By Celine Klosterman
IOWA CITY – Forty years after the last nurses received diplomas from the Mercy School of Nursing, an alumni organization will hold its final gathering.
Four hundred invitations have gone out for a June 23 reunion at Mercy Iowa City, where retired and active nurses will hear how the hospital has changed over the years and connect with former classmates.
For Shari Hebl and Mary Kay Wissink, who have led the alumni organization for 25 years, disbanding is bittersweet. But graduates are aging and finding it harder to attend annual reunions, the women said.
The organization’s gatherings, which bring together different generations of nurses, have offered attendees perspective on the evolution of health care. “It was always fun to talk to the older nurses when I was younger and hear how different things used to be,” said Wissink, who is retired after working at Mercy for more than 40 years.
Technology and mechanization have modernized the ministry of nursing. But “I think the nurse is still the loving, caring person who helps make things understandable to patients and their families,” she said.
A member of St. Mary Parish in Iowa City, Wissink graduated from Mercy School of Nursing in 1963.
She said Catholic students were required to attend daily Mass in a Mercy chapel, and their relatively few non-Catholic classmates were invited to join them. Hebl, who graduated in 1972, recalled taking turns with fellow Catholic students in waking at 4 a.m. to accompany a priest bringing Communion to patients. When he walked through the halls with the Eucharist, the nurses would step aside and fold their hands, Hebl said. “It was interesting to see the respect the hospital staff had.”
Religion and ethics lessons were part of students’ training. “I think it was impressed upon us that you cared for the whole patient, regardless of who he or she was,” Wissink said.
She recalled that Sisters of Mercy taught all her classes. Hebl, who graduated nine years after Wissink, recalled having all lay teachers.
“I think all of us felt the instructors cared and wanted to help us do our best,” said Hebl, a member of St. Bernadette Parish in West Branch.
She began work at Mercy Iowa City in obstetrics in 1979 and retired in May. “I liked the size of the hospital. There was a family atmosphere,” she said.
Wissink feels especially close to her former classmates, who have gotten together every five years in addition to attending annual reunions for graduates of all generations. “We were a family,” she said.
History of nursing school
Mercy School of Nursing was established in 1880 as an informal apprentice program, according to “From Obscurity to Distinction: The Story of Mercy Hospital, Iowa City 1873-1993” by Sister Mary Brigid Condon, RSM. A formal, three-year program was launched in 1911, and eight Sisters of Mercy received the first diplomas in 1914.
Eventually, the American Nurses Association stated that institutions of higher learning, not hospitals, should educate nurses. The Chicago Province of the Sisters of Mercy decided in the 1960s to support that position, and the Mercy School of Nursing graduated its final 18 students in 1972.
In all, the school educated 900 nurses, according to “From Obscurity to Distinction.”