Sister Sarah was minding the visitor’s desk at the hospital when a women entered, looking distressed. When the woman asked for the emergency department, Sister Sarah called up to Labor and Delivery and asked a doctor to meet the woman upstairs.
Doctors told Sister Sarah that if the woman had not received immediate attention from a physician, she might have had a stroke or died. Sister Sarah was able to get the woman the treatment she needed, and the woman gave birth to a healthy baby about a week later.
“I had an inborn ability to respond with great insight to emergency situations,” she explains. That earnestness to promote the health of children, to protect the future generations of our community, is a thread that ties together not only Sister Sarah’s story, but the story of The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio.
Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word Unofficial Chronologist Sister Sarah Lennon stands for a portrait at The Children's Hospital of San Antonio on November 11, 2018. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
In addition to volunteering, Sister Sarah Lennon is the unofficial chronologist of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word. She has been at The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio since the late 1950s, when it was known as Santa Rosa Hospital. She emigrated here from her birthplace in Northern Ireland to become a part of the order. Ever since she was a young girl, she had wanted to be a part of a religious mission.
Soon after arriving, she learned that her passion was taking care of babies and expectant mothers. Alongside her religious education, she studied nursing at Incarnate Word College (now The University of the Incarnate Word), and earned her Master’s in Maternal Health and Midwifery from Catholic University in Washington.
Holding degrees and doctorates is common in the order, Sister Sarah explains. This may stem from the origins of the Sisters of Charity back in the mid-19th Century. In 1869, three French nuns came to San Antonio to treat those suffering from an outbreak of cholera, moved to action by the words of their Bishop: “Our Lord Jesus Christ suffering in the persons of the sick and infirm seeks relief at your hands.”
These sisters relied on local physicians in the early years to learn English and the practice of medicine. From this, they gained the foresight to encourage medical as well as religious education in their order. This benefited their rapidly expanding operations in San Antonio.
Within the first few years, they outgrew their original adobe house and set up an infirmary where the current Children’s Hospital is located, naming it “Santa Rosa Infirmary” after the first American Saint: Rose of Lima. “Her mission was to care for the poor and the sick,” recounts Sister Sarah, explaining why it made sense to dedicate the institution to her.
On October 21, 1869, three young French nuns took possession of a two-story adobe structure on the corner of Commerce and Cameron Streets. That building became known as the Santa Rosa Infirmary, San Antonio’s first hospital. Courtesy of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word
St. John’s Orphanage was home to nearly 100 boys. Fire broke out in the orphanage located at the corner of San Saba and Houston Streets on October 30, 1912. Five sisters died in the fire rescuing as many boys as they could. Three boys perished in the fire while 89 survived. Courtesy of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word
From early on, that mission also extended to the children. With many children losing their parents as a result of disease. The sisters created St. Joseph’s Orphanage for girls and St. John’s Orphanage for boys on the campus of Santa Rosa Infirmary. The orphanage we know today as St. PJ’s Children’s Home.
“The mission to extend the healing ministry of Jesus Christ has remained the same as the day it was established,” notes Sister Sarah, who has witnessed the evolution of the campus over the years, guided in part by changes she helped implement.
She introduced Lamaze classes to the hospital in 1972, the first in San Antonio. She felt that fathers should be a part of the birthing process. That same year, she worked with pediatricians in creating the city’s first Neonatal Nursery.
In 1999, The Sisters of Charity in San Antonio joined with the Sisters of Charity in Houston, who had founded their own medical institution, to create CHRISTUS Health System. Today, CHRISTUS Health operates in four U.S. states and four different countries.
In 2012, The Sisters of Charity and CHRISTUS Health agreed to transform CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Hospital – City Centre into The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio. “We agreed that the city desperately needed a freestanding children’s hospital,” Sister Sarah says of the change. It could be said that this transformation was the realization of a plea from Mother Superior Robert O’Dea of the Sisters of Charity in 1918: “It is my dream that one day, the children of San Antonio will have their own special hospital.”
Through it all, the connections with patients, families, doctors, and staff were what kept Sister Sarah working at the Children’s Hospital. Though she is retired now, that has not kept her from returning. “I love this campus and that’s why I come back here as a volunteer,” she explains. These days, she helps direct guests and answer calls, but her training, as a nurse has never really left her, as evidenced by a recent encounter she had while volunteering.
The Children's Hospital as seen from the UTSA Downtown Campus rooftop. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
Top image: The Children's Hospital in Downtown San Antonio as seen from UTSA Downtown campus rooftop. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
Read Part 2 of this story here.