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Ghost of Sister Vinnie a soothing sight

Toronto, October 25, 2012

By Navindra Budhram

Sister Vincenza, right, with a newborn.
Sister Vincenza, right, with a newborn. Photo courtesy of St. Michael’s Hospital archives

Long after her death, some patients and staff say Sister Vincenza is still doing her rounds and comforting patients on the 7th floor of St. Michael's Cardinal Carter wing.

Sister Vincenza, who was born Vincentia Mullen, graduated from the hospital’s nursing program in 1922 and worked at St. Michael’s from 1928 until 1956 as the supervisor of obstetrics.

Affectionately known as “Vinnie,” Sister Vincenza died in 1958. But tales of her ghostly figure appearing on 7CC – formerly obstetrics, now home to the Heart and Vascular program – have persisted since 1965.

“It was common for a nun or a nurse to enter a patient’s room and be asked, ‘Who was that lovely woman by my beside in the middle of the night, dressed in all white?’,” said Chuckie Shevlen, a former nurse and director of mission and values. “But patients would always receive the same response: no one was in your room.”

During her 28 years at St. Michael’s, Sister Vincenza had many accomplishments, including caring for 60,000 babies and instructing 18,000 nurses. Under her supervision, St. Michael’s maintained an infant mortality ratio below the national average of 38 out of every 1,000, reaching as few as 10 out of every 1,000.

“Vinnie worked at a time when the number of births at St. Michael’s was extremely high--10 a day,” said Shevlen. “She formed a special bond with the babies in obstetrics and could identify each of them by sight alone. That’s probably why she keeps coming back, to watch over the patients who can still be found in that area of the hospital.”

Shevlen said Sister Vincenza is reported to calm or soothe people who see her.

“She will appear in the night, faceless and dressed in all white,” Shevlen said. “She will briefly touch a person’s arm and then offer that person a blanket.”

But while Sister Vincenza’s ghost is considered to be somewhat laid back, she was anything but in life.

Margaret Riddell, a volunteer at St. Michael’s, graduated in 1956 from the hospital’s nursing program and worked directly with Vinnie.

“She ran a tight ship,” said Riddell. “She was a tyrant. Even the doctors were at her mercy. But she still had a great sense of humour and cared about all patients, staff and anyone who walked through our doors.”