Last Updated: Thursday - 09/30/2010
September 27, 2010
Health Care formed Sr. O'Neill's vocation
Vermilion-born sister celebrates 50 years of devoted an active service
EDMONTON - A woman of many talents who has contributed in several areas, Sister Mary Ellen O'Neill says her involvement in Catholic health care is what has meant the most to her.
"I have always been an advocate of the dignity of the human person. It doesn't matter what they happen to be suffering from," says O'Neill, a former long-time provincial superior of the Sisters of Notre Dame d'Evron who is celebrating 50 years of religious life.
O'Neill, 76, has served on various task forces, committees and planning groups in three health care facilities. She has been involved in planning and commissioning of construction projects in hospitals for Trochu, Vegreville and Bonnyville.
Her decades of service to Catholic health care have helped her see the crucial importance of palliative care.
"I am very much convinced that is the future, the way we have to go," she said in an interview. "Palliative care is important in our society today because certainly the right to die with dignity is not always the most prominent in some people's minds."
O'Neill was born in 1934 to devout Catholic parents Patrick O'Neill and Margaret Doran in Vermilion. She grew up on a farm just north of the rural community, with five sisters and a brother.
Even as a child she had inklings of wanting to become a nun. She loved catechism classes, and to avoid missing Mass she often walked eight km to church if the roads were washed out.
She went to a small country school, Mary Lake School, until Grade 9. Then she went to a boarding school in Clandonald, and later graduated from Derwent High School in 1952. She stayed around for a year, helping out on the family farm.
She became a registered nurse, and worked at a hospital in Vegreville until 1958, the same year she entered the formation program with the Evron sisters, a women's order known for its contributions to education and health care.
"I'm not saying that my vocation was a shining light. It was something that came with maturity. It probably came from the fact that I really wanted to care for people. Nursing was definitely my vocation," said O'Neill.
A French woman, Perrine Thulard, founded the Sisters d'Evron in 1682. Thulard was encouraged by a parish priest to educate the young and care for the sick and destitute. The charism of this congregation was to attend to the spiritual and material well being of the poor through teaching and nursing.
The sisters came to rural Alberta, serving in schools and hospitals in Trochu, Vegreville, Edmonton, Bonnyville, St. Paul and a few Saskatchewan communities.
O'Neill did her novitiate in Trochu. In the early 1960s she completed her bachelor of nursing degree in St. Louis, Mo., and the University of Alberta. Afterwards, she worked part-time in general duty and supervisory nursing.
With her nursing experience, by 1969 she took on administrative responsibilities, first at St. Joseph's General Hospital in Vegreville. From 1972-75 she was administrator at St. Mary's Hospital in Trochu.
Twice she served as provincial superior of the Sisters d'Evron, first from 1975-84, and again from 1997 to 2007, nursing during the in-between years.
"I did a lot of things in health care because, as provincial superior, part of my responsibility, with us having three rural health establishments at the time, was being involved in the boards of those facilities," she explained.
By being a part of an international order and through those leadership roles, she had opportunities to work worldwide, her travels taking her to Africa, France and England.
Since 1998, she has continued volunteering at the Bonnyville Health Centre. Throughout that time she has been director of the Bonnyville Health Foundation and a member of its fundraising committee.
Her order is now celebrating the 100th anniversary of its arrival in Vegreville. She noted how things have changed in health care since then. A century ago, red tape and bureaucracy did not sidetrack projects as they do today.
JUST DO IT
"In those days you didn't have a bunch of studies. If there was a need, you went ahead and did it," she said.
The sisters went to Vegreville in 1910, a year after arriving in Trochu. By the next year they had built a new hospital. "It was a different era," she said.
O'Neill's siblings are hosting a celebration in honour of her 50th anniversary as a member of the Sisters of Charity of Notre Dame d'Evron. The celebration is Sept. 29 at St. Andrew's Centre, 12810-111 Ave., starting with Mass at 5 p.m. and followed by a dinner.
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