By Bonny Van

The Catholic Commentator 

In an era of constant change in medical and technological protocol in the health care industry, it is amazing to realize that in Baton Rouge, Catholic health care through Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center has been going strong for 95 years and continues moving and growing for future generations.  


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The State of Louisiana purchased the old site on Capitol Lake. By 1982, the old facility was demolished. Today, a major government facility is located on the property. </span id=”0″>Photos provided by OLORMC 


“I was born at The Lake,” said Phyllis Simmons RN, BSN, who has worked at the hospital for almost 50 years. “My family being Catholic, they always looked to The Lake, so the sisters have always provided health care for my family.”  

In 1911, sisters with the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady arrived in the United States from France and ministered in health care. The first foundation was established in Monroe, then the sisters moved south to Baton Rouge to continue the ministry. By 1923, the sisters opened Our Lady of the Lake Sanitarium, a four-story complex with 100 beds and a School of Nursing to educate and train nurses.  

“We’ve gone from having the dear sisters … when we first started, they literally learned on the floors how to be nurses, all students, not just the sisters, that’s just how you did,” said Sister Martha Ann Abshire, vice president for Mission Identity at Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University.  

Simmons recalled visiting the hospital as a young child because her sister suffered from rheumatic heart fever. During that era, children stayed in wards under the care of the sisters and nurses.  

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A vintage photo shows nurses at work at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. 


“I remember Sister Philomena – every time I would (visit), she would bring a silver goblet of ice-cold peaches and vanilla wafers and I would sit up in my sister’s bed and I would eat those,” said Simmons. “And, I disconnected from that goblet until I went into nursing school and we had silver goblets on our tray service for our patients. But those goblets, when I first saw them, brought back that first memory.”  

Simmons and Sister Martha Ann recall the rigors of studying to be a nurse, including taking care of patients even as they continued to go to classes and study for exams, often working past midnight to prepare for patient care early the next morning. They both referred to nursing as a “calling,” and noted that not all of the students who started the program were able to complete it.  

According to Sister Martha Ann, students were required to “understand treatments and why a patient was receiving that treatment and all the details of that treatment.”  

She said they also had to understand each drug and the side effects, including multi-vitamins and the individual side effect of each vitamin, a memory that elicited groans from both Sister Martha Ann and Simmons. 

“People don’t realize how very, very, very hard nursing education is,” said Sister Martha Ann. “Two weeks after I graduated, they put me in a different unit and made me a charge nurse on 3 – 11 (3 p.m. – 11 p.m. shift). My knees were knocking, but I knew what to do.”  

The hospital and school remained at the Capitol Lake site from 1923 to 1978, when it moved to its current location on Essen Lane. Today, the facility has a bed capacity of 800. Simmons works in regulatory infection control and health and safety while Sister Martha Ann has transitioned into an educational role with FranU. However, their memories of their early days in the medical field remain strong. Those memories include being on the front lines of patient care, when they had to crush and dilute pills and clean glass syringes and sharpen their own needles, to the front lines of deadly bacteria, such as H. flu meningitis which claimed the lives of young children before the Hib vaccine, and deadly diseases, including AIDS.  

“I come from a long line of nurses that were educated at The Lake,” said Simmons. “I have three aunts that graduated from the nursing school.  

“The sisters have been a part of my whole life, basically.” 

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In the 1950s, the number of patient beds at OLOL was increased to 400 at the Capitol Lake site. A seven-story wing was added to the main building.