence to Mercy Health System for direct management by Mercy Hospital. The work is a testament to collaboration between Mercy and many community health providers for a comprehensive approach to recovery.

Gary's House

A later addition to Mercy’s institutional outreach had its origins in Kennebunk. In 1989, local resident Gary Pike had just graduated high school and planned to attend Florida State University in the fall when he was diagnosed with Burkett’s Lymphoma. Pike’s long, grueling treatment took him to Portland and then to Boston. His insurance providers would not pay for the experimental treatment he needed, and his family underwent severe hardship securing care. His mother had nowhere to stay when he was in the hospital, and spent nights sleeping on the hospital floor or in her car. The family accrued over $250,000 in debt to pay for his care.

Gary saw how hard this process had been on his family, and came up with the idea for Gary’s House, an affordable place for families to stay when a loved one was seriously ill. Pike spent the last year of his life before his 1991 death organizing a foundation with the goal of building the Gary Pike House.

Gary’s House became a focus of charity and fundraising efforts for the next six years, finally opening in 1998. The project received support from a constellation of local donors, the most prominent of who were President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush, who raised over $2 million over the years through the annual George H.W. Bush Celebrity Golf Classic. Located on State Street less than a block from Mercy Hospital, and near other local medical facilities, in 2018, Gary’s House celebrates two decades of providing an affordable place to stay for loved ones of individuals receiving medical treatment in any Portland-area hospital.

VNA Home Health and Hospice

On April 23, 1996, VNA Home Health and Hospice (VNA), aligned with Mercy Health System of Maine, which was part of Catholic Health East. As an affiliate of Mercy Hospital, VNA provided a wide array of services for those transitioning home from the hospital. This included skilled nurses, social workers, home health aides, and physical, occupational, and speech therapists. Hospice services were provided as well.

In December 2013, VNA was included in the acquisition of Mercy Health System by EMHS who recognized the benefit of VNA’s extensive home-based network, now considered central to improving the health of our communities. EMHS then looked to VNA leader Colleen Hilton to merge all of their homecare and hospice agencies under one umbrella and one name, VNA Home Health and Hospice. The full merger was completed in 2015 providing the continuum of care from hospital to home for EMHS providers. From monitoring the complications of diabetes, to sharing home safety tips, to helping families cope with a terminal illness, VNA has a statewide team of professionals who provide a broad array of home health care and hospice services designed to support Maine families’ health and wellness at home.