By JOANNE FOX
The Sisters of Mercy are the foundation of what is today Mercy Medical Center – Sioux City.
However, one of their cornerstones is the founder of St. Vincent Hospital – an Irish girl from Pennsylvania, who entered a German-speaking, Benedictine community in Conception, Mo., made her way to Sioux City, established a hospital and could point to one of her good friends as Lakota warrior, Chief Sitting Bull.
In her 60 years of consecrated life, Mary Ellen McDermott wove prayer, hospitality and care, ultimately leaving a legacy which now benefits Mercy Medical Center.
Born in 1864, McDermott entered the convent at age 15 and took the name Sister Gertrude. In 1881, Bishop Martin Marty of Sioux Falls, also a Benedictine, traveled to Missouri in search of teachers. Sister Gertrude and three other sisters traveled by train and boat to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakota Territory to teach at a government school for Native American children.
According to a 1976 story in The Catholic Globe, the area was “seething with unrest” at that time, due to broken Indian treaties. During this time Sitting Bull was confined to a federal prison where he was placed after the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876.
After Sitting Bull’s release in 1883, he knocked at the door of the school where Sister Gertrude was teaching, hoping to find food and shelter. It was the beginning of a long-time friendship.
However, Sitting Bull and his followers – tired of broken promises – decided in 1890, the only way they had to protect their treaty rights was to wage war on the government and its soldiers.
The rumor circulated that if the Indians did not surrender, the army would massacre the Indians, men, women and children. A badly-frightened Sister Gertrude set out with another sister to try and talk her friend into surrendering.
Sitting Bull’s answer to her was recorded as, “I’m sorry, Sister Gertrude. You’ve been very generous with me and the other Indians, but this time I cannot do as you want. The Indians can’t give up now. They must resist the impositions on their treaty rights.”
Sitting Bull died several days later at the hands of Indian police friendly to the government. Sister Gertrude had been the last white person to see him alive.
The next year, Sister Gertrude and two other sisters left for Elkton, S.D., where they opened a new school which also served as an orphanage and hospital until it burned down in 1894. The sisters continued their work, nursing the sick in their homes.
In 1897, Sister Gertrude obtained the permission of Pope Leo XIII to establish a separate community. With six other sisters, Mother Gertrude moved to Sioux City and became prioress of the new Benedictine community – the Sisters of St. Benedict of Sioux City.
When the seven arrived, they had almost no money and were taken in by the Sisters of Mercy, serving at St. Joseph Hospital. The new community – established in 1901 – opened Villa Maria, a home for working girls, which was remodeled into a hospital in 1907 and named after St. Vincent.
Mother Gertrude supervised the initiation of St. Vincent School of Nursing in 1910 – graduating approximately 900 registered nurses through 1972. The prioress established St. Monica’s Home for orphans and unwed mothers in 1914. Mother Gertrude witnessed the dedication of St. Vincent Hospital in 1918.
On Sept. 22, 1940, Mother Gertrude passed away at the age of 80. According to an article in The Sioux City Journal, thousands came to her funeral in a “pelting autumn rain.” Mother Gertrude was buried in the Benedictine section of Calvary Cemetery in Sioux City.
The order Mother Gertrude founded remained in Sioux City until 1953, when it was moved to Madison, Wis. A priory was built as the home of the Holy Wisdom Monastery, is the home of Benedictine Women of Madison and of ecumenical Benedictine communities.
St. Vincent’s Hospital merged with St. Joseph Hospital in 1977 to form Marian Health Center, now Mercy Medical Center.