The Olivetan Benedictine Sisters of Holy Angels Convent were recognized recently for the important role they have played in Arkansas. They were inducted into the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame.
The nonprofit Women’s Hall of Fame is a partnership between the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce and Arkansas Business Publishing Group. And this year’s honorees represent the third class of women inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The sisters were honored as a group, while nine individuals were inducted into the 2017 class of “amazing women who have impacted our state,” Hall of Fame Chairman Holly Fish said prior to the Aug. 24 dinner and induction.
Honorees were chosen by a selection committee from more than 100 formal nominations.
The sisters first came to this country from the Convent Maria Rickenbach in Swiss Alps, settling in a small Missouri town to establish a school. Four of them eventually moved to Arkansas when they were called on to establish a school in what then was an important river town, Pocahontas. But as the importance of river travel gave way to rail travel, the sisters moved to Jonesboro in 1898 renamed the convent Holy Angels.
Though their original mission was teaching, the sisters were called upon to help care for the sick during a malarial fever epidemic soon after relocating to Jonesboro and became convinced they should expand their mission beyond teaching. They purchased a two-story frame house on Matthews and turned it into a hospital, furnishing each of six rooms with a cot, a chair and an orange crate covered by a doily. They accepted their first patients on July 5, 1900.
The sisters prepared food from their garden in the convent kitchen and did laundry at the convent using tubs, washboards and homemade soap. Initially, local physicians instructed them on medical techniques.
From that humble beginning, St. Bernards has become the region’s leading provider of comprehensive, compassionate healthcare. A 438-bed hospital, it has the largest medical staff in the area and serves as a referral center for patients in 23 counties in Northeast Arkansas and Southeast Missouri, caring for the sickest of the sick. It is the only designated Level III trauma center in Northeast Arkansas and has the only Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in the entirety of Eastern Arkansas.
The sisters played key operational roles in the hospital from its inception. Early on, some went to nursing school to hone their healthcare skills, and eventually, they opened a nursing school at St. Bernards to train young women and strengthen the base of nurses available to deliver care. Those in the first class received diplomas in 1921.
Sisters served as hospital administrators until 1961, when the first lay administrator was hired. At the present time, the sisters serve in the medical center’s pastoral care department, visiting with patients daily and continue to provide guidance through roles on the governing board.
The founding sisters and more than 200 who have followed have created and nurtured St. Bernards to embody the characteristics of institutions that endure. The medical center currently is in its 117th year of service to the region based on its formal mission of “providing Christ-like healing to the community through education, treatment and health services.”
Because of the willingness of the sisters to answer a call to service, the lives of thousands upon thousands of people have been improved through the healthcare mission alone.
Many, many others have benefitted from education and other missions the sisters have undertaken. Education was their first calling, and sisters still teach in schools in Jonesboro, Little Rock and Muenster, Texas. They also provide assistance through ministry with Hispanic Community Services in Jonesboro, as well as through prison and other ministries.
“Their unwavering commitment and compassion to Northeast Arkansas has made a significant difference in the lives of individuals for 117 years,” said Chris Barber, president and chief executive officer of St. Bernards. “Without the sisters, our community would look completely different” from both a healthcare and economic standpoint.
Holy Angels Subprioress Sr. Therese Marie Kintzley accepted the award for the Olivetan Benedictine sisters at the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame induction dinner in Little Rock. On stage with her in the accompanying photo by the Arkansas Catholic are Hall of Fame Chairman Holly Fish (left) and Stephanie Verdaris, a Mount St. Mary student and one of five Girls of Distinction.