The beauty of healing

New St. Joseph Hospital features work of local artists

Julie Filby

The 140-year tradition of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth providing high quality, affordable health care in Denver will soon open a new hospital bathed with natural light, balconies for fresh air and splashes of color from Colorado artists that complement its state-of-the-art technology.

The new St. Joseph Hospital—set to open Dec. 13 at 1375 E. 19th Ave.—was designed and decorated to aid in the physical and spiritual healing of patients and their families. Hospital leaders, along with the community, have watched the $623 million environmental-friendly building take shape on 13 acres adjacent to the current hospital over nearly four years.

Photos by Daniel Petty/DCR

“It has been an emotional journey because we have watched equipment moving into the new building and now we have the soul of the hospital,” Sister of Charity of Leavenworth Melissa Camardo told the Denver Catholic Register following Archbishop Samuel Aquila’s dedication and blessing of the new hospital Dec. 3.

“Excellence in health care and compassion is at the heart of our tradition and mission,” said Sister Camardo, vice president of mission integration. “We believe in serving the whole person, including spiritually. We do that by offering our faith visibly with the artwork and designing each room to provide comfort and support.”

Healing aids include seating alcoves in the hallways for patients and visitors to rest and visit, and comfortable pullout beds for visitors in each room. The décor incorporates vibrant photographs and paintings from about 80 area artists. The environment depicted in the art reflects God, Sister Camardo said, including an oil painting by John Boak that shares the sisters’ history in Colorado, a large photograph of sunlight and trees by Colorado photographer John Fielder, and 15 smaller oil paintings of outdoor scenes along the Front Range by Gina Blickenstaff.

The art be can be a soothing and calming influence for family members to reflect upon, she said.

Several statues—restored with the assistance of Gerkens Religious Supplies—were relocated from the old hospital to the new including St. Joseph, Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Each patient room has a new crucifix.

“We are an environment where prayer is not only tolerated but welcomed and sought out,” Sister Camardo said.

Archbishop Aquila dedicated the hospital’s new chapel during a special Mass, followed by a blessing of the facility from the main lobby.

“I always tell doctors and nurses to pray for their patients and hold their patients up to the Lord,” Archbishop Aquila said. “Yes, this is a Catholic chapel but it is a place for all people, no matter their faith, to find peace, pray and encounter God.”

He praised the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth who first came to Denver in 1873 to help the sick and vulnerable and opened one of the city’s first hospitals in a cottage at 14th Avenue and Arapahoe Street. They later operated at hospitals at 26th Avenue and Holladay Street, and 18th Avenue and Humboldt, before breaking ground in 1961 for the iconic twin-tower structure at the current location of 1835 Franklin St.

“You are carrying on that mission of Jesus Christ in a healing ministry,” the archbishop told doctors, nurses and hospital officials among about 150 at the blessing. “Be the light of Christ and the hope of Christ.”

Internal medicine nurse Patty Dambrava, who has worked at St. Joseph for nearly 32 years, shed a few tears as she hugged her colleagues after the blessing.

“The presence of a Catholic hospital in this area makes a big difference because many of our patients are underprivileged,” she said.

The only section of the old hospital that will remain open is the newer Russell Pavilion. The rest of the old building eventually will be razed.

COMING UP: Carmelite lived the cloistered life ‘to the full’

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In 1950, at the ripe age of 18, Sister Mona Claire of Our Lady entered religious life as a Carmelite of the Holy Spirit. For the next 67 years, she went on to live a cloistered life away from the world in deep prayer.

It would seem it was no coincidence, then, that she passed away on May 20 — the feast of Pentecost.

“For her to die on the feast of Pentecost — it’s our biggest solemnity next to Christmas because we’re the Carmel of the Holy Spirit,” said Mother Mary of Jesus, prioress of the discalced Carmelite nuns of Littleton. “Our blessed Lord really favored her, I think.”

Over 20 of Sister Mona’s 67 years as a Carmelite were spent as a secretary answering phone calls and responding to requests for prayers and Mass offerings. Sister Mona was also a talented seamstress and spent much of her time making clothes for the Sisters and altar linens.

Sister Mona’s most unique job was perhaps taking care of sheep, which the monastery had up until the 1980s, and her most beautiful work was likely her profound prayer life.

“She always prayed,” said Mother Mary. “Even in her last few days, if she said anything, it was a prayer.”

Mother Mary recalled that the doctor who attended to Sister Mona at the hospital after she experienced a fall shortly before she passed asked her to open her eyes, and she was unable to follow his commands.

“But I would say a prayer, and she’d finish it for me,” said Mother Mary. “I would say, ‘Praise be Jesus Christ,’ and she would say, ‘Now and forever.’ I think her last words were ‘Now and forever.’”

Mother Mary admired Sister Mona for her patience and efforts to please God, as well as her positive attitude in all circumstances.

“I noticed that even in the pain she was in when she was dying, she never moaned or anything,” said Mother Mary. “She never complained one little bit.”

Mother Mary believes it was a blessing that Sister Mona was able to remain so close to God even during her final days — a grace that likely stemmed from the consistent efforts she made to be close to him throughout her life.

“If you’re constantly corresponding with grace and praying, it’s going to come to you in those last moments,” said Mother Mary. “It will strengthen you for the journey. I think that’s what happened.”

Mother Mary witnessed graces showering down during on Sister Mona even during her funeral, particularly when Bishop Jorge Rodriguez blessed her coffin before it was lowered into the ground.

“There were turtle doves. You could hear turtle doves cooing,” not back and forth, but in unison, Mother Mary said. It reminded those in attendance of Song of Solomon 2, which mentions the voice of a turtledove in a chapter about the love of a bride groom.

The beauty of the moment didn’t go unnoticed, much like Sister Mona’s life of service.

“She was the loving and praying heart of the Church and the Carmel [community] here for almost 68 years,” said Mother Mary. “Everything she did was for souls and for our dear Lord’s greater glory and honor,” she said.

Mother Mary believes Sister Mona had a profound impact on the world, even though she had little contact with it.

“Having been in the convent as long as she was, she really impacted the diocese and the world with her ever-flowing prayers,” said Mother Mary. “It’s just the nature of cloistered life — and she lived it to the full.”