S. Mary De Sales Leheney

On Feb. 21, 1901 New Mexico’s Territorial Board of Health issued a license for the practice of medicine to a S. Mary De Sales Leheney in Santa Fe, N.M. Today that would scarcely be a newsworthy item, but in 1901, in the Territory, no other woman had yet been licensed, and even in the United States there were few women doctors.

To make the situation unique in medical history, not only had S. Mary De Sales never attended medical school, she had terminated her formal education in the eighth grade and then worked in a Cincinnati shoe factory before entering the convent. Assigned to Santa Fe after her year of Novitiate, she went West over the newly opened Santa Fe Trail in 1881. There, in a little adobe hospital where destitute men from mines, road construction sites, and lumber camps were cared for, she found opportunity to give full scope to her remarkable gifts of mind, heart and body. Quickly she acquired nursing skills, became an excellent diagnostician, a capable pharmacist and an invaluable aide to the few overworked doctors in the Territory.

One day a poor fellow was brought in from a saloon brawl with a bullet lodged in his throat. No doctor was available and Sister, knowing that unless he had surgery at once the man’s minutes were numbered, gathered the necessary instruments and performed the operation as she had watched doctors do it time and again. The man recovered in record time and after that whenever a patient’s life depended on the immediate probing for a bullet, or the suturing of a knife wound, or even on the amputation of a gangrenous limb, if no doctor were present, Sister would take over in the operating room. Her patients made fine recoveries and doctors who examined them after their emergency operations were loud in their praise.

Sister was 45 years old when grateful patients, admiring doctors, and appreciative VIPs in Territorial government circles initiated the movement to have her licensed, which would officially provide her with the extraordinary permission to continue in her work without medical school diploma. The public ceremony brought people from the farthest boundaries of New Mexico to see the nun everyone in Santa Fe knew as “mother” made a certified doctor – a doctor with an eighth-grade education!

Until a fire in the hospital, when she carried amputees out on her back (they had no wheelchairs then), S. Mary De Sales had a beautiful carriage, tall and regal. As a result of the fire, however, she suffered a back injury for which nothing could be done at the time, and soon she was hopelessly crippled. She was so bent over that one could scarcely see her face. But she never went off duty. She kept her quiet air of command, her kindness, her fine mind and that wonderful smile of hers to the end.

“She had a man’s mind and a man’s courage to tackle the unknown,” S. Aloysia Moorman once told me, “but she was completely womanly in appearance and in her compassion for the poor and suffering. She was handsome and had what the papers, which loved to feature her, always called a ‘golden smile.’”

Characteristically she died as the result of a final act of charity. According to S. Aloysia, she stopped one evening while on night duty to console an old man, dying without friends or family at his side.

“Sister,” he whispered, “I’d like a bracer of good strong coffee.”

The kitchen was in another building and the walkway between the buildings was ice-coated, but bent-over as Sister had been since her accident, she started out in the dark. They found her lying helpless on the ice with a broken hip. Two weeks later she died; it was November 1934. She had spent 54 years at St. Vincent Hospital.

Written by S. Marie Emmanuel Streit