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Image of Student Nurses
Student nurses in the chapel at St. Paul's, 1969.
Seniors + Healthy Aging

Nurses: the beating heart of St. Paul’s for 125 years

by Kris Wallace


If you’ve ever been to St. Paul’s, you know that something special happens when you come through the doors…whether you’re a staff member, a volunteer, a patient, or a visitor. You become part of our 125-year legacy of compassion.

Perhaps no group better exemplifies this than our nurses past and present. No matter how long ago they trained or worked at St. Paul’s, they hold dear the memories of the patients, the camaraderie, and even the strictest nuns!

By the time the last class graduated in 1974, St. Paul’s School of Nursing had trained nearly 4,000 nurses. Women and men (starting in 1951) who made countless memories – and countless beds – on the path to helping scores of patients.

In their own words

The aim of the Sisters who came to St. Paul’s,
Was the care of the sick and the dying.
To help them accomplish this grand noble task,
Young ladies were gladly applying.

– “The Golden Years” by Sister Columkille (née Alice Lane Hamer)
Poet, Nun, St. Paul’s Superintendent of Nurses, 1938-1953

It was 1907 and the Sisters of Providence were overwhelmed and desperate for help. The hospital had 120 beds but only 11 nursing sisters. Never known to shy away from a challenge, the Sisters boldly decided to open their own a nursing school.

A call went out to women over 20 years of age, of strong character, and in good health. That same fall, 14 women pledged to uphold the school’s motto, “Enter to learn, go forth and do good.”

As St. Paul’s very special anniversary year draws to a close, we want to celebrate our extraordinary nurses. We asked a few of our Nursing School alumni to take us back to their early days as “probies” (first-year nurses in training). Their memories share a common thread of good humour, pride, and compassion – qualities that shine in our nurses to this day.

Irene DeGusseme
Class of 1953

I couldn’t wait to turn 18 so I could come to St. Paul’s. I came by train with my mom from Calgary. I met my roommate straight away, a Vancouver girl named Joan Perkins (née Swan). We’re still friends to this day.

We lived in the old, old part of the hospital. We could even hear mice rustling. Our room was tiny: just two beds and a sink. We used to climb up to the roof to sunbathe. Of course, if they had ever locked the door, we would have been stranded. Wouldn’t that have been a sight?

One of the first things we learned was how to make a bed. All these years later, I’m still making those hospital corners!

The hardest rotation was in orthopedics. They were mostly young men. And we were mostly young women. Because they were so bored, they would tease us. We didn’t mind the teasing, but it was just about impossible to make their beds! Those boys had their arms or legs in traction and no matter how hard you tried, you just couldn’t make a nice neat bed.

I loved every day of my training! I hope they bring back all of us Centurions for the opening of the new St. Paul’s Hospital!

Image of Irene DeGusseme
Irene in her graduation photo, Class of 1953, and in her kitchen sharing fond memories of training, bed-making, and shenanigans during her three years at St. Paul’s School of Nursing.

Valerie Dingwall
Class of 1968

I had a wonderful nursing career that all stemmed from St. Paul’s. I never got up a single morning where I thought, “Oh damn, I have to go to work.” Of course, we were green as grass when we started – some of us had never put a band aid on!

We had a class called “Nursing Arts,” because it really was an art back then. I was assigned to a patient named Mrs. Kiss and had to give her a bed bath to make her as comfortable as possible. The next day, I was called into Miss Galvin’s office. Yikes! She asked me how I thought I did. I said, “I think I did okay, but I guess that’s up to Mrs. Kiss.” Miss Galvin said, “Well, Mrs. Kiss thought you did fine, but you were so thorough, the poor thing was exhausted by the time you finished!”

Back then, the hospital was still run by the nuns and there was a degree of decorum that you wouldn’t necessarily have in a lay hospital. Yes, the sisters were strict, but there was so much genuine respect and the standard of care was unmatched. It was hard work but it was a magical time.

Joanne Bell
Class of 1968

In the early days of our training, we washed bed pans, rolled bandages, and mixed enemas. And every patient got a nightly back rub.

First year, we got a stipend of $6 per month. In second and third year, it went up to $8 and $10. During the week, we had a 10 PM curfew – midnight on Saturdays. It was kind of funny that we were saving lives during the day, but still had to be in by 10. Of course, some of the gals would stay out late. Because it was hard to sneak back after curfew, they’d casually walk in with the day staff the following morning!

It was wonderful to be a nurse at St. Paul’s and a nurse from St. Paul’s. My training laid the foundation for a wonderful career that included working at St. Paul’s in the surgical ward, in a doctors’ office, detox centre, home care, and hospice. We had a wonderful experience. I’m so blessed.

Maureen Cornes
Class of 1969

Our first meal in residence was liver and onions. Many of us phoned friends to take us out to White Spot that night!

I remember the amazing Mrs. Rohlfs, one of our Nursing Arts instructors. We asked her how much we should wash when giving a patient a bed bath. Her response, “You wash up as far as possible and down as far as possible. The patient washes possible!”

Thank you! Merci! Salamat! Gracias! Xie Xie! Danke! Arigato! Grazie!

You’ve probably seen the old expression, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” It could just as easily say, “If you’re well enough to read this, thank a nurse.” It’s so true!

To every nurse who has ever trained or worked here: thank you for being part of our 125-year journey of hope and healing! You inspire us with your skills, resourcefulness, and compassion.

We recognize that this is a time when the unexpected can happen, and we need to be as prepared as possible. One of the most impactful ways you can help is to consider making a gift to our COVID-19 Response Fund.

This fund gives us the flexibility to provide support quickly, for things like respirators, personal protective equipment, life-saving research, and diagnostic tools and resources in our labs. We are committed to supporting our health care teams deliver the very best care possible at all times, and your gift to this fund will help them to do just that.