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Pioneering Nun to Be Honored at St. Joseph's

February 27, 1986|JANET ZIMMERMAN | Times Staff Writer

Sister Elizabeth Lirette ran a tight ship in 1929 as St. Joseph Hospital's first administrator, but she says now, "It wasn't hard if they did what I said."

Sister Elizabeth, 90, will be honored today during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Sister Elizabeth Building, a 43,000-square-foot structure on the hospital grounds. The $5.4-million building will house a center for patients with kidney disease, including dialysis treatment, and will also provide family recovery services for alcohol and chemical abuse.

Petite and bespectacled, Sister Elizabeth now lives near the hospital in Regina Residence, a home for retired nuns of the St. Joseph of Orange order.

She is said to have handled her seven-year reign as administrator with strength and humor.

"She had it under control, but in a nice way. She got her way in the end," said Sister Rita Rudolph, who worked as a medical technologist at the time and became administrator in 1952.

Shortage of Nurses

The biggest problems facing the hospital in those early days were a shortage of nurses, patients and money, Sister Rita said. Nurses who worked there in 1929 said the sisters simply went around turning on lights in the 90-bed hospital to make the residents of Orange County think that business was booming.

Sister Elizabeth, who had no administrative training or hospital experience, said her plan was to take things one at a time: "If you worry, you can't think straight. So I didn't worry." She also said faith in God was important. "He has been running the business for a long time and knows what He is doing."

Sister Elizabeth, born in Lowell, Mass., and one of 14 children in the family, later moved to La Grange, Ill., to board with a community of Sisters of St. Joseph. She was one of 10 pioneers from La Grange who made the trek to Eureka, Calif., in 1912 to form a community of sisters and found a hospital, which opened there in 1919.

From Eureka, some of the sisters came to Orange, where a Santa Ana priest wanted them to teach in the community. They established their motherhouse on 10 acres on Batavia Street, now the Regina Residence.

Construction on the hospital began in 1928. When completed, St. Joseph was the largest and most modern of four hospitals in the county at the time.

After her term as hospital administrator ended, Sister Elizabeth attended USC and earned a degree in pharmacy, returning to the hospital to open the first pharmacy there in 1939.

Known by this time as a Jack-of-all-trades, Sister Elizabeth was called upon to return to a hospital in Arcata, Calif., to serve as a bookkeeper, admissions clerk and pharmacist. "There was nothing the sister couldn't do when she put her mind to it," Sister Marie Therese Gagnon said.

In 1950, Sister Elizabeth journeyed to the South Pacific to primitive Nissan Island, part of the Solomon Islands chain, where the bishop wanted the sisters to start a school and a hospital. She taught English, religion and other subjects to the natives and "loved every one of them," she said.

Barracks Converted

The sisters built a dispensary and classrooms from salvaged barracks abandoned by GIs after World War II. The church was made from a Quonset hut.

The cement altar in the Quonset hut once served as a shelter for Sister Elizabeth, schoolchildren and other nuns during a hurricane. But the island's staples of nuts, yams and coconuts were destroyed in the storm, Sister Elizabeth recalled, and the nuns fed the natives watered-down soup, beans and meat from abandoned cans of GI rations.

After about 12 years, Sister Elizabeth became ill and was sent back to the United States by Sister Therese Fortier. "She didn't want to leave; she wanted to die there," Sister Therese said. "She wanted to die with the people. I had to send her home; she wasn't very happy about it."

Back home in Orange County, Sister Elizabeth taught religion to public schoolchildren until she retired in 1969.

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