Local Author Sister Ellen Whelan “The Sisters’ Story” Parts One and Two

March is Women’s History Month, and to commemorate, let’s look back on the history and works of some of the remarkable women whose contributions to Rochester are at the heart of our great city:  The Sisters of St. Francis, who celebrate their 140th anniversary this year. 


In 1883, a tornado ripped through the mostly rural town of Rochester, leaving the town destroyed and its people injured and devastated. Among the first on the scene were Mother Alfred Moes and the Sisters of St. Francis who tended the injured alongside Dr. William W. Mayo and his sons, Drs. William J. and Charles H. Mayo. That was the beginning of an extraordinary partnership between Mother Alfred and Dr. William W. Mayo. This partnership led to one of Rochester’s earliest hospitals—what we know today as the Saint Marys Campus of Mayo Clinic Hospital.

Legal enthusiasts will be shocked to know that no legal document was ever drawn between Mother Alfred, the Sisters of St. Francis, Dr. William W. Mayo or even the Mayo Clinic as it stands today. The partnership continues as it began: a professional and spiritual bond built entirely upon trust and respect.


In her first historical release, “The Sisters’ Story: Saint Marys Hospital—Mayo Clinic 1889 to 1939,” author and Franciscan Sister Ellen Whelan details the migration to Rochester of those parties whose lives would eventually intersect and form the world-renowned Saint Marys Hospital. Explaining the importance of the mass migration of Irish immigrants to the United States, caused in large part by the devastation wrought by the Irish Potato Famine (1845-49), Sister Ellen brings to life the struggles and hopes of Sister Joseph, a Franciscan Sister who later served Saint Marys as administrator for nearly 50 years; a young Maria Moes, who would later become Mother Alfred; and a tenacious William Worrell Mayo. Together, they and a handful of pioneering Franciscan Sisters would combine their efforts to establish Saint Marys Hospital.

Originally released in 2003, “The Sisters’ Story” (part one) was re-released in 2016 with new forwards by Sister Marilyn Geiger, community minister and president of the Rochester Franciscans, and Dr. John H. Noseworthy, president and CEO of Mayo Clinic. Of this unusual, “non-contracted” relationship between the Sisters of St. Francis and Mayo Clinic, Dr. Noseworthy writes, “Mutual respect and the willingness to work together have guided the Rochester Franciscans and Mayo Clinic for more than a century. Today, through the Mayo Clinic Values Council and other initiatives, the handshake continues.”


In its second release, “The Sisters’ Story, Part Two: Saint Marys Hospital—Mayo Clinic 1939 to 1980,” Sister Ellen continues the partnership between the Franciscan Sisters and the Mayo Clinic. Opening with the condemnation of Saint Marys by then State Fire Marshall Henry George, Sister Ellen details the scathing 1936 letter wherein Mr. George criticized the medical wing of Saint Marys hospital for its lack of contemporary fireproofing safeguards. In the midst of the Great Depression, this could have signaled the end to Saint Marys, and the Mayo Clinic we know today might have fallen. But through the tireless efforts of the Franciscan Sisters and the Mayo family, renovation efforts were soon underway, and a new medical wing—later named the Francis Building in honor of the Sisters of St. Francis—was built.


Sister Ellen is uniquely qualified to write this history that details the backbone of one of Rochester’s oldest and most respected institutions. With a Ph.D. in European History, Sister Ellen is not only an historian, but a Franciscan Sister who followed a personal call to serve God when she joined the Rochester Franciscan Congregation, following in the footsteps of four of her aunts: Sister Edith Whelan, Sister Zenobia Whelan, Sister Pascal Campion and Sister Pancretia Campion—all Rochester Franciscans.

The idea to write the “Sisters’ Story” came at the suggestion of Sister Lauren Weinandt, archivist for Saint Marys Hospital, who was interested in documenting the history of the Sisters and Saint Marys Hospital. With Sister Ellen’s educational background and having already written a more than 300-page dissertation on Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, for her doctorate, she was the perfect solution for Sister Lauren’s dilemma of who could best author the book. After careful consideration, Sister Ellen agreed that she could apply the same process for her Ph.D. thesis to writing the Sisters’ history. Shortly thereafter, a meeting was held with then Congregational Minister Sister Valerie Usher, Sister Generose Gervais, Sister Lauren Weinandt and Sister Mary Lonan Reilly, the congregation’s historian and archivist at Assisi Heights, and plans were underway. Saint Marys Hospital Auxiliary provided the Sisters with a grant to develop the content. 

With the assistance of many others from the congregation and Mayo Clinic, Sister Ellen meticulously researched, interviewed and documented the story leading up to the founding and operation of Saint Marys Hospital by the Sisters of St. Francis, emphasizing the impact of the political, economic and social environment of that time. The reception was so positive that Sister Ellen, not one to rest on her laurels, went on to research and write the next chapter in the congregation’s history and published “The Sisters’ Story, Part Two” in 2007.

Today, Sister Ellen remains active in her ministry of writing and consulting. She serves as the liaison for offering RCTC’s monthly Learning is ForEver programs to the Sisters at Assisi Heights. 

Copies of the books are available at Sisters Crossing Gift Shop at Saint Marys Hospital, Mayo Gift Shop in the Gonda Building and at Assisi Heights Gift Shop. 

Catherine H. Armstrong holds a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Oklahoma. Her debut novel, “The Edge of Nowhere,” was released in January 2016 under the pen name C.H. Armstrong, and was inspired by her own family’s struggles during the 1930s Dust Bowl. For more information, visit charmstrongbooks.com. 

Biographical information in this article related to Sister Ellen Whelan provided by Kathryn Gatliff