A question of faith

Man raises issue of Catholic symbolism in public hospital; agreement with sisters of Mercy expires in 2015

Barb Sweet bsweet@thetelegram.com
Published on August 10, 2013

A metro man has raised concerns with Eastern Health and the Sisters of Mercy religious order about Catholic symbols at St. Clare’s Mercy Hospital.

Terry Loder said while visiting a patient at the St. John’s hospital, he encountered an elderly woman from rural Newfoundland who seemed uncomfortable with the symbols, as she isn’t Catholic.

The comment from the woman prompted Loder to take note of the symbols around the hospital. They include crucifixes in various locations, including clinic areas, and a statue of St. Clare in the lobby waiting area.

Loder, who has raised his concerns with Eastern Health and has also met with officials from the Sisters of Mercy, including congregational leader Sister Elizabeth Davis, told The Telegram he will wait to see what happens when the agreement between the Sisters and the provincial government ends. The Telegram obtained that agreement — which expires in 2015 — from the Department of Health and showed it to Loder.

“I’m coming from it that in this day and age they should be a little more inclusive, because it is a public facility,” Loder said. “I learned a lot. I didn’t know there was such an agreement.”

He said he understands the heritage of the Sisters, who established St. Clare’s.

Loder also acknowledged that the Sisters say they’ve received comments from people who find the symbols comforting.

“I don’t doubt that to be very valid, but you are probably not going to get comforting comments from people who are not of that faith,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Eastern Health told The Telegram there have been no discussions about future plans to remove religious symbols at St. Clare’s Mercy Hospital once the memorandum of understanding with the Sisters of Mercy expires.

Loder said he’s hoping to prompt a discussion about what should take place at the hospital once the agreement ends.

“I want this changed and I am prepared to go through routes,” Loder said.

“Across the country, hospitals are making accommodations for people of all faiths.”

Davis said the Sisters and the

St. Clare’s Advisory Council, which includes laypeople, are only beginning to discuss whether there is a desire to extend the agreement so the order can continue to be involved with the hospital.

“We’ve just begun to talk among ourselves what the possibilities might be,” Davis said, adding there have been no talks with government or Eastern Health.

“We have a good year and a half to plan.”

Davis said the Sisters have to decide whether there is value to the hospital and patients if they were to continue their involvement. She said the desire to have them stay involved was made clear by patients and staff 18 years ago.

There are two Sisters on staff at St. Clare’s and there are Sisters who are volunteers, mainly in pastoral care.

Davis is a former executive director of St. Clare’s Hospital who went on to become CEO of the Health Care Corp. of St. John’s, which has been superseded by Eastern Health.

She said the discussions years ago about regionalizing health care between voluntary hospitals and governments across the country were difficult.

But Davis said the Sisters wanted a more co-operative process with this province’s government. The agreement was signed in December 1994.

As part of the deal, 19 annual payments of $750,000 have been made to the order, with the 20th and last due on April 1, 2014.

The 20-year agreement also guaranteed that all “physical characteristics of St. Clare’s that reflect its association with the Sisters of Mercy” would remain.

Among the principles of the Sisters attached to the agreement is the banning of abortion at the hospital. The agreement also bans sterilization for the purpose of birth control.

Government also owns the convent attached to St. Clare’s, where five sisters live. They would remain if the agreement is renegotiated.

Davis said the Sisters have to also consider whether they have enough members to continue their work in the hospital — as of this week the order has 109 members, nine of whom are doing service in Peru.

The Sisters founded St. Clare’s Hospital in the 1920s. It wasn’t until the advent of Medicare that government began funding health services there, Davis noted.

As for the statue of St. Clare, an Italian saint, Davis said she had it brought up from the basement in the 1990s as a symbol to celebrate women’s contributions to society through the ages. There are a number of hospitals named for St. Clare in North America.

Davis noted Loder has suggested that the order provide some information about St. Clare of Assisi’s history.

Davis said the Sisters have been open to all religions and were among the first to bring in other religious groups to talk about pastoral care. This past year, she said, the pastoral care division at

St. Clare’s developed a book of prayers that contains not only Christian prayers, but prayers from other faiths including from the Muslim, Jewish and Baha’i traditions.

“We want every person who comes to St. Clare’s as a patient or a family member of a patient to have a resource they can use, especially when a person is dying or is very, very ill; that there is something there from their own tradition that can bring them comfort and solace at a time like that,” she said.

Davis said she told Loder she will talk to pastoral care personnel and the advisory council about continuing to ensure that other faiths are considered.

“What religion you are is immaterial. What is important is when you are most vulnerable, or your loved one is most vulnerable — that they have access to whatever resource they need — medical care yes, nursing resource yes, but also spiritual care if that’s what they need,” Davis said.