Catholic Herald Staff
Meeting the needs of the time is the founding mission of the Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross.
Twenty-four years ago, their community, Merrill, lacked an assisted living facility for older residents, and the Franciscan order made it their ministry. Today, the Holy Cross Sisters are again accommodating shifting needs by devoting a secure wing to those suffering from dementia.
Sr. Pat Cormack, provincial of the Merrill-based USA Province, oversees 28 women religious, all but eight of whom live locally. The majority are retired.
In the international order’s more than 100 years in this country, its sisters have staffed hospitals, fought social injustice, filled diocesan roles, taught elementary, secondary and postsecondary school and more, she said.
The order first came to Lincoln County in 1923 to establish a hospital in the predominantly Lutheran town. Ownership of the hospital was transferred to the Catholic Health Corporation in 1987.
“We’ve got a long history in Merrill,” said Sr. Pat.
While transitioning from their hospital role in the 1980s, the Holy Cross Sisters prepared to begin a new ministry. Demographically, the Lincoln County population was graying, and they anticipated a need for housing that could provide both health monitoring and personal freedom for older adults. At the time, assisted living was a novel approach.
Following renovation of the former convent and school, Bell Tower Residence was born in 1990. Although the facility has consistently housed residents with dementia and the staff has always been trained to care for them, Bell Tower did not have a wing – a “neighborhood,” in their parlance – specifically designed to meet the needs of those in the advanced stages of the illness.
But, as medical advancements lead to longer life spans, the number of dementia patients is growing worldwide.
“There is much ado these days about dementia,” said Sr. Peggy Jackelen, administrator of Bell Tower. “Over the past six, eight years, we’ve noticed the number of people coming with dementia was increasing.”
Divided into five neighborhoods of about 20-25 people each, Bell Tower is designed so residents can age in place. They offer several levels of care, and residents can attend classes, dine and socialize with others in their neighborhood, or get a massage, take a whirlpool bath and stop for coffee in the communal rooms.
Located on the third floor, the Memory Support Neighborhood was recently modified for dementia residents with a grant from the Bierman Family Foundation, a local philanthropic organization. Programming in the neighborhood includes crafts, games and exercises that stimulate the mind without frustrating residents. A computerized security system ensures they won’t wander or get lost. The grand opening of the new neighborhood was April 21.
Sr. Peggy, who is celebrating her 50th anniversary as a religious this year, believes quality of life is key for residents.
“That’s really one of the biggest things that we try to promote,” she said.
Bell Tower partners with local hospitals, clinics and hospice services, and residents have access to physical, occupational and speech therapy as well as geriatric psychiatry services.
Spiritual health services are equally accessible; Mass is celebrated five days a week in the chapel, and Protestant worship is held weekly as well. Residents can also participate in Bible studies and one-on-one visits with spiritual advisors.
It’s an ideal arrangement for Catholics, according to Sr. Pat.
“There are specific needs that we’re able to meet,” she added.
The chapel in Bell Tower will also serve the Diocese of Superior May 8, when women religious gather for the annual Jubilee Mass and Appreciation Day with Bishop Peter Christensen. This year, four Holy Cross Sisters are celebrating jubilees.