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Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: The Notre Dame nursing school fostered excellence and compassion

September 16. 2013 6:27PM

The Notre Dame de Lourdes Hospital in Manchester (now Catholic Medical Center) was founded by the Sisters of Charity of St.-Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada, under the auspices of St. Marie's Parish and with the guidance and support of its pastor, Monsignor Pierre-Paul Hévey. The hospital opened in October 1894.

The Grey Nuns, as they were called, established high standards for their facility, and Notre Dame Hospital gained a stellar reputation for delivering excellent health care with charity and compassion. The hospital served all patients, without regard to religion, race or status in society.

Seeing the need to train the next generation of skilled nurses, the Grey Nuns formed the Notre Dame de Lourdes Hospital School of Nursing in 1911. The former girls' orphanage for St. Marie's Parish, located south of the hospital building, was converted into a dormitory for the nursing students. In 1930, an annex was constructed to connect the two buildings.

The nursing school was small, with only around 20-40 students enrolled at any time. It was very selective — only a small percentage of applicants made the cut. To be considered, an applicant must have graduated in the upper half of her class, with grades of 85 percent or more in American hstory, English and mathematics.

She needed to pass an aptitude test, and participate in an interview. She was also required to provide personal references in regards to her moral character. The school would consider women from 17 to 35 years of age. Although married women were discouraged from applying, they would be considered on a case-by-case basis, and at least one man was admitted into the program.

The school's curriculum started as a two-year course, and eventually became a three-year accredited program. Experienced lay nurses worked alongside the Grey Nuns as instructors. According to a promotional brochure from the 1950s, "The curriculum is carefully planned to give the student the opportunity to develop the necessary skills and knowledge to succeed in all fields of Nursing; to guide her in her spiritual, intellectual and professional growth in order that she may function effectively in the nursing profession and society."

The graduates were eligible to take the state exam to become registered nurses.

In the 1950s tuition was $150 per year, with additional fees for books, uniforms, and activities amounting to an additional $200. New students had to undergo medical and dental exams and be immunized against diphtheria, smallpox, scarlet fever and typhoid. The incoming student nurse was given a list of personal items that she needed to bring with her from home, including hairnets, a small alarm clock, white stockings and shoes, "a good supply of plain underclothing," a hot water bag, "a girdle, band or corset to be worn on duty," loose-leaf binders, a watch with a second hand, and an umbrella.

The Catholic students were encouraged to participate in daily Mass and other religious services in the hospital chapel and to join retreats sponsored by a local religious organization, the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Non-Catholic students were asked to attend the group prayer session that was held for students each morning, though this was not mandatory.

The Grey Nuns and other teachers cultivated a respectful intellectual atmosphere throughout the school. The students had to observe a long list of rules. For example, they were required to rise and remain silent when an instructor entered or left a room. Classrooms needed to be kept tidy, and loud talking, running and other disruptions were forbidden. School life involved about 40 hours of work a week divided between classes and practical experience.

Part of the student's education was her rotation through the various departments of Notre Dame Hospital where she was able to learn "on the job." This included apprentice work in the operating room, in the "diet kitchen" (dietetics), in geriatrics, and in obstetrics.

A student could stay out late one night a week, and could also spend one overnight away from school, plus she had a four-week vacation each year. In her spare time, a student could partake of a variety of social activities organized by a student-faculty committee. In the 1950s, the offerings included, "…parties, dances and outdoor activities such as wienie roasts…"

Next week: Concluding the story of the Notre Dame de Lourdes School of Nursing..

Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at

History Manchester

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