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Bethesda Hospital celebrates 125 years of reinventing lives

The reception for Bethesda Hospital’s 125th anniversary celebration felt more
like a birthday party for a beloved family member than a celebration in honor
of a 125-year-old hospital. For the staff who serve at Bethesda and for the
patients who are cared for there, it is much more than a hospital — it is a
close-knit community. Bethesda, as the Hebrew origin of its name states, is a
“healing place” and serves patients during what is often a long and difficult
Says Bethesda CEO Cathy Barr, “Over the last 125 years we have seen change
and we have seen growth, but the one thing we hold fast to is care for our
patients during the most challenging times.”
Bethesda’s 125th anniversary included a reception on the evening of April 26
honoring the hospital’s past, present, and future. Guests were greeted by
Cathy Barr, Congresswoman Betty McCollum, Senator Amy Klobuchar, and
Dan Jensen, a grateful patient. Additionally, special recognition was given to
Eleanor Jahnke, a 75-year volunteer with the hospital, and Dr. Donald
Swenson, who was honored with the Millennium Award for his dedicated
service to Bethesda as a staff member and volunteer.
The theme for the anniversary celebration was “125 years of Reinventing
Lives.” The Rev. Nancy Wighdahl, the director of spiritual care at Bethesda,
says the work at Bethesda is faith-based, comparing the theme of
“reinventing lives” to the healing work of Jesus.
“Jesus was someone who tended to people who were marginalized,” she said,
noting that “many times the sick are cast out.”
Wighdahl said, “In faith circles we talk about a new life in Christ. [Bethesda’s
anniversary celebration] has a new life theme. So often [at Bethesda], we give
patients a new life.”
Bethesda Hospital was established in 1883 as a community hospital. Its first
location was on the east side of Lake Como in St. Paul. Located approximately
three and a half miles from downtown St. Paul, the pastoral setting was seen
as a place that would “hasten the progress of healing, both physical and
spiritual.” The present location in downtown St. Paul was built in 1932.
Bethesda is now the largest long-term acute care hospital in the region and
is nationally known as a provider of trend-setting, innovative rehabilitative
A.P. Monten, pastor of First Lutheran Church on Maria Avenue in St. Paul,
during the time that Bethesda was established, was a leading force behind
the establishment of Bethesda Hospital. He gathered support from his faith
community to build the hospital. In a letter to the president of his board
written near the time the hospital opened in 1883, Monten said, “God’s
peace! Together we have succeeded in getting a house for the sick and given
it the appropriate name — Bethesda.”
A more appropriate name could not have been given to this new hospital. The
Gospel of John describes the miracle at the waters of Bethesda: “There was in
Jerusalem a pool called Bethesda. An Angel of the Lord went down at certain
seasons into the pool and troubled the waters. Whoever stepped in first was
healed of whatever disease he had.” (John 5:2)
But, Bethesda’s healing ministry can be seen in much more than in its faith-
based name. It can be seen in the day-to-day work of its employees. The
staff of Bethesda makes it much more than a place to heal the sick. Barr says
that Bethesda has a “strong sense of commitment to each other and to the
patients,” many of whom will be in the hospital for 25 days or more.
“It is a wonderful place with a unique commitment. Everyone is working
together to enhance the patient’s experience,” she says. “Many people come
to us very sick with a long road to recovery. What we do best is shepherd
them on that road.”
Dan Jensen can attest to the commitment of the Bethesda staff. He arrived to
Bethesda very ill after having suffered a stroke in his cerebellum, a condition
that required months of rehabilitation, including re-learning to walk. Jensen
says “Bethesda not only saved my life, but gave me an euphoria of life that I
never could have imagined.”
In a visit to Bethesda nine months after his stay, Jensen was surprised to find
that all of the nurses who worked with him during his recovery period still
remembered his name.
“I thought to myself, how in the world after nine months do they still
remember my name?” he said. “That means so very much to a patient.”
Bethesda’s roots in the Lutheran community were celebrated at a Sunday
morning worship service at First Lutheran Church (ELCA) in St. Paul on April
27. At the celebratory worship service, Peter Rogness, bishop of the St. Paul
Area Synod of the ELCA, delivered a sermon honoring Bethesda and its ties to
the Lutheran community. In his sermon, Rogness noted the importance of
faith in the healing process.
“Faith communities have always sought to be healing communities,” said
Bishop Rogness. Rogness went on to say that healing was a constant and
consistent part of Jesus’ ministry, citing many examples of when Jesus cured
the sick.
“The tradition of healing in faith communities began with Jesus. Jesus’
inclination was to heal and we follow that example today. As people of faith,
we give ourselves to other folks. It’s what we do. It’s what Jesus did.”
Bethesda honors faithful volunteers for service given
The community at Bethesda extends beyond its patient care. It can be seen in
its volunteers. Two of Bethesda’s most notable volunteers were honored at
the anniversary celebration — Dr. Donald Swenson, a retired physician and
the hospital archivist, and Eleanor Jahnke, a retired nurse who is perhaps the
hospital’s most well-known volunteer.
Swenson, who served on the staff at Bethesda for more than 38 years, was
given the Millennium Award for his dedicated service as the hospital’s
historian, for which he says he is greatly honored. Along with his work as the
hospital’s archivist, Swenson helped create a memory book in honor of the
hospital’s 100th anniversary in 1983.
“Dr. Swenson is a wonderful historian and makes history come alive,” says
CEO Cathy Barr. “His passion is to make Bethesda come alive. What’s more
impressive to me is that he has instilled this passion and care for Bethesda
into his two sons.”
Swenson has had ties to Bethesda throughout his life. He was delivered by a
Bethesda physician and says that one thing that “means a great deal” to him
is that his father was the general contractor of Bethesda’s current building
when it was built in 1932.
As an eight-year-old child, Swenson says he wanted to be superintendent of
Bethesda Hospital. While this never occurred for him, he jokes that he “never
forgave” his friend and colleague Dr. Frank Indihar, the hospital’s recently
retired CEO, for taking the position and says that, when Cathy Barr retires, he
will still be “young enough to apply for the position.”
Also honored was Eleanor Jahnke, who has given more than 30 years of
volunteer service to Bethesda Hospital. In those 30 years, she has given the
hospital more than 11,000 hours of her volunteer time. At 96, she continues
to volunteer at the hospital at least once a week. She says “for me, every time
I can go down there and volunteer, it is a highlight.”
Prior to her years as a volunteer, Jahnke spent 46 years as an employee at
Bethesda. Her 76 years of dedicated service to the hospital has made her an
invaluable resource.
“If someone wants to know something, they call me and say ‘who was so and
so and what did they do?’” she says, followed with a hearty laugh, which is
filled with a mix of good spirit and humility.
Jahnke says Bethesda has been “one big family” for her. Bethesda is a place
that she has built friendships, some of which began while she was in nurse’s
training at Bethesda and have lasted to today. “I have been blessed so
much,” she says. “It’s hard for me to understand that.”