MT. CALVARY – Sr. Stephen Bloesl never wanted to be a nurse.Sr. Stephen Bloesl, a Sister Servant of Christ the King, carries a newborn goat on Friday, April 18, to show residents of Villa Loretto Nursing Home in Mt. Calvary where she serves as director of nursing services. (Catholic Herald photo by Steve Wideman))

The thought of sticking a needle into someone’s arm gave her chills.

As a student at Lourdes Academy in Oshkosh in the 1960s, she kept close to her heart a decision to join the Sister Servants of Christ the King.

“It was one of those things you didn’t want people to know about. I was afraid my friends would think I was holier-than-thou,” said the 65-year-old Sr. Stephen, whose ultimate decisions to join a religious order and to become a nurse are about to cast her in a national spotlight.

Sr. Stephen is one of six nurses from across the country to have their stories told in a feature-length documentary film honoring the nursing profession.

A bevy of photojournalists and a videographer from New York City recently descended upon Fond du Lac County’s “holyland” to capture the essence of Sr. Stephen and her unique work blending farm animals with caring for patients at the Villa Loretto Nursing Home in Mt. Calvary where she serves as director of nursing services.

“They wanted to find out what makes nurses tick. Why do nurses make that career choice?” Sr. Stephen said. “Maybe my story will inspire someone else to become a nurse.”

The film is part of the American Nurse Project, an effort to capture through film and photographs the excitement and rewarding opportunities found in the nursing profession.

Thus far the project has produced a book of photographs, “The American Nurse,” featuring 75 nurses from across the country, including Sr. Stephen, and video interviews with 103 nurses on the website Jaka Vinsek of Carolyn Jones Productions in New York films Sr. Stephen Bloesl, a Sister Servant of Christ the King, of Villa Loretto Nursing Home in Mt. Calvary on Friday, April 18. Sr. Stephen is one of six nurses from around the country to be part of a feature-length film tentatively titled “The American Nurse.” (Catholic Herald photo by Steve Wideman)

The feature-length film, with the working title, “The American Nurse,” winnows the initial 103 interviews down to six stories about nurses ranging from Sr. Stephen’s work using animal therapy to help people cope with end-of-life issues, to nurses helping military veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to treating patients at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Film director Carolyn Jones of Carolyn Jones Productions in New York said the focus on Sr. Stephen began as she learned about end-of-life issues while interviewing nurses.

“As I started gaining an understanding of end-of-life issues in this country, I wanted to dive deeper and explore them. Sr. Stephen and Villa Loretto represent to me what the best of end-of-life care should look like,” said Jones, an award–winning filmmaker and photographer best known for her work with documentary production and socially proactive photographic portraiture.

Jones’ book, “Living Proof: Courage in the Face of AIDS,” drew international acclaim with shows in Tokyo, Berlin, the United States and the United Nations World AIDS Conference.

She anticipates the nursing documentary to be finished by year’s end and entered in a variety of film festivals, including the Sundance Film Festival, held each January in Park City, Utah.

A breast cancer survivor, Jones hopes her most recent effort to spotlight the nursing profession creates an awareness of how fulfilling nursing can be as a career.

“I don’t think people know how exciting nursing can be and heaven knows we need nurses,” Jones said.

Her recent visit to Villa Loretto and its menagerie of therapy animals – from baby goats and ring-tailed lemurs to full-grown llamas and a Clydesdale draught horse – left Jones amazed at the one-of-a-kind facility.

“I haven’t seen anything like this and I’ve been around the world,” Jones said. “To see the whole cycle of life from the birth of a baby goat to Sr. Stephen placing a small animal in the hands of an elderly person is so beautiful.”
“You see a renewed sense of joy in patient faces. You’ve got family and grandchildren visiting because they can’t wait to see the animals. You’ve got kids running all over the place,” Jones said. “There is an integration of life here that I haven’t witnessed anywhere. I think it’s magic.”
Sr. Stephen came to Villa Loretto in September 1965, the day the facility opened.

“I was a nursing assistant, but had no intention of becoming a nurse,” Sr. Stephen said. “I always liked being around older people. I used to be a candy striper in Oshkosh when I was a young girl and worked at two nursing homes.”

Life changed for Sr. Stephen, who took her vows in 1970 with the Sister Servants of Christ the King, when a patient passed away and the family wanted to establish a living memorial by sending a person through nursing school.

“Our Mother Superior asked me to consider becoming a nurse. I was really unsure of that. Academically, I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t take chemistry in high school. I had all these excuses. I didn’t want to give shots,” Sr. Stephen said. “Finally, I broke down. I thought, ‘This is God’s plan for me. It’s the will of God.’”

Sr. Stephen enrolled at Marian College in Fond du Lac where she earned her nursing degree.

“I never would have done it if God hadn’t given me that push,” she said.

A city dweller with no farm experience, Sr. Stephen’s work employing mostly farm animals as therapy for nursing home patients began when Villa Loretto acquired an unwanted and orphaned lamb.

“Then one day I stopped at a pet store and had the chance to hold a baby goat. I came back and told the sisters we had to have a baby goat. They were so cute,” she said.  

One thing led to another and pretty soon the nursing home had a herd of 15 milking goats.

A veritable Noah’s Ark of horses, donkeys, geese, pigs and other mostly farm animals followed.

“The animals give our patients a lot of joy,” Sr. Stephen said.

She enjoys bringing the animals for visits inside the nursing home.

“Particularly the babies. People love the babies,” Sr. Stephen said. “Even residents not feeling quite right will perk right up when we bring an animal into their room.”

Keeping up with Sr. Stephen is not an easy task, Jones and her production team discovered to their delight.

Barely 30 minutes after arriving at Villa Loretto from New York, Jones was alerted to the pending birth, presided over by Sr. Stephen, of a goat in a nearby barn.

“We went running and got to the barn just as the goat was being born,” Jones said.

Within another hour Jones and her crew were summoned, with permission of family members, to the room of one patient who was near death.

“The nursing home has a custom where all the nurses who cared for a dying patient will come to the room. Even the gentleman who cares for the animals is there,” Jones said. “Sr. Stephen is there with a musical instrument she plays as everyone sings hymns. It turns out that was the last day of that patient’s life.”

“I’m not sure I’ve met anyone in my life whose life is as full as Sr. Stephen’s life,” Jones said. “It’s so rich. It’s just so darn beautiful.”
Sr. Stephen calls the highlights of her life “God winks.”

“I had no intention of being a nurse, but God put that into my life. I was so surprised to be selected for the documentary on nurses.

That was another God wink,” she said. “Being in this documentary has been a highlight of my life. It’s rekindled my pride of and commitment to nursing. It’s one of those shots in the arm.”