By Michael Rizzo
A tradition that spanned five decades and brought together classmates, friends and many memories came to an end on Sept. 24 as graduates of St. Catherine’s Hospital School of Nursing in East Williamsburg held their final reunion breakfast.
This last gathering brought together 165 attendees that included graduates and family members. The event took place at the Immaculate Conception Center (ICC) in Douglaston, which has hosted the breakfast for the past 10 years, and honored 14 of the school’s last graduates along with 14 jubilarians of 1956.
“It’s very emotional,” said Mary Ann Reilly Stachurski of the Class of 1964 and originally a member of St. Anastasia’s parish in Douglaston. “I can’t imagine what it will be like without this.”
A word often heard around the main dining room of ICC was “bittersweet” as graduates expressed both joy at seeing so many familiar faces again and sadness that the reunions, which began after the school closed in 1966, would be no more.
Mary Brown Tuthill was the oldest alumna present, from the Class of 1934. She lived in Holy Family parish in her youth and traveled to this last reunion breakfast just a week before her 102nd birthday.
“It’s most important to see people again that you don’t see often,” she said in a clear voice as to why she was there. “You get to renew friendships and remember things.”
She then showed a photo of Sister Ildephonse, of the Sisters of St. Dominic that ran the school, and who helped get Tuthill enrolled.
“She saved my life,” Tuthill said of the Dominican nun. “My mother didn’t want me to be a nurse but Sister got me in.”
Florence Clark, of Our Lady of Hope parish in Middle Village and St. Catherine’s Class of 1958 and Phyllis Barkus, Class of 1960, have managed the event for the last few years. Clark said the reunion is ending because it was tougher to organize because of other family matters to attend to, the advancing age of the alumnae and the decreased attendance in recent times.
Joan Nicklauss, Clark’s classmate and also of Our Lady of Hope, said she’s attended all the reunions.
“It’s not the end, but it is,” she said. “It brings back memories of a good education, friends and the good times and bad that we lived through.”
The nursing school was part of St. Catherine’s Hospital at 85 Bushwick Avenue, near the corner of Grand Street. The all-female students lived in Jennings Hall where they resided during the school year from when they were 17 to when they graduated at 20.
Both the hospital and school have been demolished and the site of Jennings Hall is now senior citizen housing. The Dominican Sisters still have their motherhouse in Amityville, L.I.
This year’s breakfast was free to all graduates and their guests. Organizers used existing funds and donations to pay for the event. Clark also said that any surplus money after expenses would be donated to the Sisters of St. Dominic.
Lorraine Limpert Armet, “Limpy” to her friends from the school, sat with her classmates from 1965.
“It was a vocation,” the former parishioner of St. Frances de Sales in Belle Harbor said about becoming a nurse. She said the training at St. Catherine’s was special.
Taught to Reflect Jesus
“We were taught not to just see a patient as Jesus,” Armet added, “but to work so that patients could see Jesus in us.”
Jean Clark Davis, Class of 1964 and originally from St. Catherine of Sienna parish in St. Albans, which is now part of Our Lady of Light, brought and cheerfully donned her nurse’s cap from the school but was still a bit melancholy.
“It makes me want to cry,” she said about the end of the reunions.
As the breakfast came to a close and before attending Mass to be said by Msgr. Michael Cantley, whose sister was also a St. Catherine’s graduate, Mrs. Tuthill and the Class of 1956 were presented with flowers and the Class of 1966 received rosary beads.
St. Catherine’s Gals
Those last graduates then spoke to the assembled group about their lives at school and since graduation. They recounted enduring friendships, happy memories and productive work in the medical field while lamenting the changes in nursing since their school days.
Perhaps Barbara Donnelly said it best when she described what it meant to be a part of the school’s history.
“If you’re a St. Catherine’s gal,” she said looking out on those at the breakfast, “you’re a great gal.”
The applause that followed indicated that those feelings would never fade, reunion or not.