Is there a doctor in the House?

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Introduction by Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P.

2004 Passionist health care reflects the national trend. For example, two points of information in the health care section of St. Paul of the Cross Passionist Pastoral Planning Commission Report of November 2003 indicate that it is increasingly possible that a Passionist will spend a portion of life in a health care facility. As of 2003 there were 22 Passionists in health care. Twenty of them were on Medicaid which saved the Passionists a total of $1.9 million.

Passionist health care during the late nineteenth and through the mid-twentieth century was often left to the care of Passionist brother infirmarians in the monastery. When a question of patient care was needed each Passionist superior could often count on his ability to gain consultation from the “house doctor.” He (I have never seen where a house doctor was a woman) might change his schedule to see the ill Passionist at his office or in times of crisis make a “house call” to the monastery.

The two letters published below paint a human portrait of Passionist health care in the mid-twentieth century. Dr. Suermann, the house doctor to the Passionists in Union City, shared his reflections with Passionist Father Sebastian Kolinovsky in which he reveals how he cared for the Passionists and how their example nurtured his faith. Dr. Suermann died in December 2003 and is printed with permission of Mrs. Suermann, his wife. Passionist Father Neil Davin’s letter was sent to the Passionist Historical Archives in response to a call to describe daily life in St. Michael’s Monastery, Union City. In a dramatic way, his story is a reminder of the planned and unplanned turns which a person experiences in the health care process. Might we all reflect on ethics and spirituality of health care today.

Letter from Dr. John F. Suermann

To Passionist Missionaries
August 5, 2002

Dear Fr. Sebastian,

Through my sister, Clara T. Suermann, who lives in Philadelphia and who must be on your mailing list, I just learned of the sesquicentennial celebration of the Passionists in the U.S.A. Our prayerful congratulations.

From 1949 until 1963 I rendered all the medical care to the priests and brothers at St. Michael’s Monastery Church and Provincial House. This was in the days long before your time when Monastic life was very austere. The monks, brothers and seminarians used wooden eating utensils, slept on straw over a piece of plywood, worked in the cobbler’s shop to make sandals or in the tailor shop to make habits. It was always most edifying to see men preaching the gospel by their actions and life – not by just mouthing some pious words.

Bishop O’Gara had just been liberated from China and took up residence in the Monastery. Father Reginald Arliss was made Bishop and sent to the Philippines. There were 20-25 seminarians who came for their last 3 years of theology every year. Fr. Ernest Welch was Provincial for 3 three-year terms! Father Richard Kugelman could speak seven languages, even Aramaic – the language of our Lord. Brendan Boyle had been a financier before entering your order: He took over all the finances for your order before he was killed in an automobile accident on Palisade Ave. Father Cornelius McArdle was rector. Fr. Cyril Schweinberg taught speech and was an excellent public relations man for your order before going to Florida to build your retreat house somewhere near Palm Beach. I think it was called “Our Lady of Florida.” Is it still in existence?

One time in the 50s there was an outbreak of Infectious Hepatitis in the Monastery and I had 22 priests and seminarians in St. Mary’s Hospital in Hoboken. The nuns were wonderful! Not one of the sick died! And that was in the days before gamma-globulin. All of the sick were so jaundiced they looked like leprechauns or aliens from Mars! I have a beautiful Spiritual bouquet embossed in gold by the nuns at the Little Sisters of the Poor.

We spent many happy times at Shelter Island. Do you still own it?

I am now 82 years old and have had several strokes. I am having trouble holding a pen to write this. I hope you can read it. I would like to be able to send you more financial aid to continue your labor of love, but, alas, just as our life is coming to an end, so, too, is the money.

Please, Father, please keep us in your prayers as we do you in ours. You rate higher with Him and His blessed Mother than I do.

Signed: Dr. Suermann

Letter from Fr. Neil Davin, C.P.

To Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P.

The Passionist Heritage provides a great service to our province. In response to the Spring issue, I submit the following. It may not be what you are looking for, and so I’ll not be disappointed if you do not use it.

Our class was ordained on Feb. 28, 1952, at St. Michael’s church by Bishop McNulty. About two months prior to that date, my classmate, Morgan Hanlon (now deceased) was diagnosed with hepatitis. He was taken to St. Mary’s Hospital in Hoboken.

For several months I had been aware of great fatigue and other symptoms of illness. I had gone to the doctor twice, but each time I was assured there was nothing to worry about! In those days almost nothing was known about hepatitis. Just a week before ordination I felt so bad that the house physician ordered me to go to the hospital immediately. I had an advanced case of the disease. There was uncertainty as to whether I would be ordained, until the very eve of the ordination! I was taken to St. Michael’s in an ambulance, carried in on a stretcher, and sat in a wheel chair during the ceremony. Immediately afterward, I was returned to St. Mary’s. I was not able to say Mass even in the hospital until May 15th. Within a few weeks of Ordination, eleven of my classmates were in St. Mary’s with the same disease. During that time (and this is the part which I think may be relevant to your request) the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis and the parishioners of St. Michael’s and St. Joseph’s could not have been kinder and more solicitous for us. All eventually recovered.

Last year we celebrated our 50th anniversary. The seven who are still living are actively engaged in the priestly ministry. Two are on the foreign missions, three in the Pastoral Conselling and Sacramental ministry, one is the Dean of Theology in an outstanding College in the North East, and one is Associate Judicial Vicar in a New Jersey diocese.

Fraternally in the Lord,
Neil Davin C.P.

Note: My profession name is “Cornelius.” For several years I have used “Neil” an Irish variant of the same. In Latin both are “Cornelius.”

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