‘Very humbled, but very proud’
Three years ago, Sr. Alice Thraen gave her regular Assisi Heights tour to a most irregular tour group.
Ken Burns, probably America’s best-known documentary filmmaker, and his film-making team were viewing the building and grounds.
“They were common, ordinary folks,” Sister Alice said. “And they had a lot of questions.”
Indeed: The tour, usually an hour long, took 2½ hours to complete, and the filmmakers returned for more the following day.
“I think he (Burns) felt there was a story here that was not being told,” Thraen said.
Fast-forward three years to a night two weeks ago, when that story, now told in the film “Mayo Clinic: Faith–Hope–Science,” had its worldwide premiere during a gala event at Rochester’s Mayo Civic Center.
And now this week, on Tuesday, the rest of us can get a look as the film debuts on your screen at home, on PBS stations including KSMQ Public Television in southeastern Minnesota.
The Cinderella story
Burns’ film tells the story of a country doctor, his two physician sons, a devastating tornado and an almost unbelievable effort that led to a world-class medical center in the unlikeliest of places, the windblown prairie of southeastern Minnesota.
But as much as Mayo Clinic is a story of two brothers, it is also the saga of a league of sisters — the indefatigable Franciscans, without whom, it is safe to say, there wouldn’t be a Mayo Clinic (and Ken Burns would have occupied his recent years making a different movie).
It is that story that has brought special pride to the Franciscans of today, including Sr. Tierney Trueman, a retired educator who holds a leadership position at Mayo and appears in Burns’ film.
“I felt very humbled, but very proud — honored to have been called to that,” she said. “The Franciscan partnership with Mayo is what’s alive and continues to grow.”
In Burns’ telling, the sisters are present every step of the way, from Mother Alfred’s initial urging of Dr. W.W. Mayo to open a hospital in Rochester, to the sisters’ fundraising and personal sacrifice that helped build and equip that hospital, to the washing, cleaning, nursing and tireless care that attended each subsequent stage of Mayo Clinic’s growth.
A widely known quote attributed to the late Sr. Generose (who also appears in the film) attests to the sisters’ role: “Hands that clean and hands that cook are equal to hands that heal.”
Just as important as their material contributions, the Franciscan sisters were integral in establishing Mayo Clinic’s values and adherence to its mission, to serve patients regardless of color, gender, financial status or professed religion.
As men of science of the first order, the Mayos nevertheless found their soulmates in the Franciscans. It would not have been the same partnership had the Mayos joined hands with a university, another medical provider, or even, perhaps, another religious group.
Even today, 10 or so leaders are selected each year from Mayo Clinic’s campuses across three states and sent to Assisi, Italy, to learn more about Franciscan values. Sr. Tierney has for the past four years served as coordinator of the Clinic’s Values Council which, among its activities, conducts a biannual review of the Clinic’s adherence to its founding principles.
“We are a values-driven organization,” she said. “That’s our DNA.”
The effort, still strong, to perpetuate those values is what gives Sr. Tierney and her fellow Franciscan sisters confidence that Mayo Clinic will maintain its special standing among world-class health care institutions, including Johns Hopkins and Cleveland Clinic, two other leading hospitals that jostle each year with Mayo for the top spot in annual rankings.
“It puts a big obligation on us to measure up,” said Sr. Jean Keniry, past associate director of nursing services at Saint Marys Hospital. “Make sure you’re as good as people think you are.”
With the release of Burns’ film, Sr. Jean said, “We’re at a real high point now. Going forward, it’s back to the trenches again.”
Sr. Alice, Sr. Tierney and Sr. Jean all came in as fans of Burns’ past work, which includes histories of the Civil War, jazz, baseball and, most recently, the Vietnam War. In fact, it was that latter work that established that Burns is not averse to exploring unpleasant aspects of the histories he investigates.
Aware of that, the sisters nevertheless felt little apprehension about Mayo’s treatment in Burns’ film ahead of seeing it, they said.
Having now seen it, they have only one complaint: It should have been longer.
“They could have done eight sessions of two hours,” Sr. Jean said, and not just a single two-hour film.