St Mike’s place

All that Catholicism at the hospital can be scary

I’m with a friend who is at Wellesley Hospital – or, rather, St Michael’s Wellesley Central site – for some minor surgery. The impending procedure and recuperation time is to take roughly six hours and I’m here to provide moral support. My friend is dozing and I, feeling kind of dopey myself, start to drift off.

Then all hell breaks loose: Two hyperactive Ronald McDonald-type clowns come rushing in, blowing whistles and jumping up and down.

“Why the long faces?” they cry. Gesturing goofily and ignoring our sour, royally pissed-off expressions, they continue their half-assed circus routine, chasing one another about the room. We remain unimpressed. Looking a tad deflated, they thrust presents into our hands and leave shouting, “Happy St Michael’s Day!”

The gifts are notepads, printed with the image of St Michael in all his iconographic glory: left hand raised in victory, right hand clutching a sword. His hair is done up like Kathleen Turner’s in the 1980s – blow-dried into big, soft waves. The day is Sep 29, the feast day of St Michael.

St Michael’s Hospital, run by the Roman Catholic Sisters Of St Joseph, took over the Wellesley Hospital April 1998 as part of the province’s health care restructuring program. The reign of the nuns at the site will be short lived, though. This December St Mike’s will withdraw its services from the Wellesley, to centralize them at its Bond St location.

Will the nuns and St Michael’s be missed in the heart of the gay village? Though health care power brokers are reluctant to come out and say it, a nun-owned hospital and a diverse downtown community have not been a great mix.

When asked if St Mike’s has been able to serve the community well, Suzanne Boggild, the CEO of the new Sherbourne Health Centre, replies, “We’re not bound by the Catholic hospital guidelines.” The centre is expected to take over the Wellesley building and begin to offer out-patient, family medicine and outreach services by 2001. It will be licensed as a hospital, but will not provide full services; ER and anything requiring an overnight stay will be delivered through St Mike’s at Bond St.

A press release from the Sherbourne Health Centre makes a special effort to mention “Sherbourne is committed to being responsive to the ethno-cultural diversity of the community…. This includes people from new immigrant or aboriginal communities, gay men and lesbians, people who are homeless or living in poverty, face mental health problems, live with disabilities, use substances, and those that live with, or are at risk of HIV/AIDS.” Boggild stresses the centre will take its direction from the community – not the other way around.

Will St Mike’s time running the Wellesley be seen as something of a dark age for health services here? For all my visits to the Wellesley emergency room (I seem to have a lot of accident-prone friends), I never thought about it until I saw the clowns.


Last month, when another friend’s mother has to go into Wellesley for some daytime in-and-out work, I volunteer to hang out with him while he waits. The ambiance is the same as it always has been – friendly staff, the clientele covering the whole spectrum of humanity. But one thing that has changed. St Michael imagery is everywhere.

Posters with staff testimonials are slapped up in the foyer , testifying to the hard work of medical professionals who do their best despite cutbacks. On the posters are images of St Michael with different cut lines. One says St Michael’s “wings are spread a little wider these days.” The hospital’s quarterly is also called Wings. The signs directing people to different locations in the hospital are emblazoned with the face of the warrior Archangel. This is, indeed, Catholic imagery at its highest.

At the main St Michael’s on Bond St, the imagery is even more striking. On the ground level of St Mike’s is what can only be called a shrine to him. A life-size statue of St Michael, with his sword implanted in the back of a dragon, is elevated on a dais, surrounded by vases of fresh flowers. I’m not sure which is scariest – the statue itself or the fact that people have left flowers to it.

One friend of mine who was educated in the private US Catholic school system reacts with hostility when asked about seeing depictions of St Michael the Archangel in a publicly funded hospital.

“For heaven’s sake, swords are used to kill people, not cure them,” he tells me. “The message of this imagery is one of intolerance. Swords are used, historically, against an enemy, to kill anyone who is different. As a gay man who is a client of the Wellesley, I find this imagery offensive.”

A product of the Catholic school system in Quebec (and a former altar boy) is local activist Michael McGaraughty. Recipient of the 1996 Outstanding Volunteer Pink Toronto Award and co-chair of Pride 1996 and 1997, he describes himself as a recovering Catholic.

“Having been raised Catholic, I’m tired of being told how unwelcome, repugnant and evil I am, especially when I’m in a vulnerable position as a patient,” McGaraughty says. “St Michael imagery is mercenary and violent. It reinforces the war between Catholicism and my orientation.”

Imagery and metaphors aside, there have been other concerns.

Rosemary MacGilchrist, director of corporate communications at St Michael’s, says St Mike’s has a hands off approach to things like safer sex education. In fact, it has no official policy on safer sex education. Though the Sisters Of St Joseph don’t take an active part in the St Mike’s board, it is inevitable that Roman Catholic beliefs and gay sex aren’t the best bed partners.

“It is understood that physician-patient safer sex counselling is a private, confidential matter,” MacGilchrist says. That seems to translate into no overall safe sex message, except for some posters in the Bond St HIV clinic. And these posters aren’t allowed to make reference to birth control.

To be fair, there is little evidence that the takeover of Wellesley by St Michael’s has resulted in en masse staff dissatisfaction. Gastroenterologist Gabor Kandel has gay and lesbian patients and was a vocal critic of the take over. He says he is still “quite happy at Wellesley,” and that he “hasn’t noticed any real changes.”

St Mike’s Statement Of Affirmation Regarding Accessible, Welcoming And Equitable Health Care For All says the hospital will “protect the right to sensitive, secure, respectful health care for all patients, including people living with HIV/AIDS, lesbians and gay men.”

But that seems impossible without tangible policies and community input – and if you need an abortion or tubal ligation, you’re out of luck.

While MacGilchrist says “respect for other religions and cultures will remain a part of St Michael’s mandate,” the quandary of a hospital owned by nuns remains.

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Power, Toronto

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