Bethlehem has lived through many changes of service and name but what remains constant is the sense of compassion when one enters. Sister Bernadette Fitzgerald lcm fondly reflects upon the spirit of the Sisters and staff who have “been Bethlehem people” and their legacy of loving care.
On July 26th 2016, a Eucharist of Thanksgiving was celebrated to recognise 75 years of care and service at Bethlehem Hospital, Caulfield South, Victoria.
In a Gathering of staff, Sisters, Associates, past doctors and friends of Bethlehem, we prayed in thanks for what has been.
Bethlehem has lived through many changes of service and name but what remains constant is the sense of compassion when one enters. Or indeed when one of the Bethlehem community team enters the home of someone for whom they care. That is a tribute to the spirit of the Sisters and staff who have “been Bethlehem people” over the years.
When the first five Sisters – Ida, Angela, Balbina, Madeline and Germaine - came to Melbourne, it was to begin a ministry, build a hospital and respond to the needs of the sick and the dying, whatever they were.
Imagine how daunting that must have been - boarding the boat in 1938 to travel from Sydney – time to think about this new venture, with all its excitement and all its challenge. I know they felt a little overwhelmed and yet as soon as they arrived – they began their home nursing. Plans were made to build a hospital and then turned upside down by the beginning of the war in 1939. So, instead, they went looking to buy one. In so many ways, the future was unknown.
In 1941, the Sisters rejoiced when finally in July Berklea Private Hospital at South Caulfield was purchased. They took possession on October 22nd and in 1942, the hospital was renamed Bethlehem. Although the building did not meet the Sisters critical standards “Bethlehem”, flourished as a small maternity and surgical hospital during the 40’s and 50’s and more properties were acquired to meet need. Why did it flourish?
The buildings weren’t all that suitable, the standards of the previous hospital perhaps questionable – not all went well with the sale with the previous staff “making off” with much of the equipment. It flourished because people sensed “a spirit” when they came to Bethlehem. This spirit found its source in the commitment of the Sisters, Doctors and the lay staff –the nurses, the kitchen staff, the maintenance – each one making the mission real.
Always, the Sisters looked to respond to unmet need. And so, Mother Thaddeus sought government approval to begin a public hospital and so began an innovative dual private and public hospital in the same complex in 1964, to respond to the needs of those living with a neurological condition. The Sisters weren’t experts in this care but set out to learn –undertaking the necessary courses, such as physiotherapy to make sure the care they gave was all it should be. It was not about what had always been done; - it was about what needed to be done.
For the surgical, medical and maternity patients a new Private Hospital was built - this building - with a bed capacity of 79 in 1966. Without funds, the Sisters, staff, doctors, auxiliary, local community, parishes all set about fundraising. This was a real partnership with so many volunteering their help – their contribution to the spirit.
And always, the reality of care and presence was not confined to hospital wards. From the beginning, Sisters visited the homes of the sick, irrespective of creed, and no call was unheeded or considered too far away- the foundations of the wonderful community care service that exists today.
!981 was a hard time for all who were “Bethlehem” and worked there with loyalty and a sense of belonging. With occupancy falling, the Sisters made the decision to close the Private Hospital and a new story began - a Public Palliative Care service of forty six beds, and other Sisters came to continue the next Chapters of the story. So many Sisters over the years – too many to name and I pay tribute to each one. Always too, our staff. We know the “letting go” was done with prayer and wisdom but it made it no easier for doctors, staff and Sisters who had been committed to Bethlehem over the years. Yet, without it, so many would have missed the palliative care that has enabled life lived to the full, until the end of the life journey. This is a place which nurtures the spirit.
Bethlehem touches hearts. In that same year of 81, I well remember being all of 22, and awaiting my interview for a position as a Registered Nurse at Bethlehem. Unknown to the Sisters interviewing me for a nursing role, I was checking them out. What was this LCM spirit I had heard about?
As I nervously sat in the foyer on a 38 degree day, having trudged my way up from Gardenvale Station in my brand new high heels bought for the occasion, a blue veiled Sister crossing the foyer noticed me.
Without a word, she interrupted what she was doing and returned with a glass of icy water and simply said – you look hot – this will help. She waited with me until I was called for interview. And somehow the LCM spirit had captured me just as it had captured my aunt, Sr Pat Harkin, some 35 years before. Both us came to the LCM life through nursing at Bethlehem.
I have never forgotten that glass of water, the Sister who gave it and the spirit behind it. For me it was my first touch of the Calvary spirit where one stops what one is doing – no matter how important it seems, to tend to and, more importantly, stay, with another. It is that spirit that the Executive and staff here continue to live and we, the Sisters pray in gratitude for each one and for all who have been part of the story over the years. Bethlehem made the LCM spirit real for me and has done so for so many others over the years. It will continue to do so, because Bethlehem is not a building - it is the spirit of the Divine compassion that will always find a way to touch an aching heart, to nurture a lonely spirit and ease pain through its people, each and every one.
Calvary Bethlehem hospital is a service of Little Company of Mary Health Care (Calvary Care), which was established by the Sisters of the Little Company of Mary (LCM) who came to Australia in 1885.