A life of commitment completes a full circle

Nun: After 54 years in her order, Sister Urban Auer is back on the street where she was born.

October 06, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

More than half a century ago, Doris Auer left the rowhouse where she was born on Penrose Avenue in West Baltimore, walked down Pulaski Street and entered the convent of the Sisters of Bon Secours.

The woman who became Sister Urban is 77, and she is still in the neighborhood as the oldest working sister at Bon Secours Hospital.

As her order celebrates its 175th Jubilee, Sister Urban embodies the mission of the Sisters of Bon Secours to bring compassionate healing to those in need.

Although the sisters made a gut-wrenching decision in July to end inpatient care at Liberty Medical Center, they are determined to maintain their commitment to serving needy families in West Baltimore at Bon Secours Hospital, which opened its doors 80 years ago.

"Our primary mission is care of the sick, especially the poor and the dying," she said of the order founded in Paris in 1824 by nuns who left their cloister to care for the sick in their homes. "That's why we've always been determined to keep Bon Secours Hospital in Baltimore.

"There have been a couple of times when we faced bankruptcy and wondered, `Are we going to survive?' But we've always decided to stay here."

That commitment has allowed Sister Urban to come full circle. After working in a variety of health care ministries in other areas, she returned to Maryland in 1988 to live at the motherhouse in Marriottsville and work at Bon Secours.

She still works three days a week in the education department and says she'll keep doing it as long as she is able.

In the course of her nearly 54 years as a nun, Sister Urban has been a nurse and a teacher of nursing, an administrator and a mother superior.

She has also seen the transformation of her neighborhood, from predominantly white to African-American, and the shifting of the hospital's mission as that change occurred. But Sister Urban says she is still a West Baltimore girl.

"This was my home. This is my neighborhood," she said as she stood yesterday afternoon outside 2112 Penrose Ave., a light-brown brick rowhouse with marble steps and a stained-glass transom. "All my best memories go back to West Baltimore."

Sister Urban said she decided she wanted to become a nun in the first grade. "I guess a lot of little girls in Catholic school, the first thing they wanted to be was a sister," she said. "But I never changed my mind."

She said she originally wanted to become a Daughter of Charity, like the nuns who taught her at St. Martin Catholic Church at Fayette Street and Fulton Avenue, and had it not been for a case of inflamed tonsils, she might have become one. But at age 19, she went inside Bon Secours Hospital for the first time, for a tonsillectomy, although she had walked past it nearly every day of her childhood.

"I guess I was too naive to realize I was just impressed by the warmth of the sisters," she said. When she got home, she told her mother she wanted to be a nurse and a nun, even though the thought of being near sick people made her queasy.

Although she wanted to enter the convent immediately, World War II broke out and her two brothers were called into service. She felt she couldn't leave her mother until they returned, which didn't happen until October 1945.

"I came home from work, and [one brother] was in the kitchen with my mother," she said. "And he said, `OK, Dot, I'm home for good. You can go join the convent now.' And I did, the next month."

She studied nursing at the hospital and received her religious name in 1946. Urban was a popular name at the time because it had been used by Mother Urban, who was mother superior when the hospital opened in 1919.

In those days, she recalled, there were 50 nuns at Bon Secours working as nurses on 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. Although she was living just two blocks from her Penrose Avenue home, she never returned.

"I used to see the roof of it from the operating room," she said. "But we were never allowed to go back home. We just went across the street from the convent to the hospital. And working seven days a week, there wasn't much time to do anything else."

Sister Urban went on to teach in and then direct the hospital's nursing school, where she supervised the training of many nuns and lay women who became nurses and remains to many a mentor.

"The way she taught was that you never had to open a book. You listened to what she said and you understood," said Sister Mary Rita Nangle, Bon Secours' patient advocate, who studied pediatric and obstetric nursing under Sister Urban.

"To this day, they call her Mother Urban. For the students she is a very big part of their life. She's like a mentor. She's very warm and motherly."

Over the years, she has seen myriad changes, in religious life and in the nursing profession.

Starting in the late 1960s, when she was mother superior of the American province, many sisters stopped wearing the traditional habit. "As you can see, I didn't, so you know how I feel about that," she said.

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