National Catholic Sisters Week was launched in 2014 as an official component of National Women History’s Month, which runs through March. The week is intended to raise awareness of the profound impact of religious women and, in particular, to connect them with young women through a myriad of cross-country events held March 8-14.
This week is intended to honor the nation’s over 47,000 Catholic Sisters and all who have gone before – founders of schools and hospitals, artists and activists, leaders and spiritual guides for all walks of life.
“HSHS St. Elizabeth’s Hospital is proud of its long-standing dedication and commitment to health care in the metro east region,” said Director Mission Integration/Pastoral Care/Community Benefit Donna Meyers, MSN, RN. “We also take special pride in the fact that our organization was founded by faithful women and continues to have a majority of women leading the growth and development of our health care organization.”
The foundation of the Hospital Sisters began 175 years ago, in Telgte, Germany. At the pilgrim Shrine of Our Lady of Grace Chapel, a small number of women made a religious commitment, becoming the first Hospital Sisters of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis, a religious Order founded by Father Christopher Bernsmeyer, OFM. The Order’s purpose was to take care of the sick poor in their homes in rural areas. Later on, they continued the care of the sick in homes, hospitals, and on the battlefields.
In 1875, the Hospital Sisters accepted an invitation from Bishop Peter Baltes of Alton, Illinois, to bring their health care services to his Diocese. Twenty Sisters were chosen for the mission and made the three-week journey across the Atlantic. The Sisters then traveled from Alton to be missioned to different areas, one of which was St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Belleville.
Through the last century, the Hospital Sisters continued to support their health care ministries through service in the hospital and on various boards along with keeping the thousands of colleagues, patients and communities in their prayers. One local Sister who continues to help at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for noon Mass every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday is Sister Thomas Kundmueller, OSF.
For over 65 years, Sister Thomas dedicated her life to the to service of the Church as a member of the Hospital Sisters of St, Francis. Her Franciscan connection began very early in her life. The oldest of seven children, Sister Thomas’ religious vocation was influenced by her family and her parish community of Our Lady of the Angels Catholic Church in Cleveland, Ohio.
Regarding her first thoughts on joining a religious Order, she recently shared, “I was in World History Class when I decided to be a nurse, a Franciscan, and a missionary.” She felt this was the way she wanted to make a difference in the world.
She chose the Hospital Sisters for two reasons: another woman, Sister Chaminade Kelley, from her parish joined the Hospital Sisters and more importantly, her pastor at the time stated it was the Hospital Sisters who saved his life when he fell ill.
Sister Thomas professed first vows in 1950 and perpetual vows in 1955. She then began nurse training at St John’s Hospital in Springfield. However, half way through her training, the needs of the community took precedence, and Sister Thomas was asked to teach Algebra for high school girls.
“Thankfully after two years I was able to go back to school to be a nurse,” she noted.
She became a surgical nurse and her first assignment was St. Anthony’s Memorial Hospital in Effingham. She addressed the challenges and the demands of surgical nursing and she also spoke of the calm and supportive presence of Sister Paulette Collings, who always mentored the newer nurses. She later spent 10 years as a surgical nurse in Japan.
When Sister Thomas returned from Japan, she served as a nurse at several of the HSHS hospitals including St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Belleville, where she worked on the 6th floor.
“I still remember one patient that was suffering from pancreatic cancer who was clock maker. I got to know the patient and his family very well and we became friends. He was making me a clock with flowers on it. When he passed, the family finished the clock and gave it to me. That is a very special memory for me,” she said.
In 1989, Sister Thomas ventured into another area of nursing. She joined Sisters Mary Ellen Rombach and Carol Ann Baltosiewich in the newly established mission at Bethany Place in Belleville, assisting people afflicted with HIV/AIDS. During her years of serving at Bethany Place, Sister Thomas has experienced the effects of progress in the medical care and social services made available for those experiencing this condition.
“The colleagues at St. Elizabeth’ Hospital deeply appreciate Sister Thomas and all of our Hospital Sisters for the many years of dedicated service in living the Gospel of Jesus through their work,” Meyers said. “Please join St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in celebrating and honoring Sister Thomas and all the Catholic Sisters across the country and in our communities.”