Magdalen Teresa Weinandt dreamed of becoming a missionary, caring for the poorest of the poor in every corner of the world. She planned to join the Maryknoll Sisters, an order devoted to overseas mission work. But after six months with the order, she began having debilitating back pain caused by a curved spine. She returned home to Minnesota, where doctors at Mayo Clinic advised her against pursuing a missionary's life. (Brave souls.)
That advice may have been some savvy recruiting on the doctors' part. With the door closed to overseas work, Magdalen Teresa joined the Sisters of Saint Francis, took the name Sister Lauren, and began serving patients at Mayo Clinic — including patients from around the world.
"I call myself an armchair missionary," Sister Lauren says. "The world came to me."
Today, some 65 years after she first took her vows, it seems divinely ordered. To Sister Lauren — who has the longest tenure of continuous service of any Mayo staff member — Mayo Clinic now "means my home," she says. "I just feel like I'm a part of it." It would be hard to find anyone who would disagree.
This week, Sister Lauren marks a milestone birthday. She turns 100 on Aug. 2, and her Mayo Clinic family will be celebrating in a number of ways. There will be an ice cream social with her Sisters, a mass in her honor, and sugar cookies in her honor for staff.
Sister Lauren will no doubt smile and laugh through it all. And then, on Aug. 3, she'll get back to work. Though that's not how she thinks of the time she spends in her office in the Francis Building.
"I like what I'm doing," she says. "It's never felt like work."
Sister Lauren has done quite a lot of what she's liked over the past six-plus decades. She began her career serving as secretary to Sister Mary Brigh and Sister Generose, administrators of Saint Marys Hospital. She's also served as a receptionist in Administration, created displays in the windows near Saint Marys Chapel, and helped establish and maintain the hospital's archives.
But Sister Lauren's greatest contribution isn't something that can be captured in a job description or comments in an annual review. It's what was captured by the parades of people who have poked their heads into her office, first asking if she was Sister Lauren ("I don't know how many times I've answered that question," she once told In the Loop) and then asking for her intercession.
"People just stop by to ask me to pray for them or a loved one who is ill," she says of a typical day on the job. "They ask me to bless them or religious articles."
She's prayed for and ministered to countless people over the years, including some famous faces: Danny Kaye. Billy Graham. Jimmy Stewart. Ronald Reagan. Mother Teresa. Barbara Bush. King Hussein. And Ernest Hemingway, who gave Sister Lauren a small Christmas tree before he left Mayo Clinic. Sister Lauren placed that tree on her desk each Christmas for the next 56 years — until she was visited by another patient, the wife of the curator of the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum in Key West, Florida. That inspired Sister Lauren to do a little regifting: She sent the tree to the museum for safekeeping. (Papa would approve.)
Sister Lauren's contributions also include helping establish the Poverello Fund, which provides financial support to Mayo Clinic patients in need. And after a trip to Guatemala made Sister Lauren aware of the country's acute poverty and scarce resources, she asked Sister Generose Gervais if she could start a sale to raise money to help the people there. Sister Generose agreed, and the Sisters' Sale, as it would come to be known, was held annually for 48 years and provided the resources to support Franciscan Sisters serving in Guatemala, she told the Pioneer Press. Sister Lauren also gathered enough supplies to equip a 20-bed hospital there. After those contributions, money raised from the sales — over $1 million — went to the Poverello Fund, which has provided more than $23 million to 13,000 patients (and counting) since 1983.
"It's helping people," Sister Lauren says of the Poverello Fund, of which she's a passionate advocate. "It is satisfying my desire to be a missionary helping the poor."
In addition to the prayer requests she fields in her office, Sister Lauren prays daily with her fellow Sisters of Saint Francis in Saint Marys Chapel. They convene at 4 p.m. to pray for patients and those who care for them. "It's one of the things I love to do," she says. "I have a lot to pray for. And a lot of gratitude."
Much of that gratitude is for the staff at Mayo Clinic. "They seem like family to me," Sister Lauren says. "They are wonderful. We are grateful to all our employees. Especially because when we're not here, we're going to need them to continue to adhere to the values set up by the Mayo staff and Sisters of St. Francis. We're going to need them to carry on what we began."
And what Sister Lauren continues to do. Because she's not planning to retire anytime soon. Keeping busy, she says, is one of the keys to a long life. "I think keeping busy with work or hobbies is a must," she says. "Live today and don't worry about tomorrow. God has it planned."
To that we say, Amen.