Long-term care centers often have a negative stigma attached to them. They are seen by many as sad places where the elderly are neglected. Not so at the Carmelite Sisters’ Santa Teresita Medical Center in Duarte, California, which is located in Los Angeles County in the foothills below the San Gabriel Mountains.
Santa Teresita’s philosophy is that growth, development, and personal improvement occur at all stages of life, including one’s last years. Sister Mary Clare, who has worked at Santa Teresita for the last seven years, explained that “we respect the dignity and beauty of each individual, and recognize the value of every human life. We try to create an environment where our seniors can continue to live and grow as persons. We want our residents to understand that life isn’t ending when you come here, but from a supernatural perspective, it’s just beginning.”
Maintaining a traditional Catholic environment and offering residents a rich sacramental life is central to the mission of the sisters. Residents have the opportunity to attend daily Mass at a chapel on the grounds, to go to confession regularly, to participate in Bible studies, Rosaries, and other devotions, and to receive the Last Rites.
“When one of our residents nears the end of life, we surround him or her with loving care,” said Sister Mary Clare. “We sing, pray the Rosary, and console the family. This is the time they need our help the most. After a resident has died, we often receive letters of appreciation from their families thanking us for our support.”
THE FOUNDING OF SANTA TERESITA
Mother Maria Luisa Josefa of the Most Blessed Sacrament, or “Mother Luisita” as she is called affectionately by the sisters, founded the Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Mexico in 1921. She was married to a doctor at a young age, and the pair founded a hospital in Mexico. She was widowed and had no children; on his deathbed her husband predicted that she would soon enter religious life.
Six years after founding her community, persecution of the Church by the Mexican government forced Mother Luisita and two of her sisters to flee the country in disguise. They came to Los Angeles. Due in part to her background in health care, Mother Luisita established Santa Teresita as a sanatorium for women with tuberculosis in 1930. She named the sanatorium for St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a Carmelite who herself succumbed to TB at age 24 in 1897.
Mother Luisita died in 1937, but her community flourished. Sister Madonna Joseph, Santa Teresita’s CEO, said, “Mother Luisita is our champion. She was courageous despite persecution, determined, and an inspiration for us all.”
Mother Margarita Maria, one of the original sisters who fled the religious persecution in Mexico, also set a powerful example. She served as administrator of Santa Teresita from 1930-1985 and brooked no deviations from Church teaching. Once a doctor asked to see her to propose that the hospital, if it couldn’t perform abortions, should at least refer patients for them. “Are you sure this is what you want us to do?” she asked him. When he replied in the affirmative, she opened up her desk drawer, pulled out a blank paper, handed it to the doctor, and said, “We are awaiting your letter of resignation.”
In 2000, Pope John Paul II declared Mother Luisita “venerable,” which means that she practiced virtue to a heroic degree. She is now a candidate for beatification, which requires one miracle through her intercession.
131 PROFESSED SISTERS
Today, the sisters’ motherhouse is located in Alhambra, California, not far from Santa Teresita. The community has 131 professed sisters, with 18 young women in initial formation. They practice the spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. The sisters combine contemplation and action to deliver an apostolic service to the Church. They also are faithful to the life and charism of Mother Luisita. Unlike many religious communities since Vatican II, the sisters have joyfully maintained the full habit, a traditional prayer life, and steadfast loyalty to the Magisterium of the Church.
Their apostolates include three health care facilities. In addition to Santa Teresita, the sisters operate Marycrest Manor, a skilled nursing facility, and Avila Gardens, an independent living facility. All are located in southern California; Santa Teresita is the largest.
The sisters also operate two retreat centers, including the Sacred Heart Retreat House, which is on the grounds of their motherhouse. Most of its retreats are for women, including women discerning religious life, but retreat opportunities are offered to men as well. The sisters also have three childcare centers and teach in Catholic schools in California, Arizona, Colorado, and Florida.
FROM HOSPITAL TO CONTINUUM OF CARE CENTER
Antibiotics developed in the 1940s led to effective treatments and cures for TB. Hence, in 1955, Santa Teresita underwent its first major transition, from being a TB sanatorium to an acute care general hospital. For the next 50 years, the facility was known to many in the area as Santa Teresita Hospital.
By 2004, changes in Medicare insurance re-imbursements made it increasingly difficult to cover the costs of running the hospital. The sisters also believed it was time for another major transition for Santa Teresita, one that would provide a greater opportunity to build relationships with the residents and their families in a non-institutional environment. The change was made from the hospital to a continuum of care center, offering both short-term and long-term care for seniors, including independent and assisted living care and skilled nursing.
Today, Santa Teresita is comprised of a 119-bed manor, which offers skilled nursing, and the 44-bed Bethany Assisted Living Facility. While most of its residents are female, an increasing number of men have come to call it home as well. The staff includes 30 sisters, 200 lay employees, and 60 volunteers.
Santa Teresita strives not just to offer its residents high-quality health care, but also the feeling of being loved, accepted, and welcomed. Mother Regina Marie, superior general, explained, “The real need for our seniors is not simply good health care, but community.”
Sister Carmen Therese, who works at Santa Teresita, added, “We can never do anything alone. Even the Trinity is a community of persons.”
Chris Roski observed the strength of the Santa Teresita community when she brought her aunt to live at the facility. The sisters and staff greeted her aunt warmly, and sought to make her feel welcome and comfortable. Roski commented, “She started to feel it was okay. We felt relieved and blessed.”
Sister Carmen Therese continued, “We treat the person not just on the physical level, but as a whole. We take time to talk with our residents and ask them how their day is going. We want to do more than just wheel them from one place to another.”
