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50 years of caring

Fifty years ago, a couple of people from the East showed up in Fargo on a mission: to check out the St. Joseph School of Nursing to see if it deserved national accreditation.

Char Henning

Fifty years ago, a couple of people from the East showed up in Fargo on a mission: to check out the St. Joseph School of Nursing to see if it deserved national accreditation.

Originally called the St. John's Hospital School of Nursing, it had been founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1901. It underwent many changes and considerable growth and so in 1955, it took the plunge and applied for national accreditation.

It took work. Lots of work. But then, nurses are used to that. So school officials dug in and provided extensive documentation of all aspects of the curriculum.

Then it was time for the big test: the arrival of the surveyors from the National League of Nursing.

Sister Marie de Paul Rochester, now of St. Paul, was the school's director then. When the school's graduating class of 1955 held its 50th reunion last year, a letter she wrote concerning that visit was read.


The surveyors arrived in February 1956 and, Sister Marie wrote, they were "amazed that people and health care facilities could exist in a place of below zero temperatures where the snowbanks were three feet high. They had their pictures taken in front of the snowbanks to show their friends back East what a winter looked like in North Dakota."

Well, they did other things besides look at the snow. They checked documents, visited the school's three sites and talked to faculty members and students.

Then, with the examination completed and the surveyors off to report their findings, all anyone at the school could do was anxiously wait and wonder: Would it gain accreditation or not?


The 1955 class reunion was held in September at the Holiday Inn in Fargo. Of the 32 graduates, 25 attended.

The women had entered school Sept. 14, 1952, at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. They took most of their training at St. John's Hospital in Fargo and graduated three years later.

They probably were thinking more about gaining jobs then they were about becoming grandparents someday. Yet, the 28 who provided information about themselves - while busy as nurses and volunteers in their communities - also were busy at home, raising a collective 122 children, who in turn gave the women 198 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

The reunion included a banquet, a Mass in the chapel at the old St. John's Hospital, tours and talk of future reunions.


One of graduates, Char Henning of Fargo, talked about the days when you had to be 21 to become a registered nurse; when it took only three years to become an R.N.; and when all nurses wore white uniforms and caps.

But it was their nursing school days which dominated conversations: talk of meeting new friends at Davis Hall at UND, of classes, partying, long hours of floor duties, studying, praying, worrying - and the thrill of receiving their first caps.


In 1900, Bishop John Shanley of Fargo invited the Sisters of St. Joseph to open a hospital in the city. Six sisters came, turning the bishop's former residence into St. John's, with space for 15 patients. The school opened the next year, becoming the first school of nursing in North Dakota. In 1905, it graduated its first two students.

Sister Marie's report said most patients treated in St. John's first years had acute appendicitis, typhoid, pneumonia and alcoholism.

The sisters also founded St. Michael's Hospital in Grand Forks in 1907, bought Trinity Hospital in Jamestown, N.D., and founded nursing schools in those cities, eventually uniting them as St. Joseph's School of Nursing.

The school's headquarters moved to Grand Forks in 1952 to allow students to attend UND and get college credit.

The school's enrollment grew at first, but it declined in the 1960s. As more and more women chose the four-year program for a bachelor's degree in nursing, Sister Marie wrote, the decision was made to close the school in 1971.


However, Sister Marie wrote to the class of '55, "From those two graduates in 1905 to the present, we have a great heritage. All of you, the nurse graduates, the sisters and the faculty began a tradition of caring that continues in different ways, in different places all over the world. We thank God that we are part of that tradition."


That tradition hit a high point on June 29, 1956, when the Sisters of St. Joseph School of Nursing of North Dakota learned it had been fully accredited, the first nursing school in the state to receive that rating, placing it among the top 25 percent of schools of nursing in the country.

And it did it despite subzero temperatures and 3-foot-high snowbanks.

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, N.D. 58107; fax it to 241-5487; or e-mail blind@forumcomm.com

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