86-year-old nun champions change in health care
By: Melissa Grau
As war raged in Vietnam, waves beat the shores of Guam, a tiny U.S. territory island in the South Pacific. The island temperatures matched the heat of flaming tensions within the government-run Guam Memorial Hospital. Native nurses had little education or experience. Imported Filipino nurses couldn’t speak English to care for their patients. And Navy nurses—often cycling through during their husbands’ tours of duty—stayed too briefly to train and commit. Traditional island gender roles clashed with imported hospital regulations from progressive California. The roiling conflicts festered into high turnover, low salaries and long hours for staff poorly served by an alcoholic and untrustworthy leader.
Through turbulent tides, in the heat of the moment, a nun closed her eyes.
Not in prayer, but in defiance.
“I did go down to the personnel office. There were three men there. Everything was run by men at that time,” says the nun. “They started talking Chimoran, so of course I didn’t know what they were talking about.” Disregarding their own rule to only speak English in the hospital, the men talked over their new director of nurses and her plea for higher salaries.
She talked louder, “I don’t mind working for a little bit, but these people are trying to feed their families, and they’re working hard. They deserve benefits. As long as you’re going to speak Chimoran, I’m going to have a little nap. I’m really tired. And when I wake up, I expect to have the salary raised.”
“I really did go to sleep,” Sister Leclare Beres recalls with a little laugh. “And yes, they raised the salaries.”
It is often said that well-behaved women rarely make history. Though obedient and observant of sanctity, nuns in health care carved out a place in American history as true pioneers over the past century. Leclare is part of Wisconsin’s unique piece of that story.
“You probably think I’m a brat. But I’m just being honest.” As an 86-year-old nun wearing a bicycle-embroidered T-shirt, her spunky personality is quick to defy all stereotypes. Reactions to her stories are more like, “Solidarity, sister!” Ahem, Sister Leclare, that is.
A powerhouse, Leclare has affected change in health care throughout the world. Whether telling doctors what to do in a pediatric ward in Idaho, fighting for labor equity in Guam (an island, despite conflict, she lovingly claims she would have lived on forever), teaching nurses patient-focused care in China, or spearheading free clinics for the disadvantaged in Wisconsin, she always advocates for the underdog. “She is strong-willed to the point of stubborn,” says former coworker and current Director of Saint Clare Health Mission, Sandy Brekke.
“When she sees something that’s an injustice, she will work and work and work to make a change. She always succeeded.”
“You know,” Leclare says as she raises her eyebrows. “I never lose my spunk.”