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Chicago Nurses' Parade

Monday January 12, 2004
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"Two thousand uniformed nurses, their capes fluttering in the chill evening air, marched down Jackson Boulevard from Garfield Park last night in a colorful hour-long parade. The nurses were joined by 2,000 other marchers ... from the Army, Navy, Marines, National Guard, and Chicago Police and Fire Departments. It was the 10th annual Nurses' Day Parade."
Haven't heard about the Nurses' Day Parade before? Few people have. And don't plan on seeing it this year. The Chicago Nurses' Day Parade was last held in the city almost 50 years ago. It ran for 10 years between 1949 and 1958 and was usually held in May - the month during which today's nurses celebrate Nurses Week. The quote above was taken from the May 10, 1958, edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune.
Nurses who marched in the parade are now in their sixties, seventies, or older. Loretta Mostaccio, 69, who lives in Elmwood Park, IL, recalls marching in the parade was "quite an honor." Mostaccio was a student at St. Anne's Hospital when she marched in the parade in the early 1950s.
"I remember being very excited about it,"says Mostaccio. "I remember making this big globe out of papier-mâché. Our float was the queen of nations float. We had flags of all kinds. I was on a pedestal over the globe, and I was dressed as the Virgin Mary."
Janet Hantsch, RN, of Lisle, IL, a 1958 graduate of St. Xavier University School of Nursing, marched in the 1956 parade. "I remember how proud we were to be included in this event," she says. "As I recall, we marched from Garfield Park to Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica, where a ceremony was held."
The parade was touted as the "only parade in the world honoring nurses." At its zenith, it drew up to 50,000 spectators, often including noted local politicians, such as Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson. Mayor Daley is quoted in the parade's archives as saying, "This annual parade serves as an effective means of drawing attention to the vital need for trained nurses and an incentive toward recruiting."
The parade archives also reveal a message from the White House explaining President Dwight Eisenhower's tight schedule would prevent him from coming to the 1956 parade.
"According to a White House aide close to the President, in expressing his regrets, the President voiced his 'deep admiration for the nurses' profession" and held "it in great respect and esteem," the archives show.
Constance L. Earle, RN, of Lombard, IL, a 1955 graduate of St. Anne's Hospital who marched in the parade, says, "I remember riding on a float. We were cheered and applauded. I especially remember the Brennan family, who I believe had all their babies at St. Anne's. They had a very large family, and they would all attend the parade and hold signs to honor the St. Anne's nurses."
The parade included floats from many of Chicago's hospitals, including Alexian Brothers Hospital, St. Bernard's Hospital, and Mt. Sinai Hospital, as well as many facilities that have since closed, such as Chicago Fresh Air Hospital, the Contagious Disease Hospital, and Belmont Hospital. In later years, hospitals from as far as Wisconsin and Indiana participated in the celebration.
"I entered Saint Margaret Hospital School of Nursing in Hammond, IN, in September 1957; and, if I am not mistaken, it may have been in 1958 when our school was invited to march in the Nurses' Parade," says Nancy Kolinski, RN. "I shall always remember it; it was breathtaking. As we marched into the church, which was lit only with candles, each nurse held a lighted candle. As we all sang 'Ave, Ave, Maria', we raised our candles up as we went to our seats. One of my classmates, who was not a Catholic, sat in the pew and just cried. When we asked why she was crying, she said she had never seen anything so beautiful with all of us in uniform."
The parade was written about and photographed by Chicago newspapers, such as the Chicago Daily Tribune, The Chicago Daily News, The New World, and the Garfieldian. It often had themes related to nursing or healthcare. A New World headline in the May 20, 1955, issue said, "Nurses Day Parade Will Honor Discoverer of Polio Vaccine" and "Floats Depict Historic Find by Dr. Salk."
Marybeth Young, RN, of Chicago, says she was with the float thanking Salk for
his discovery.
"As a 1955 graduate of St. Elizabeth's Hospital School of Nursing, I have fond memories of the parade," she says. "We had chartered buses to take us to Jackson Boulevard where each group connected with floats assembled at the various schools and agencies."
One year the parade's theme was "Life of the Student Nurse." Planning notes in the archives show one float was going to represent the anniversary of hospital nursing schools and another float was to depict the steps leading to an RN career, "with a girl or boy without uniform leading to the top step and a glorified RN as queen."
Another float was described as having pre-clinical students in a classroom being taught by a handsome physician who visibly distracted the girls. Fortunately, the archives explain this float was "intended to be amusing."
It may have been during the 1950s when women were still expected to be either nurses or teachers, but not all the nurses who marched in the parade were female. Bob Jaeger, RN, was a 19-year-old student at Alexian Brothers Hospital School of Nursing when he marched in the parade in 1953. Jaeger was vice president of the National Student Nurses Association at the time.
"We were all guys at Alexian Brothers," he says. "We didn't mind marching in the parade if it gave us a chance to meet some young women."
The founder and driving force behind the parade was the late Father Clarence M. Brissette, OSM, the National Director of the Sorrowful Mother Novena at Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica on Jackson Boulevard. His writings in the basilica's weekly newsletter, Novena Notes, reveal a great respect and passion for the nursing profession. But nowhere in the archives does he explain where he gained his insight into nurses and what they do.
Father Conrad Borntrager, OSM, a priest and provincial archivist of the religious order Mary (Servites), has kept the records of the parade in the archives at Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica. Although Borntrager marched in the parade as a band member on several occasions, he does not recall why Brissette championed nurses. Now nurses can only speculate whether he had a mother or other relative who was a nurse or perhaps had a prolonged hospital stay himself.
The nurses' parade evolved from Friday night pilgrimages organized and led by Brissette. During these pilgrimages, Catholic prayers to the Virgin Mary would be said in public by groups of men and women.
Although the Novena Notes newsletters unabashedly link images of nursing with religion and the Virgin Mary, Brissette, in his own words, said the parade was nondenominational. The New World newspaper quotes Brissette as saying the purpose of the parade was to place "a noble profession on a national pedestal where it rightly belongs. While Nurses' Day is under the auspices of the Sorrowful Mother Novena, we do not regard the occasion as a denominational one. The novena seeks to focus attention on the heroic work men and women nurses perform regardless of race, creed, or color."
At the end of the parade, Catholic nurses could renew their "Nurses' Pledge." But there is no explanation from where the pledge derived. The pledge read:
"I solemnly pledge myself before God and at this service of the Sorrowful Mother Novena to pass my life in purity and to practice my profession faithfully.
"I will abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous and will not take or knowingly administer any harmful drug.
"I will do all in my power to elevate the standard of my profession and will hold in confidence all personal matters committed to my keeping and all family affairs coming to my knowledge in the practice of my calling.
"With loyalty I will endeavor to aid the physician in his work and devote myself to the welfare of those entrusted to my care. So be it."
The Chicago Nurses' Parade ended abruptly in 1958 when Brissette left as national novena director at the basilica. There is no further mention of the parade after that year or news about why it was discontinued. By then, American life was changing and the parade's era, characterized by devotion to family, country, and God following World War II, would be forever transformed by the upheaval of the 1960s and the Vietnam War. The nursing profession evolved along with the rest of American society, leaving behind faded memories of the Chicago Nurses' Parade.