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Sister Helen Carmody, 95; Chronicled History of Hospital and L.A.

October 27, 2002|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Sister Helen Carmody, who founded an archive at St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles chronicling 146 years of the hospital's and city's history, died Wednesday of complications from a stroke. She was 95.

She was born in Mount Hope, Wis., and in 1945 entered the Daughters of Charity, an order of nuns long associated with a large-winged headpiece worn by the Parisian women who formed the original community in 1633.

When the order changed its uniform to a navy blue dress and optional veil in 1954, Carmody saved her habit and later donated it to the archive as part of the hospital's history. The Daughters of Charity founded the medical center in 1856.

Carmody joined St. Vincent's staff as a dietitian in 1958 and spent most of her career as the director of food services. In 1995, during a renovation of the building, she noticed workers filling a trash bin with outdated medical records and photographs. She quickly put a stop to it.

"Sister Helen always squirreled things away," said Leona Proche, who worked as the nun's assistant for years.

That attitude helped salvage historical data about the city's oldest hospital, as well as the neighborhoods around it. Descriptions of the original building, a dirt-floor adobe near Olvera Street, and facts related to epidemics of smallpox in 1886 and typhoid fever in 1905 were included in the records. So were occasional references to the city's population. There were 3,000 residents of L.A. in 1856, according to the nuns' ledgers.

After the archive and a museum were established and officially named the Historical Conservancy program, Carmody continued to find items for the collection, among them a silver coffee carafe and linen napkins the nuns placed on patients' food trays in the early 1900s. "Things like this tell you something of the era they're from," she once said.

"When Sister Helen started the archive, saving Los Angeles history was a relatively new concept," said Catherine Waymost of the conservancy program. Tommie McCrae, who worked with Carmody in the hospital kitchen for 13 years, said she approached food services the same way she did the archive project. "No matter what we did, she wanted it perfect," he said. But, he added, "she was always gentle and kind."

Until she retired about 15 years ago, Carmody oversaw meals served at the hospital for patients, staff and the nuns. In recent years, the number was more than 1,000 meals each day. "Every morning at 5 o'clock, she'd come in and say, 'Do you have the coffee ready yet?' " McCrae recalled.

Carmody is survived by nieces, nephews and cousins.

A funeral Mass will be said at 6:30 p.m. Monday at St. Vincent Church, 621 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles. Donations may be made to St. Vincent Meals on Wheels, 2131 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, CA 90057.

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