By LEIGH C. MERRIFIELD
News & Journal Editor
It is fairly common for former graduates of colleges and universities around the country to form alumni groups that serve as an avenue for networking and mentoring; they also identify ways to help their alma mater with funding. But what happens when a school no longer exists?
Such was the case in Clarksburg this month when alumni of St. Mary’s School of Nursing gathered to dedicate a medallion to commemorate their school. That same pride was glowing – a shining example of their dedication to the school that sent them out into the world as nursing professionals.
Certainly, many people in the area are familiar with the important role that St. Mary’s Hospital played in the Clarksburg area. This was before it became known as Union Protestant Hospital – and later United Hospital Center. Although it has been many years since St. Mary’s Hospital was operational, both it, as well as its training center for nurses, have a long history.
It was more than a century ago when St. Mary’s School of Nursing was opened by the Sisters of St. Joseph, and for more than 50 years, it was dedicated to educating well-trained nurses. The first class graduated in 1908, and upon its closure in 1969, nurses graduating totaled 960.
During its several decades, Jane McWhorter Lewis recalls, there were no dormitory accommodations for St. Mary’s nursing students. They either lived in private homes in the area or stayed in the upstairs of the hospital.
“I experienced both,” Lewis noted. “DeSalles Hall was built in 1948, so during my final year at St. Mary’s, I was part of the very first class to live in this new, very modern building, which served both to house student nurses and to provide classroom space.”
She compared her experience of transitioning into that new six-story brick building to moving into the Walfdorf Astoria! Students had small private rooms, a big shower room, kitchen, bathrooms on every floor, small visiting rooms … with even a baby grand piano in the first floor living room. It was certainly a convenience and a step up for area student nurses.
This residence/classroom structure was named DeSalles Hall in honor of Sister Mary DeSalles who was administrator of St. Mary’s Hospital for 22 years but who passed away before the new construction was completed.
Another St. Mary’s nursing graduate, Judy Peasak, said that prior to DeSalles Hall’s opening, nursing alumnae sold tickets on a car and used those proceeds to buy equipment for the science laboratory. They also waxed the furniture and floors prior to its opening so that it was immaculate.
Peasak noted that upon entering the front door of the School of Nursing, a medallion hung over the outside entry door. The medallion was a concrete replica of the nurses’ pin, and the new building was a source of pride in Clarksburg!
DeSalles Hall stood on what is now the campus of FSU’s Gaston Caperton Center. When it was razed, another former St. Mary’s nursing student, Phyllis McCloud Sembella, purchased the medallion – not knowing what in the world she would do with it. Sembella’s sister Betty Maxwell, another St. Mary’s grad, later stored it on her farm. After years of dust collection but still in excellent condition, some of the nursing alumnae decided it was only right to return the medallion to its original home, and Fairmont State University was contacted. Leaders there agreed to preserving this part of nursing history from St. Mary’s and as of November 2, 2015, the medallion now rests on the lawn of the Caperton Center campus in Clarksburg – the site its original ‘home’.
St. Mary’s School of Nursing’s history is more than its 50+ year longevity. It was the first school in the state of West Virginia and one of the first in the nation to admit an African American student in 1949 – a courageous action at that time, according to Peasak. St. Mary’s also became the first nationally accredited School of Nursing in West Virginia in 1957. AND that same year, St. Mary’s also became the first school of nursing to accept a male student. That student was Donald Newlon, a well-known nurse and anesthetist who practiced in the Clarksburg area for many years.
Peasak said that St. Mary’s nurses played a significant role during times of conflict in the U.S. during its time too. According to a book (The History of St Mary’s Hospital) written by Kathleen Cullinan McGee, one of the school’s long-serving instructors, St. Mary’s nurses served during World War I and II. What was called “St. Mary’s Hospital Unit” was formed during World War II. Comprised of doctors and nurses from St. Mary’s under the leadership of Dr. Fred Fisher, this unit served in the North African, the Italian, and the South Pacific campaigns. A total of 90 nurses, all graduates of St. Mary’s School of Nursing, served in this as well as other war-time units.
“The dedication of this monument commemorates one of the most outstanding nursing programs in West Virginia,” Peasak concluded. “St. Mary’s was a three-year program with very intense clinical training, and it supplied many skillful nurses in this area … nurses who proudly fulfilled the Florence Nightingale Pledge to faithfully and compassionately devote themselves to the welfare of those committed to their care.”
To this day, there is still an alumnae group of St. Mary’s School of Nursing that meets regularly, and some of the graduates from this program are still nurses actively practicing in the profession.