With public attention focused on the issue of “religious articles” on display at St. Clare’s Hospital, it is all too easy to forget the great contributions the Sisters made to Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders at a time when this country faced unimaginable poverty and its medical care was among the worst in all North America.
It is hard to imagine that the present hospital actually began in a three-storey house known as “The White House” on the corner of LeMarchant Road and St. Clare Avenue, once owned by Capt. E.M. Jackman. Even more incredible is the fact that a set of rosary beads, made from 40 nuggets of Klondike gold led to the founding of St. Clare’s Hospital.
Originally, the plan was to raise money to purchase the house and convert it into a charitable home for working girls. Sister Mary Clare (Mary Theresa English of St. John’s) was inspired to initiate such a plan after visiting the Grey Nun Home for working girls in Montreal.
Fundraising amid the poverty in St. John’s at the time was not an easy task, but Sister Mary Clare was steadfast.
She laboured hard and sold cancelled postage stamps, knitted clothing and solicited public donations, but these efforts were far from enough. Both she and her followers were dispirited.
Their targeted amount was just too high. At this stage, the sister decided to sell a valuable gift she had received a little earlier.
On that occasion, a Klondike miner named James Funchian and his wife, after he struck it rich during the “Gold Rush,” came to St. John’s and paid a visit to their friend Sister Mary Clare with a gift for her of solid gold rosary beads.
It was this gift that she sold to the Knights of Columbus of Baltimore who presented it to James Cardinal Gibbons, also of Baltimore, during the celebration of his golden jubilee in the priesthood. Sadly, the good sister died before her dream was realized.
In 1913, the Presentation Home for Working Girls opened. This home operated until 1922 at which time the nuns converted it into a hospital which they named St. Clare’s in honour of Sister Mary Clare.
This is only one of many incidents from Newfoundland’s pre-confederation history where the different churches throughout the country stepped forward to care for the poor, the sick and to educate the children. It was an era in which government’s contribution in these areas was insignificant.
The role of all the churches in serving Newfoundlanders remains an important part of our cultural history and should be respected and honoured. It was never intended that the Charter of Rights become a cover for prejudice.