Our First Registered Nurse
By Katie Santa Ana
While the Sisters of Loretto are well known for the hundreds of teachers in their history, many Sisters also chose medical professions. While Sisters of Loretto served early on in nursing roles – such as during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 – it was not until 1944 that our very first Sister of Loretto, Sister M. Sienna (Mary Clara) Jansing SL, completed her certification to become a registered nurse.
Mary Clara Jansing was born Dec. 29, 1898, in Louisville, Ky., to parents William A. Jansing and Mary F. Luken. Her older sister, Helen Jansing, joined the Sisters of Loretto in 1912 and went by her religious name, Sister Mary Ellen. Mary Clara followed in her sister’s footsteps and entered the order in 1924, took the religious name Mary Sienna and made final vows in 1928.
Prior to her nursing career, Sienna spent 16 years teaching, first at St. James School in Highwood, Ill., and then as superior at St. Benedict’s Parochial School in Louisville. One particularly exciting event marked her time at St. Benedict’s: the Great Flood of 1937 which devastated areas of Louisville and Southern Indiana along the Ohio River. Along with the other Sisters of the St. Benedict’s community, she was evacuated by boat and eventually taken out of the city to Loretto Motherhouse with the help of her brother, William Jansing. After floodwaters subsided, under Sienna’s supervision the Sisters returned to their house in Louisville and began the arduous task of cleaning and scrubbing their home. Once their own house was in order, they began setting the church and school building to rights, including cleaning vestments and throwing out damaged school books.
Though Sienna loved teaching, she was asked in 1941 to begin her nursing training at the Nazareth School of Nursing at St. Joseph Infirmary in Louisville. After three years of study, Sienna received her diploma in September of 1944 and became the order’s very first registered nurse. That same year, she returned to Loretto, and she served as infirmarian among the ill and elderly at the Motherhouse. Sienna also witnessed the growth of healthcare at Loretto Motherhouse: the building of St. Joseph’s Infirmary on the location of the former so-called “middle building” on the Motherhouse campus. The brand new infirmary was blessed on June 12, 1949, and Sienna was one of the first Sisters to have the honor of spending the night in the new building.
Sienna became the first director of St. Joseph’s Infirmary and was a common sight at work in the iconic white habit of a Sister Nurse. In the 1960 summer edition of Loretto Magazine, Sienna’s role in the infirmary is described:
“A competent administrator, she is kept busy supervising the nurses, arranging doctors’ appointments, providing for the spiritual needs of the sick, making room assignments, checking building maintenance, and doing all the duties that go with running a hospital.”
From evacuating the community under her care during a historic flood to running a hospital, Sienna was certainly a Sister of many talents! She died in 1974 during the 50th year of her religious life. Today, several Loretto Community members who worked with Sienna remember her and even followed in her footsteps to become nurses themselves.