Steven Geis’ childhood memories contain an unlikely mix of hijinks and hospice.
The fourth of five children, Geis’ mother Dorothy was a nursing professor and his father LeRoy was a family physician who began seeing dying patients in 1967 at the Our Lady of Good Counsel hospice, just off Interstate 94 in the St. Paul’s Merriam Park neighborhood. . Dr. Geis regularly invited some of his children to join him as she made the rounds to visit patients in their final days.
The hospice, now known as Our Lady of Peace Home, opened its doors 80 years ago this December in a converted Tri-State Telephone Co. building. November 7, 1941 – just as Pearl Harbor was attacked 4,000 miles away, launching the United States into World War II.
About 40 years later, Steven Geis went to hospice with his father.
“I remember the tile floors left from the old telephone building and the open patient corridors that were screened off with curtains,” recalls Geis, 51, of Woodbury, now principal of North Trail Elementary School in Farmington. “There was a nun named Sister Imelda who would roller skate down the halls and we would giggle and slide on those tile floors.”
That fun “came to a halt one day when one of us cut a patient’s catheter bag,” Geis said. “It didn’t hurt the patient, but made a mess.”
Tuesday at 5pm, Our Lady of Peace will commemorate her 80th anniversary with a candle-lighting ceremony. Stars and angels are lit up on the building in memory of the more than 25,000 people who have died there since 1941.
“Nobody called it a hospice back then,” says Geis, reportedly the house’s longest-running volunteer. “The sisters were originally known as Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer.”
Founded to help dying cancer patients who had no financial means, the current 21-bed hospice now cares for all terminally ill people of every ethnic and religious background with no more than what Medicare covers. Donations offset much of the cost.
Geis’ father once said that the hospice was “closest to heaven on earth.” He and Dorothy believed in giving first-hand experiences to their children in end-of-life care.
“They taught us that dying should not be hidden because death is part of life’s journey,” said Steven Geis. “They brought us and we held patients’ hands, rolled the piano to different places for music on vacations, and were present during people’s final stages.”
Sister Joan Marie Cheuvront, who served at the facility in the early 2000s, said the Geises “were like family to us and came all the time” — including once when Steven’s brother, David, brought a buffalo from his farm. in southwestern Minnesota. The sisters, in turn, would visit the family’s St. Paul home for special events such as graduation parties.
Unlike many Catholics who give up during Lent, the Geises would spend their time around the house, often washing dishes and serving meals. Steven’s sister, Juliann Geis of St. Paul, continues to volunteer and donate floral arrangements, while Steven answers the phones and visits patients every Sunday. The oldest of Steven’s four children, Faith Imelda took her middle name from that roller-skating nun.
“They always had a sandwich waiting for our father,” Geis said. “As kids, we were always in awe of how much meat they piled on those sandwiches.”
The story of the hospice dates back to 1900 and Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, the daughter of 19th-century American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. She nursed cancer patients in New York City in the late 1800s before founding the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, an order she led as Mother Mary Alphonsa. When “Mother Rose” died in 1926 at age 75, she was hailed for her work helping the poor, the sick, and the dying, and is now considered a saint in the Catholic Church.
The St. Paul Hospice was the far west of the seven Hawthorne Sisters care centers. The order replaced the telephone building with a new one in 1981, expanded services to home care in 2001, and transferred control to the Franciscan Health Community in 2009.
And it all started in front of the St. Paul hospice on December 7, 1941, an otherwise infamous date. Raymond Wey, 88, attended an open house at the hospice center that day with his parents and grandmother.
“They dragged me along and I remember people walking around and listening to the radio as the news from Hawaii took over the day,” said Wey, a former priest and director of Catholic Charities. He visited terminally ill patients in hospice as a seminary student in the 1950s.
“We used to call it the cancer at home and it took in the people that no one else wanted or those who couldn’t afford to pay,” Wey said. “It still carries out that same mission and gets little attention, but eventually gives people some peace of mind.”
Curt Brown’s stories of Minnesota history appear every Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at Minnesota in 1918, when flu, war, and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.