Cabrini Nursing School graduates hold final reunion

  • Written by Susan Gilmore
  • Published in Local
In this undated photo, a class at gathers on the steps of their home at Columbus Hospital School of Nursing. The hospital on Seattle’s First Hill was renamed St. Cabrini Hospital in 1958, in honor of its foundress, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first American citizen to be canonized. Photo: Courtesy Helen Lebel-Edmons In this undated photo, a class at gathers on the steps of their home at Columbus Hospital School of Nursing. The hospital on Seattle’s First Hill was renamed St. Cabrini Hospital in 1958, in honor of its foundress, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first American citizen to be canonized. Photo: Courtesy Helen Lebel-Edmons

SEATTLE – They lived in dormitories in the old St. Cabrini Hospital, these aspiring nurses who would finish their training and bring their skills, and their Catholic faith, to hospitals around the world.

Cabrini nursing grad
Mary Guss was the oldest alum of Columbus/Cabrini Nursing School who attended the recent all-class reunion luncheon. Guss graduated 64 years ago. Photo: Courtesy Helen Lebel-Edmons

“Taking care of people and serving people was the way classes were taught and I think it made a difference in how we treated patients,” said Helen Lebel-Edmons, who graduated from the Columbus/Cabrini Hospital School of Nursing in 1964. “The first time a person died, I was the only one there and I prayed for that person.”

Established in 1919, the school on Seattle’s First Hill graduated about 700 registered nurses before closing in 1968. Alumnae gathered for their final all-class reunion May 20 to share memories of their classmates and the nuns who trained them. 

The nurses learned to care for patients through their Catholic faith, said Sister Arlene Van Dusen of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (nicknamed the Cabrini Sisters), who worked at St. Cabrini Hospital from 1980-90. 

“It was how you look at the patient as a whole, with a bent leading to spirituality,” she said. “We sat and spoke with a patient, and that made a difference. Our hospital was small compared to Swedish and Virginia Mason, but that was a blessing.”

Cabrini nursing grads todayClass of 1963 Cabrini Nursing School alumnae Sharon (Webb) Bleha and Jean (White) Looy showed up for their recent reunion in their original student nurse uniforms. Photo: Courtesy Helen Lebel-Edmons

According to a history of the nursing school, Columbus Sanitarium/Hospital was established in 1916 by Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini. After a new wing was built in 1958, the name was changed to St. Cabrini Hospital in honor of her, the first American to be canonized (see box).

“I thought it was the best place to go for nurse’s training,” said Sharon Bleha, a 1963 graduate who is a member of St. Mary of the Valley Parish in Monroe. “Being Catholic made a difference,” she said. “A friend of my mother’s said, ‘Of course you’re going to Cabrini.’”

The school welcomed non-Catholic students as well, and some students were following their mothers’ footsteps into nursing.

Cabrini nursing graduates 1964
The 1964 graduation class of Cabrini Nursing School. Photo: Courtesy Helen Lebel-Edmons

Sherron Cameron Scott graduated in 1962, 31 years after her mother, Marguerite Lagor Cameron, graduated from Cabrini. The classes were tough, Scott said: The first year was spent taking science classes at Seattle University. Then students spent three months learning psychiatric care at Western State Hospital in Lakewood and three months in pediatrics in Vancouver, British Columbia. “There was so much hands-on care,” Scott said. When they finished their studies, they received a diploma and became registered nurses.

Lebel-Edmons, a member of St. Mary Parish in Anacortes, is also a second-generation alum of the nursing school: Her mother, Kathryn Hetrich Lebel, graduated in 1929. Lebel-Edmons remembers beginning each day with prayers in the hospital chapel, along with the nuns who lived in what once was the Perry Hotel. Later, she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing and served in the Navy for 20 years.

Shirley Oczkewicz, the class of 1967 valedictorian, also remembers the Cabrini chapel, where the nursing students wore their uniforms, including capes and caps, for Mass.

The first gathering of Cabrini nursing alumni was held in 1921. Bleha said she loves the annual reunions and, although they take a lot of work to pull off, she will miss them. 

“I really find it inspirational to hear from other alumni,” Bleha said, noting that one graduate in her late 80s still works at a military hospital in Germany. “We all have lovely stories and were well prepared,” she said, “and spirituality carried a lot of us to a lot of places.”

Who was Mother Cabrini?

Francesca Saviero Cabrini, born in 1850 in Italy, founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart and came to the U.S. in 1889 as a missionary to Italian immigrants. 

Mother Cabrini traveled throughout the U.S. and to Europe and Central and South America. She established 67 institutions — schools, hospitals and orphanages — before her death at age 67 in 1917.

In 1903, Mother Cabrini and members of her order had arrived in Seattle, where they founded an orphanage and school on Beacon Hill. While in Seattle, Mother Cabrini became a U.S. citizen in 1909. Although she left to tackle challenges in other cities, Mother Cabrini returned to Seattle twice more: in 1913 to find a new location for the orphanage and school (now Villa Academy in the Laurelhurst neighborhood) and in 1915, when she purchased the Perry Hotel on First Hill with the intent of opening a hospital. When Mother Cabrini left Seattle in November 1916, she was already very ill. 

Two years after her death, Columbus Sanitarium (later Columbus Hospital) opened in 1919. After she was canonized in 1946 by Pope Pius XII, the hospital’s name was changed to St. Cabrini Hospital in her honor.

One of the miracles attributed to St. Frances Cabrini happened in Seattle in 1925. Missionary Sister Delfina Grazioli, 34, was seriously ill, barely able to move. One night she saw Mother Cabrini standing by her. “She shook her finger at me, just like she always did, and said: ‘I’m going to send you to work.’ Then she smiled and disappeared,” Sister Delfina wrote. After that vision, Sister Delfina was cured and worked for 40 more years. 

Sources: Archdiocese of Seattle, The Catholic Northwest Progress, St. James Cathedral, Villa Academy, www.mothercabrini.org