Mercy Legacy – Sister Mary Zita
Sister Mary Zita Brennan, known as Mercy’s “baby sister,” was born to a poor Kilkenny family on a cold, damp St. Patrick’s Day. A premature baby, Sister Zita recalls being told that she was so frail her “parents put her basket in front of the open health for extra warmth.” A goat provided the extra milk she needed to survive. Sister Zita’s parents felt education was important and instilled this belief and a deep and fervent Catholic faith in their seven children.
It was this strong, faith-filled spirit that sustained Ellen Patricia Brenna as she made her way alone at the age of 15 from her beloved Ireland to the strange shores of America. In 1922, she left her Uncle Richard’s farm in Colo, Iowa, and traveled to Mercy Des Moines to begin nurses’ training. She was a typical, shy, yet wide-eyed girl, who loved to learn. She loved American History classes taken at North high.
During a late winter snow storm in 1926, Ellen traveled to Council Bluffs to enter the Mount Loretto novitiate of the Sisters of Mercy where she became Sister Mary Zita. Sister Zita finished nurses’ training during her novitiate years, and then worked at Mercy Hospital in Council Bluffs until she was reassigned to Des Moines in 1939. She returned to the obstetrical department at Mercy and found it physically unchanged from her student years in the 1920s. There were war-induced shortages, crowded conditions, and other inconveniences.
Sister Zita started the milk laboratory located as the opposite end of a “block-long” hallway from the nursery. Mothers’ rooms were situated in the West Wind, a great distance from the delivery rooms positioned on the east end of the Central Wing.
Sister Zita and the staff suffered from chronically chapped hands because they used lye rinses to help prevent the spread of infection. She spent long days making sure every comfort possible was given to the new babies and their families. Little touches added by her became well-known in Des Moines. Perhaps the best known of these was the hand-written birth certificate which accompanied each birth. Sister Zita’s famous calligraphy graced these announcements, as well as thousands of comforting letters and special prayers addressed to “Mommy and Daddy”.
Sister Zita also inaugurated a “care package” which the new families took home. The package included a six-pack of formula with specific instruction on the care and feeding of the new Mercy nursery graduate.
For more than 34 years, Sister Zita applied her comforting ministry to families who came to Mercy to participate in the miracle of new life. Her greatest pleasure came from “getting to do for people-the mothers and the babies. And the fathers, God bless them. Don’t forget the fathers.”
Throughout the years, Sister Zita rejoiced with each move of the maternity department. In 1959, a new obstetrical department opened in the South Wing. When Sister Zita retired in the 1970s, she continued in an advisory capacity in the newly completed obstetrical unit in the Mercy tower complex.
Sister Zita taught maternity nursing, gynecological nursing, and newborn care in the hospital. She also taught courses targeted for licensing practical nurses through the adult education program of the Des Moines Public School System.
In 1968, Sister Zita was named Nurse of the Year by the Seventh District Iowa Nurses’ Association. In 1979, Sister Zita accepted the Des Moines Citizens Community Betterment Award. In 1988, she was given the Distinguished Achievement Award in the Fields of Human Relations and Community Service from the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
Sister Zita thanked God for her life: “It is through being a Sister of Mercy that I have been able to do those things I feel I was sent to America to do. I love Des Moines… it is through this community that I have been able to be challenged and rewarded time and time again.”
This original article was published in the Those Who Come to Bless: Mercy Hospital 100 Years of Healing by Loretta Greiner.