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TOM STROMME/Tribune Four members of Annunciation Monastery fondly reminisced about their Benedictine order's founding of St. Alexius Hospital in 1885 in a downtown Bismarck hotel to development of the St. Alexius Medical Center and most recently the partnership with Catholic Health Initiatives. From left are Sisters, Mariah Dietz, Susan Lardy, Renee Zastoupil and Nancy Miller, monastery prioress. "One thing about our community is we talk together pretty well," said Sr. Mariah in describing the sister's decision to join with CHI and rename the region's oldest hospital CHI St Alexius Health.

Though St. Alexius Medical Center received a new name this month after joining a regional health care system, at least one pillar of the hospital in place since its founding remains intact. 

The Benedictine Sisters of Annunciation Monastery are here to stay at St. Alexius, even though the facility is now part of a network of 87 hospitals throughout the country. St. Alexius signed an affiliation agreement with Catholic Health Initiatives in September, making it a direct affiliate of the Colorado-based health organization.

While the hospital is now called CHI St. Alexius Health, it is still governed by a board of directors. Five sisters from the monastery continue to hold seats on that board. Other sisters work at the hospital or volunteer to meet with patients and their families.

“The more we talked, the more we realized this could be really good for both of us,” said Sister Mariah Dietz. “For us sisters, the big thing was that it helped us meet our mission. The sisters came here in the first place to serve the needs of rural people — Bismarck and beyond that. This helps us do that.”

The sisters, whose order started the St. Alexius hospital in 1885, have been actively involved in discussions regarding the transition to the CHI system. Early on, they spoke to their counterparts at CHI, the Catholic Health Care Federation.

“It was very clear the missions really were the same and that it was a good fit for serving people in this area,” said Sister Nancy Miller, the monastery prioress.

She and the other sisters acknowledge that, while there are many benefits to the transition, it’s still an emotional process. Dietz said she is comforted knowing the essence of St. Alexius still remains.

Miller said the affiliation with CHI helps address health care’s changing landscape. The focus is no longer solely on treating and providing ministry to people who are sick.

“It’s not just about being ill,” she said. “It’s about how we maintain healthy communities ... can we find a way to minister them while they are still well and help them to stay that way?”

The sisters’ task aligns with the hospital’s new role in the CHI system.

Gary Miller, CEO and president of CHI St. Alexius, said the affiliation will change the way the hospital approaches care by placing more focus to wellness promotion.

“It’s a coming together of two Catholic systems,” he said. “We are a new entity and maybe have a new identity that will take us beyond what has historically been an acute care hospital to a regional health system.”

Miller said he appreciated the time a sister once took to sit with him when he was a patient at the hospital. Health facilities without the sponsorship of a group of people such as the sisters at the monastery may not be able to offer the same level of comfort, he said.

Sister Nancy Miller said prayer is the main ministry the sisters provide.

“I don’t think we can ever downplay the importance of prayer and how that shapes our lives and helps provide comfort to people in need,” she said.

Recently, Dietz met a couple she knew in the halls of the hospital. The husband, she learned, had suffered a brain bleed. Upon explaining the situation, the couple broke into tears and asked for prayer.

“We took them in for a cup of coffee,” Dietz said. “Just to talk to someone that they knew and trusted was everything for them.”

Miller explained that a note went up on the prayer board regarding the man’s health, reminding those who passed by to keep him in their thoughts.

And when Sister Susan Lardy volunteered last week at the hospital, she ran into a couple waiting for a family member in the Intensive Care Unit.

“I looked at the lady and I said, ‘I was your first-grade teacher at Cathedral,’” she recalled. “She looked just the same as she had looked when she was sitting at her little desk in first grade.”

The woman was thrilled her former teacher had recognized her. She then joked to her husband that she had followed Lardy to Mary College, and Lardy had followed her to the hospital that day.

“I told her we would be praying for her and praying for his family,” Lardy said.

The sisters’ role at the hospital also extends beyond their work comforting those who walk through its doors.

St. Alexius received the first telephones in Bismarck thanks to Sister Boniface Timmins, an administrator of the hospital during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“She was a great innovator,” Sister Renee Zastoupil said. “She wanted to make sure the physicians had a way to be connected with the patients and staff and vice versa. She made sure that every physician got a telephone.”

The sisters still celebrate her spirit today.

“We are continuing to be pioneers,” Zastoupil said. “Whatever is before us, whatever is going to be ahead of us, we are continuing that pioneer spirit.”

Asked if Sister Boniface would approve of the transitions taking place at the hospital today, the sisters didn’t skip a beat. Each nodded their head in agreement.

“Absolutely,” they said.

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Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8267 or amy.sisk@bismarcktribune.com.

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