Jim Boyett, age 86, a former Monrovia resident and a retired warehouse supervisor, has enjoyed the love and support of the sisters and staff for three years. He commented, “I live like a king here. They take good care of me. They even scratch my back when I need it. The sisters are always nice and cheerful. Seeing them happy makes me happy.”
Boyett is one of the only residents who still owns and drives his own car, giving him the opportunity to make and maintain friendships off-campus. He’s always happy to return home, though, and has suggested to many of his friends that they consider moving to Santa Teresita. Boyett has no family in the area, so the sisters seek to fill the void. For those with family, the sisters offer supplemental support.
SENIOR UNIVERSITY AND EDUCATION
The sisters recognize that not only is there a life of the body, but a life of the mind as well, and it must be stimulated and challenged. Hence, Santa Teresita offers a Senior University for its residents, which features speakers on a variety of topics. The seniors have welcomed employees from the nearby NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and from the Pasadena Symphony, as well as firemen from the Sierra Madre Fire Department. A highlight of the firemen’s presentation was the chance for the seniors to squirt fire hoses afterward. It was a hit with the residents, recalled Sister Madonna Joseph, especially with one lady: “She was too frail to work the hose alone, but needed the fireman’s assistance. Once she felt the power of the water surging out, she had a big smile on her face. Her caregiver noted that that was the first time she had smiled in months.”
The university also offers presentations on Catholic teaching and spirituality and on health issues. As birthrates decline and life expectancies increase, the percentage of the population over 60 is expected to increase in upcoming years. Therefore, the sisters want to do their part to encourage young people to consider careers serving the elderly according to the Santa Teresita philosophy. Therefore, the facility houses a gerontology center to offer students an education and on-the-job training.
Santa Teresita doesn’t just offer services to the elderly. It is also home to a childcare center, which offers pre-school and kindergarten to 55 children. In addition to the basics, children are taught to be polite and respectful, and are given an introduction to the Catholic faith. The children also make regular visits with the elderly, where they talk, read books together, and sing songs.
A unique bond can develop between the seniors and children, observed Sister Madonna Joseph: “Our seniors want to share the story of their lives, and the children want someone to listen to them. It is a special opportunity for our seniors and children to talk to and listen to one another.”
Sister Mary Clare added, “Our children are unafraid of the frailty at the end of life. They’ll run up to a resident in a wheelchair and just start talking.”
Working with the elderly can be physically and emotionally challenging, so the sisters work hard to maintain a deep prayer life and encourage their lay staff to do so as well. The sisters’ day is centered on the Holy Eucharist, both attending Mass and in adoration as a community and individuals. They have a monthly day of recollection, which includes making a preparation for their own deaths. Sister Madonna Joseph noted, “When we are prepared for death ourselves, we’re better able to help others.”
Many in the local community are grateful for the sisters’ presence at Santa Teresita, including the mayor of Duarte, John Fasana: “They are a wonderful spiritual presence in our community, and we’re excited about this new stage of their development.”
Monsignor Clement Connolly, pastor at Holy Family Church in South Pasadena, added, “The Carmelite Sisters are ‘Givers of Life.’ After you spend some time around the sisters, you can’t help but feel better.”
NATIONAL HEALTH CARE DEBATE
Although the Carmelite Sisters don’t take an active involvement in politics, they are carefully following the national discussion about possible changes to the nation’s health care system. The sisters are concerned that life be protected at all stages from conception to natural death.
Dr. Fritz Baumgartner, medical director at the sisters’ Marycrest Manor, articulated the concerns of the sisters when he lamented: “Can the Western medicine that can salvage a tiny 22- week premature baby in the neonatal ICU be the same medicine that aborts perfectly normal babies at even later gestational ages? Can the same Western medicine that can surgically save the life of a 90-year-old with critical aortic stenosis be the same medicine that promotes withholding simple nutrition and hydration to incapacitated patients decades younger, becoming the direct cause of their deaths?”
He continued, “The paradigm shift that occurs with God-centered medicine is the seminal recognition of the dignity of the human person, the fundamental understanding that man is made in the image and likeness of God himself. That imparts a special awe of the dignity of all human life, an understanding of the uniqueness of such life compared to animals, plants, and the rest of nature, and the appropriate fear of violating this basic dignity.”
The sisters are concerned that some early drafts of the national health care plan (which contained a cost-cutting measure that encouraged end-of-life consultations) put seniors at risk in regard to their access to appropriate care at the end of life, including nutrition, hydration, and antibiotics.
Dr. Baumgartner said, “Of course, this provision is an open invitation to abuse, and seniors—or those making decisions for them—could easily be made to feel ‘guilty’ and pushed to refuse even the most basic of care. Do we really have confidence that our government— which cannot even protect the most vulnerable lives sheltered in their mothers’ wombs—is capable of having in mind the best interests of those at the other extreme of life?”
He praised the continuum of care center operated by the sisters, concluding, “Human persons must never be considered as less than fully human, regardless of age, sickness, or social status. All human beings must receive ‘ordinary’ care, and this ordinary care includes nutrition and hydration.”
Santa Teresita is undergoing a major renovation to transform its buildings into a small, cottage-like neighborhood. Some buildings are being remodeled and renovated, others torn down and replaced. Sister Mary Clare explained, “We want to combine faith, family, and high-quality health care in a home-like environment that is life giving.”
She noted that studies have shown that such a setting contributes to the health and well-being of residents, and is consistent with the “respect life” philosophy of the sisters. She noted, “We want to create a beautiful campus that denotes life; an appropriate environment to support our services.”
The master plan has been designed to work on one building at a time, so that work can be done as funds are raised. In addition to cottages, plans call for building a post office, coffee shop, exercise gym, and town center. Once complete, an expanded Santa Teresita will be able to serve a total of 338 residents.
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