Honouring 90 years of service
Sisters of St. Martha created a healthcare and education legacy
June 6, 2019
By Rey Rosales, Storytelling Advisor, Covenant Health
The Sisters of St. Martha were a strong presence in Lethbridge as they worked to help the sick in the early 1900s. It was 1929, when two Sisters of St. Martha arrived in Lethbridge to take over and then purchase the 27-bed Van Haarlem hospital.
It soon became overcrowded, so the Sisters proceeded, with local support and encouragement, to build a new hospital that opened in September 1931 and was named St. Michael’s General Hospital. In its wake came the Great Depression of the 1930s.
“Needless to say, it was a difficult time for the Sisters and the community,” says Sister Josephine Keyzer, describing the impact of that historic economic collapse.
Sister Josephine recalls a Sister's comment in the historical records alluding to a Biblical passage: “At times I felt going down to the Old Man River to weep like they did in the Babylon of old.”
Universal "free" health care was not yet in place during those days. The Sisters would give service to all in need and often received “chickens and produce” in gratitude for their care. In time the hospital expanded its services to include a School of Nursing which, in 1972, transferred to Lethbridge College and continues to this day.
Reminiscent of the Sisters’ zeal for hard work, resourcefulness and perseverance, and the changing times, the old St. Michael’s was demolished in the early 1990s to be replaced by a new structure named St. Michael’s Health Centre. This facility, plus the Banff Mineral Springs Hospital that the Sisters also operated, are now part of Covenant Health.
At their peak in the 1970s, there were as many as 45 Sisters serving in the Lethbridge area, not only in nursing but also in teaching, pastoral work and spiritual enhancement, at Martha Retreat Centre.
The Sisters of St. Martha have seen much during their years of service in Alberta and they are now preparing for another turning point. Presently, there are three Sisters serving in Lethbridge: Josephine Keyzer, Theresa Parker and Josie MacLellan. They will all transfer east to Nova Scotia.
Sister Josephine says 87 Sisters of their congregation remain.
“I wouldn’t call it a full retirement because there is always something to do,” says Sister Josephine. “I will be part of the team that will help look after their needs.”
Ralph Magnus, Director of Mission and Spirituality at Covenant Health, says the Sisters of Martha have contributed much to the community during their decades of service. “They certainly helped hold the community of Lethbridge together, especially during those challenging years prior to becoming a prosperous city.”
Museum to host an exhibit on the history of St. Michael's General Hospital
To commemorate the work of the Sisters of St. Martha and the founding of St. Michael's General Hospital, an exhibit at the Galt Museum & Archives in Lethbridge is set to open on June 8 and will run until September 29.
The exhibit entitled, “St. Michael's: 90 Years of Compassionate Care,” is curated by Aimee Benoit and invites the visitor to “discover the unique history of the hospital known for its compassionate care founded in a faith-based tradition, and explore the facility's lasting impact on healthcare in southern Alberta.”
The Sisters of St. Martha travelled from Nova Scotia to Lethbridge in 1929 to build and operate what would become known as St. Michael's General Hospital. The hospital was demolished in the 1990s to make way for a new Covenant Health facility now known as St. Michael's Health Centre.
The Covenant Lethbridge Community Board is hosting an opening reception on June 8 to bring together the community to celebrate, reminisce, and learn more about St. Michael's and its impact on the community.
Exhibit admission is free and open to all.