Last of the Franciscans
Sister's departure from Appleton hospital ends 135-year presence
By Amanda Lauer
APPLETON -- An era in Catholic hospital history has quietly ended.
In 1872, responding to a call to provide health services, three Franciscan sisters from Germany settled in the United States. For more than 135 years since, the Wheaton Franciscan Sisters have been a fixture in hospitals in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin.
But through the years, the number of religious women staffing those hospitals has dwindled until just one remained: Sr. Marlene Bemis at St. Elizabeth Hospital.
Since 1965 and until May 9, she lived and worked at the Appleton Hospital, which was founded by her community in 1899. Now, at the age of 80, Sr. Marlene is returning to her community's motherhouse in Wheaton, Ill.
The middle of 11 children in the Charles and Lena Bemis family, Sr. Marlene was born in northern Wisconsin's Florence County on March 22, 1928.
"The only Catholic training I had," she said, "was before I made my first Communion and before I was confirmed at St. Mary in Gaastra, Mich. They moved the church to Caston, Mich. into the museum area, because it was the oldest church in the area."
Although Sr. Marlene realized her call to religious life in the ninth grade, she didn't pursue it immediately. After graduating from high school in 1946, she worked as a nurse's aide at St. Joseph Hospital in Milwaukee for a year. Following in her sister's footsteps, she went to school for two years to become an X-ray technician, which was relatively new technology at the time.
She worked in Racine for a year, and then entered the Wheaton Franciscans. After two-and-a-half years of schooling, she started working in Wheaton hospitals in Wisconsin and then Iowa. Finally, she arrived at Appleton by train.
In 1965, there were 30 sisters working at St. Elizabeth in various capacities.
"We had sisters on every one of the floors," Sr. Marlene said. "Every department had a sister in it. We had them in the kitchen, we had them in the laundry, lab, X-ray, medical records."
But times changed and while women are still entering the Wheaton community, none of them has been interested in hospital work, according to Sr. Marlene. It's been five years since she has had another sister living with her in the small convent located on the third floor of the hospital.
Seven years ago, Sr. Marlene actually retired from the hospital's radiology department, but she continued to work as a volunteer.
"I've been working in the MRI department, walking people back and forth and fixing X-ray films and taking films to the doctors," she said.
She added that she has probably put in more hours at the hospital in the past seven years than when she was officially employed there, because she also has helped out in the gift shop on the weekends, "just to get away from being by myself." She also ate most of her meals in the hospital cafeteria each day.
Besides volunteering, Sr. Marlene has an active prayer ministry, attending daily Mass either in the hospital chapel or across the street at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish. She continues to pray for patients whom she dealt with through the years and her list has kept growing.
"I pray for the hospital, I pray for the people that ask me to pray for their relatives and friends, and for my family and my community," she said.
In her spare time, Sr. Marlene crochets, with the results going to friends or donated to the hospital gift shop.
Rev. Karin Derenne, director of Spiritual Services and Clinical Ethics for Affinity, has worked with Sr. Marlene for six years.
"It's been a relationship about making sure we're caring for the spiritual environment that we're a part of together," said Rev. Derenne. "Sr. Marlene has been a resource and a support to our spiritual services initiative and to our mission work. And certainly I know she keeps us in her prayers."
After 43 years as a part of St. Elizabeth's, her community asked Sr. Marlene to return to Wheaton, Ill. She decided to make the move, but still plans on staying active within that community. Last weekend, she said goodbye to everyone at St. Elizabeth Hospital, thus ending the presence of Wheaton Franciscan Sisters in the entire Wheaton hospital system.