Reminisce: Generations of patient care from the St. Rita’s School of Nursing

LIMA — In May 1971, about 450 alumni from 14 states gathered in Lima for the 50th and final anniversary of the first graduating class of St. Rita’s School of Nursing.

Twenty years later, some of the same alumni returned to mark the 70th anniversary of that first graduation ceremony and to reminisce about the rigors and rewards of their own days in the school.

“When students entered training, they were put on a three-month probationary period,” The Lima News wrote in August 1991. “Once completed, the nurses received their caps.” And that was just the beginning.

“For three years the students lived with the discipline of long hours, intensive study and dorm life,” the newspaper added.

The returning alumni, however, also recalled the good times.

“When tales are told,” The Lima News wrote, “the graduates will tell about sneaking out of the dorm, or sneaking back in before getting caught” by the ever watchful nuns. “The hours are why Mrs. Chase came so often,” an anonymous alumna told The Lima News, explaining that Mrs. Chase “was a blonde dummy who slept in many a bed while the student nurses stayed out late.”

Thirty years after the 1991 reunion, on an autumn day in 2021, some alumni returned for one last visit to the place where their careers began, a seven-story building just south of Mercy Health in the 700 block of West Market Street.

Known in recent years as the 718 Building, it was converted into physician offices, conference space and a hospitality house after the nursing school closed. Soon it will be gone, the space used for future Mercy Health Expansion projects. Demolition of the building began this summer.

St. Rita’s School of Nursing opened in 1918, the same year St. Rita’s Hospital opened its doors. Interestingly, the first baby born at St. Rita’s, Rita Ruth Simmons, who was born in January 1919 and was named after the hospital, graduated from nursing school in May 1941, though from Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati, not St. Rita’s.

The St. Rita’s nursing program took three years to complete, and in 1921 the first class of five women were graduated. The Lima Republican-Gazette, writing in May 1921 about the school’s first commencement in the Knights of Columbus Hall, noted that the school had “made phenomenal strides since its inception … About thirty pupils are now undergoing training in various classes.”

A lot of subjects were crammed into those three years of training. “Early records show that graduates were trained in gynecology, surgery, obstetrics, pediatrics, dietetics, medicine, hygiene, communicable diseases, urology, eye, ear, nose and throat, psychiatry and laboratory procedures,” The Lima News wrote in a September 1996 story.

“Registration for the program was open to women from 17 to 35 years old. Selection was based on their high school records, personality reports, medical records, interviews, written records and testing,” the News explained. “Once enrolled a woman could not marry until the second half of her senior year.”

Like the later graduates, those who attended the school in those early years recalled the strict discipline in a book of memories, now housed with the Allen County Historical Society. One 1920s graduate wrote: “Sisters Miriam and Mary Irene. They were strict teachers; you had to work hard and do things right. But you knew nursing after three years.”

A 1934 graduate, meanwhile, remembered: “Sister Loyola’s nightly visits to check out the dorm to see if we were all in bed with the lights out.” A graduate from 1947 recalled, “Being met by Sister Miriam at chapel door each morning and having Sister check the length of my uniform. She liked them long and I preferred shorter.”

In 1928, St. Rita’s purchased property on North Baxter Street, just east of the hospital.

“The newly acquired property … is a three-story, 10-room home and will be used to house the nurses who now live in the annex, a small house adjacent to the hospital,” the Lima Morning Star & Republican-Gazette reported March 24, 1928. “The sisters who now have living quarters in the north wing of the hospital will move into the annex, thus providing additional space for patients.”

Additional space was needed as well for training nurses as “the number increased with each class” so that by August 1928 more than 190 students were enrolled, according to The Lima News.

Known as Lourdes Hall, the Baxter Street building “was the first of seven buildings that would eventually house more than 700 young women entering St. Rita’s Hospital School of Nursing,” The Lima News wrote in May 1958. Other homes for students and classes were St. Ann’s, Baxter, McAuley Hall, named after Mother Mary Catherine McAuley, the Irish nun who established the Sisters of Mercy, St. Catherine’s, St. Joseph’s, St. Patrick’s, Mercy Hall and Marian Hall.

Lourdes Hall, with accommodations for 34 students, a living room, library and the home restaurant, served as the headquarters of St. Rita’s School of Nursing until 1958 when it was demolished to make room for a new hospital wing.

“Before razing operations began,” The Lima News wrote May 2, 1958, “the Sisters made a last visit to the deserted, ghost-like home. In the attic, they picked up the first set of rules that were used as a reminder to guide students in ‘residence life.’ They were typed and framed and hung on the wall, a contrast, the Sisters note, to the present individual student Handbook of Regulations.”

Ground was broken for a new school of nursing on Oct. 21, 1959. “The new home will face on West Market Street and will provide housing for 135 student nurses. It will be seven stories high and will be built of cream-colored brick and concrete, harmonizing with the present hospital structure,” The Lima News reported in October 1959.

Less than two years later, the new school was dedicated. “More than $1 million was raised through community subscription in the area-wide campaign which began in late 1957,” the Lima Citizen wrote June 9, 1961.

The first floor of the new building contained classrooms, a science laboratory and staff offices, the Citizen wrote, noting that the new building was connected by tunnel to the main building of St. Rita’s on West High Street. The second floor was comprised of a lounge, two smaller lounge rooms, a mail room, a 200-seat auditorium and kitchen facilities. The five remaining floors contained student living quarters.

After only 10 years in the new building, the St. Rita’s School of Nursing as well as the even older Memorial Hospital School of Nursing, closed, their tasks assumed by the newly formed Lima Technical College, which became Rhodes State College. From the first small graduating class in 1921 to the class of 1971, which numbered 37, nearly 1,200 nurses were trained at St. Rita’s School of Nursing.


This feature is a cooperative effort between the newspaper and the Allen County Museum and Historical Society.


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Reach Greg Hoersten at [email protected]