Published on May 05, 2014

The Daughters of Charity, after 98 years, leave Jacksonville's St. Vincent's hospital

By Matt Soergel, Mon, May 5, 2014 @ 3:20 pm, The Florida Times-Union

Their life is simple, meaningful. There’s prayer and a communal breakfast in the morning, prayer and a communal dinner in the late afternoon and evening.

That’s followed, often, by news and “Jeopardy.” They really like “Jeopardy,” though they feel humbled by the speed and knowledge of the TV contestants.

In between, the five remaining Daughters of Charity at St. Vincent’s Healthcare spend the day working, someplace in the now-vast hospital, 5,000-employee system that their predecessors brought to life almost a century ago.

By early July, that routine will end.

After 98 years in Jacksonville, the Daughters of Charity — whose members until 1964 were recognizable in the hospital hallways by their “Flying Nun”-style headgear — are leaving.

They’ll move on, departing from their quiet apartment overlooking the St. Johns River, where newspapers and Catholic magazines sit neatly next to still-wrapped chocolate Easter eggs.

What’s left will be some photos, the statues of Daughters of Charity out on Riverside Avenue, and a long legacy of hard work.

“It’s not going to be the same place,” said Sister Clare Marie Angermaier, who joined the Catholic religious order 60 years ago, “but I think it will be alright.”

She and Sister Cora Anne Signaigo, Sister Joan Drega, Sister Patricia Nee and Sister Rose Marie Henschke, all elderly, have been assigned new challenges, in South Carolina, Louisiana or Maryland.

The number of women entering religious orders has plummeted in the U.S. and Europe in recent decades. That’s one reason why the dwindling number of sisters are leaving St. Vincent’s; they’re needed elsewhere.

But it’s not the only one. The hospital, the sisters say, is in good shape — and more importantly, the priorities of its lay leaders are in line with those of the Daughters of Charity, an order formed in the 1600s to take care of the needy.

It’ll be OK, they say, on its own.

The Jacksonville move is part of a decision by the order’s Province of St. Louise, based in St. Louis, Mo., to depart from 10 of the more than 70 cities where sisters serve, in hospitals, schools and social service programs.

For decades, sisters took many of the top leadership roles at the hospital. And into the 1980s, they occupied the chief executive officer job, said the hospital’s current CEO, Moody Chisholm.

He’s not Catholic, and admits he was intimidated when he interviewed for the job while facing a phalanx of the Daughters of the Charity. That feeling didn’t last long — they quickly became members of a mutual admiration society.

“I feel very confident leaving with Moody here,” Sister Signaigo said.

“He’s younger, but we think of him as a big brother,” Sister Angermaier said.

The Daughters of Charity came to Jacksonville in 1898 to treat soldiers from the Spanish-American War. They came back in 1916, to take over the struggling DeSoto Sanitorium in Springfield.

They changed the name and got it in order. Twelve years later they bought property on Riverside Avenue and expanded there. The hospital system now has three hospitals in Northeast Florida, a nursing home, ambulance service, pharmacies and numerous primary-care offices.

“They answered a call to come to Jacksonville,” Sister Signaigo said. “If you look at where they started, where we are today — they were tremendous women who preceded us. We stand on their shoulders.”

At some points, there were as many as 30 sisters at the hospital, Sister Angermaier said. The five current Daughters of Charity work in administration, in the emergency room and in the food pantry.

Two sisters — not among the five still at the hospital — will still travel to Jacksonville occasionally while serving on the hospital’s board. Priests who perform daily Mass and other religious functions will still be at St. Vincent’s.

The sisters, though, will be missed, Chisholm said.

“When the sisters come into the room, people recognize them. It creates a level of comfort, not just spiritual comfort but real physical and mental comfort,” he said.

Emergency room nurse Katie Stafford said she — and her patients — will miss Sister Henschke, a frequent presence in the ER, offering blankets, coffee and comfort to those there.

“It’s uplifting,” Stafford said. “It’s sort of like what your mom can do for you because she’s your mom.”

The Daughters of Charity were founded in France in 1633, when nuns were cloistered, away from society, living quiet lives of prayer and mediation.

“That would have driven me crazy,” Sister Angermaier said.

The Daughters of Charity, in contrast, were charged to go among the poor and needy, in squalid streets, in prisons, on battlefields.

Unlike nuns, who make a lifetime vow, the sisters make their vows every year.

The five Daughters of Charity at St. Vincent’s each made their first vow as young women. Sister Signaigo was 25 — a little older than some of the others — when she joined the order; she’d already gone through nursing school, and had worked as a nurse.

“I felt it was what God wanted for me,” she said. “It was not particularly what I wanted. But I’ve never been sorry.”

The annual vows are meaningful, each time, Sister Nee said: “You’re at a different part of your life when we make it, so it’s new each time. I’m no longer a teenager.”

Sister Henschke laughed at that, and Sister Signaigo quipped: “Thanks for pointing that out.”

They admitted they tease each other — but that’s part of what comes with living in community with each other, which is a major emphasis of their order. Together, they occasionally eat out or catch a movie. “Philomena,” starring Judi Dench, was the last one they saw.

Then there’s “Jeopardy,” a favorite pastime. “We’d never make it on the show,” Sister Angermaier said.

“That’s being honest,” Sister Signaigo said.

The sisters freely say they will miss each other when they are scattered this summer. But they’re comfortable with the decision to go elsewhere.

“It’s sad because there are so many good people here,” Sister Angermaier said. “But our community was founded to serve the poor, to establish the work — and to move on when others are ready to take over.”

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