On an unremarkable day in 1917, a down-on-his-luck Wisconsin man climbed the steps of Saint Marys Hospital in Rochester. He'd come to town looking for a fresh start at life, and he got all that and more when he met Sister Mary Joseph.
The man introduced himself as Joseph Howlett, and Sister Joseph discovered that among other things, he was quite handy -- especially with a hammer and saw. So she offered him a deal: She would pay him a small salary, feed him, and put him up in a vacant room at the hospital in exchange for his carpentry services. Howlett gladly accepted that deal, and for the next 18 years, he helped build and repair many things around the hospital, including a crèche that's still used every holiday season in the chapel at Saint Marys.
Sister Lauren Weinandt says Howlett's carpentry work around Saint Marys quickly earned him a rather fitting nickname among the Sisters. "We all called him Joseph the Carpenter," she says, "after Saint Joseph the Carpenter." When Howlett retired in 1935, Sister Lauren says he continued that service to Saint Marys by lending his hand in the hospital kitchen where, among other things, he took great pride in making sure grapefruits were peeled and sectioned for patients by a certain time each morning. "He was a very loyal, devoted man," says Sister Lauren.
The Sisters would learn just how far Howlett's loyalty and devotion to Saint Marys would extend after his death in 1960. In the room where he stayed for many years, they discovered a small door hidden by a picture. Inside were cash and bond certificates -- all money Howlett had earned while working at Saint Marys -- along with a note that read: “Thank you dear Sisters for giving me a chance when I needed it most. I saved the money for you and the patients you help, signed Joseph the Carpenter."
Knowing that Howlett shared her enthusiasm for nursing education, Sister Joseph decided to use the money to begin the Sister Joseph Endowment Fund, which helps "provide financial assistance to nursing students pursing accredited academic nursing education." And to this day, Sister Lauren says, he remains one of the fund's largest single contributors. In fact, the fund's archives include the following, she says: "A place of distinction among endowment contributors belongs to Joseph Howlett, the retired hospital carpenter who shared Sister Joseph's enthusiasm for nursing education. His meager savings were wisely invested for the endowment fund in securities, which were valued at $10,000 at the time of his death in 1960 … The education of Saint Marys students of the past, present or future has been or will be financed in part by this elderly man who has now become a part of Saint Marys' history."
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