Mary Manning Walsh, a nursing home for the elderly, proves that the twilight years can be joyful if the people in charge really care.
The massive stroke that left my mother speechless and paralyzed also left her family despondent. Having a stroke had always been her greatest fear, and now, somewhere in the mists of her intelligent mind, she understood that the terrible thing had happened to her. Our mother, who loved bustling about, telling stories and, most of all, being with her grandchildren, had overnight become a twisted, vacant woman in a wheelchair.
She was a resident in Mary Manning Walsh for just a few days when I wheeled her into its lounge to listen to music. The pianist was in the middle of a number when a nun, a stranger to us both, sat on the other side of my mother.
I assumed she was there for the music but I was wrong. Somehow, the nun knew my mother’s name and turning to her, said softly, “Hello, Rose.” She took my mother’s hand, put it in both of hers, and for the first time since her stroke, my mother moved her arm. My mother’s gesture was small, Sister’s smile was large, and together they shared a sense of triumph. For me, it was a blessed relief to know that her physical, emotional and spiritual needs would all be met.
New York City is known for its wealth and power, and within this competitive world, Mary Manning Walsh has become the gold standard for nursing homes.
How did a place founded by a nun, an Irish immigrant, become the residence of choice for the very rich, the very poor, Catholics and non-Catholics? Its success lies in its heart, its literal sisterhood, the Carmelite Sisters of the Aged and Infirm. These nuns believe that those who are truly the least among us – the aged, the handicapped, the sick, the destitute, all in the last stages of life – deserve the very best of medical care and comfort.
It took me a while to reconcile my childhood memories of nuns with the sisters at Mary Manning Walsh. Our 1950s Bronx classroom was filled with 60 squirming city kids, all kept under control by a formidable, and often intimidating, nun. Like my parochial school teachers, the Carmelite Sisters are focused, fearless and wear traditional habits. But their vocation took them on a different path.
I asked Sister Sean William O’Brien, the current head of Mary Manning Walsh, “Did you ever want to teach?”
“Never.” She continued, “I always knew I wanted to be a nurse. I always knew I wanted to take care of the elderly. And I always knew that I wanted to make sure they would be treated the same way I wanted my grandparents to be treated.”
The story of the Carmelite Sisters begins with Mother Angeline Theresa McCrory. She was born in a small village in Ireland’s County Tyrone, a place known as much for its beauty as its centuries of strife. She moved to France to enter the Novitiate of the Little Sisters of the Poor and after her final profession was assigned to the Little Sisters of the Poor Nursing Home in Brooklyn.
Mother Angeline soon recognized that the French orientation of the Little Sisters was out of sync with American culture and traditions. She saw that there was a need for a new order, one that accommodated itself to the New World. So, in 1929, Mother Angeline withdrew from the Little Sisters to found the Carmelite Sisters of the Aged and the Infirm. With just six other nuns she began her ministry, one dedicated to the aged sick, regardless of income.
Another Irish Sister, Mother Bernadette de Lourdes, was assigned to work on the plans for the new Mary Manning Walsh Home and became its first administrator. During that time she met the famous Dr. Howard A. Rusk, “the father of rehabilitation medicine” whose Rusk Institute in Manhattan is still ranked as one of the best in the U.S. The nun from Dublin and the doctor recovering from World War II devised a system of rehabilitation that would be as effective for the aging bodies as it was for the young, injured soldiers.
Sister Bernadette and Dr. Rusk formed a partnership and a friendship that lasted until their death. In his autobiography, A World to Care For, Rusk says of his associate, “Mother Bernadette is not only a great person…she’s why the Carmelite order now has 35 splendid geriatric centers throughout the world.” He personally trained the staff at Mary Manning Walsh and passed away in the home with Mother Bernadette by his side in 1989.
And who, everyone asks, was the eponymous Mary Manning Walsh? She was a woman with a large estate and a husband looking to honor her memory. Mr. Walsh went to Cardinal Spellman, who, as fate (or luck) would have it, was trying to establish a geriatric center. According to Dr. Rusk, Mr. Walsh suggested the center simply post a plaque with his wife’s name, apologizing, “I can only give you a million dollars.”
The cardinal stood up, extended his hand. “For a million dollars we’ll name the institution after your wife.” And so he did – the original Mary Manning Walsh opened on Manhattan’s elegant Sutton Place in 1952.
In 1967, it was evident that the new residence couldn’t keep up with the demand for admission. Fortunately, its administrator, Mother Aloysius, was a savvy businesswoman who put her moxie and her motto – “If you don’t move forward, you move backward” – to work. With state funding, she built the new home in its current building on 72nd Street.
The home soon became as famous for its superior medical care as for its belief that the end of life should be about living and not simply surviving. The possibility of living life well, even as you approach your 100th birthday, is everywhere in Mary Manning Walsh, starting with its elegant building, chapel, lounge and dining room. The home offers classes in art, fitness, cooking, painting, music, gardening and poetry. And should a resident want her hair done before heading to one of the home’s many parties, there is, yes, a beauty salon.
Then there’s the famous Irish pub, the Emerald Lounge, known for its generous drinks and convivial volunteers. It was in the Emerald Lounge where I spent some of my best times – ever – with my mother. Of course I did all the talking, but I knew she could hear and understand. It was therapy, unconventional therapy to be sure, but it worked. For both of us.
Bette Davis once said, “Old age isn’t for sissies” and while that’s true, it’s a gift to be under the care of the sisters at Mary Manning Walsh. Whether they perform as nurses, administrators, or social workers, the nuns are devoted to the residents. The sisters endure sights and sounds that would distress most of us. In the middle of the edgiest and speediest city in the world, they remain serene.
Sister Sean William O’Brien has been in charge of Mary Manning Walsh since 1997. Her faith will sustain her through any and all transitions, “My daily prayer is that the Walsh home will always uphold the Carmelite philosophy of care and commitment.” She and her staff hold to the code of treating every resident with dignity and respect as they live their motto, “To care for and to care.”
“When you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep.”
– William Butler Yeats