#141 Sister St. Thomas: A Life Devoted to Nursing Education

Jeff Dobbin Leaders & Legacy

“Sister St. Thomas’ contribution to nursing was to turn generations of students into proficient nurses.” — Ronnie Sylvester-Palache, RN, MSN, FNP

In decade of the 1980s, while the AIDS epidemic loomed large, nursing programs nationwide faced dire enrollment challenges, forcing many to shut down. Although it too was affected by the mass exodus from the nursing profession, Vermont College kept its doors open, buckled down, and took a proactive stance, diversifying its offerings and methods of delivery. As a result, VC’s nursing program survived this interval of fear and ignorance and grew even stronger.

Throughout this period of tribulation, one person largely responsible for the program’s diversification, as well as for maintaining and raising its already high standard of academic excellence, was devout Catholic nun Sister St. Thomas.

Born in Shelburne, Vermont, in 1923, Theresa Ann Thomas graduated from Shelburne High School and entered the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph (RHSJ) community in Winooski in June 1948, taking the name of Sister St. Thomas.

Sr. St. Thomas arrived at Vermont College in 1969 as nursing faculty and coordinator of the first-year curriculum. In 1973, she wrote an HEW grant that brought in $385,000, allowing VC to modernize its nursing curriculum and renovate Stone Science, including adding computer resources.

She was instrumental in creating the weekend nursing program and the baccalaureate program for RNs, helping to fill the niche left vacant by other programs in the state: that of serving rural hospitals. “[Our] nursing program really focused on the needs of the people of Vermont,” St. Thomas said.

According to one former student, “Her lectures … were outstanding. I will never forget her emphasis on the importance of self-knowledge and humility to the nurse, and the equally critical responsibility of alert attention to the patient.”

Besides being a stellar teacher, St. Thomas was a lifelong learner. While earning an EdD from Nova University in 1985, she did her doctoral study on computers and their implications for the nursing profession. As part of her research, she surveyed 1,000 hospitals and forecast the changes needed in the use of computers in nursing education.

Another student noted, “As a teacher, Sister introduced me and my fellow students to the most current theories and practices in nursing while also encouraging us to be independent thinkers.”

A strong advocate for her fellow nurses, St. Thomas was a member of the Vermont State Nurses Association and the National League for Nursing. She also served as the Vermont representative to the International Council of Nursing, as a national accreditation visitor to schools of nursing, and as a consultant to schools of nursing in Maine, Minnesota, Oregon, and Ireland.

In 1987, in recognition of her work and the high esteem with which she was held by students and colleagues alike, Dr. Thomas received the Vermont College of Norwich University Alumna Award. When she retired in 2000, she was awarded the status of professor emerita.

In 2013, Sr. St. Thomas moved to Our Lady of Providence to join her RHSJ community. She passed away four years later at age 89.