LEWISTON — When she was 14, Elizabeth Hopkins Foss wanted to be a nurse so badly that she sneaked into the hospital on her way to Lewiston High School, then on Central Avenue.

“I would sneak in through the ER room,” said Foss, now 89. “I knew where all the bathrooms were.”

“I loved the smell of the hospital,” she said Saturday at the St. Mary’s School of Nursing reunion. “I would go to every floor on a different day, then go to school. I wanted to be a nurse so bad and I loved the hospital.”

Being on a ward “made me feel like I was going to be a nurse,” Foss said.

She graduated from St. Mary’s School of Nursing, Class of 1946. Her 30-year career met her expectations.

“I loved it,” she said. “It was the best part of my life.”

Ninety-two alumni attended the reunion, which is held every four years.

The nursing school, which was run by Catholic nuns, opened in 1908 and closed in 1988, when nurses were expected to obtain college degrees instead of nursing school diplomas.

St. Mary’s Health System on Saturday unveiled a timeline wall that filled a corridor near the emergency room. Now a permanent exhibit paying tribute to nurses, the walls are filled with photographs of nurses wearing crisp white dresses and nurses’ caps.

Eleanor Bruce, 81, graduated with the Class of 1954, continued her education at Boston College, and taught at St. Mary’s School of Nursing before becoming the nursing school director.

When she first got to the school as a student in the early 1950s, she didn’t think nursing would work out for her. “I said, ‘I’m not staying. It’s not me,’” she recalled with a laugh Saturday. She soon changed her mind, and was proud to say she attended the school.

“When we were at Boston College, we worked part time at the New England Medical Center,” Bruce said. “When we went in to apply for a job, they said, ‘Where are you from?’ We said, ‘St. Mary’s in Lewiston,’” Bruce said. The school’s reputation was so good, they didn’t bother with references. “They said, ‘When can you start?’” Bruce said.

The nuns at the school instilled compassion. “They taught us to see the Lord in your patients,” Bruce said. “That was an inspiration.”

Attending the reunion were a handful of World War II-era cadet nurses who graduated in 1946 and 1947, including Foss, Therese Goulet, 86, Muriel Webber, 88, and Catherine Mann, 87.

Becoming a member of the U.S. Nurse Cadet Corps meant the government paid their tuition and gave them a salary, $15 a month for the first two and a half years. “After, you got a raise making $30 a month,” Goulet said, adding that they worked 12-hour days.

As cadets they could be called into Army service, but since World War II had ended, they were not.

“I thought (becoming a nurse cadet) was a wonderful thing,” Webber said. “We were happy. We were going to help the soldiers come back and take care of them. There was a lot of patriotism in those days.”

Nursing care isn’t what it was in their day, the women said.

Advanced knowledge, tests and health care provide better care. Patients get better sooner, they said. But today’s nurses don’t have the time to provide as much human contact.

“We used to give baths, back rubs, a lot of TLC,” Mann said.

“X-rays and tests were limited,” Goulet said. “We wrote a report on every patient when we left our shift. The doctors read the notes. We were the X-ray eyes of the doctors. We helped them with their diagnoses.”

Mann came to Lewiston after graduating from high school in Old Town. In the 1940s, “you didn’t have to know any English,” she said. “Everyone spoke French in the stores, the schools, the church, everywhere you went.”

For these four women, it’s once a nurse, always a nurse.

Even when they stopped working to raise families or care for loved ones, their advice and help was always sought.

“It’s always with you,” Goulet said. “It’s forever.”

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