Sister Leclare Beres devoted her life to helping others, especially the poor, the sick, the disadvantaged. Ministering to people, she told others, was the reason she believed God had called her to become a Franciscan nun.
“She was here on this earth to serve, that's for sure, and inspire others to do the same,” said Sandy Brekke, director of the St. Clare Health Mission that Beres helped establish in 1992.
So the rural Elroy native spent nine years as a missionary and hospital nursing director in Guam. She helped found and operate the Indochinese Screening Clinic from 1984 to 1998 that served Hmong refugees settling in La Crosse.
But Beres perhaps is best known as the person who improbably brought the city’s two hospitals -- then St. Francis, later Franciscan Skemp, and Gundersen Lutheran -- together to create the St. Clare Health Mission two decades ago for those who could not afford care elsewhere.
Officials at both Mayo Clinic Health Systems and Gundersen Health System concede the clinic might never have been realized without the steady, persistent drive of Beres, who died late Friday at age 88.
“The time was right for us to do something in our community for the uninsured. With Sister Leclare’s leadership, it just came together,” said Joe Kruse, now CEO of Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare, who worked closely with Beres to form the free clinic and remained close friends over the years.
It still is rare and then was almost unknown for two competing hospitals to join forces on such an endeavor, said Gundersen pediatrician Dr. Steven Manson, St. Clare’s medical director for 13 years and a clinic volunteer for two decades.
“That speaks highly to her ability to bring people together to work for a common cause,” Manson said.
“She persisted despite all odds, all barriers; she wouldn’t let anything stop her. And she did it with such great joy, love for her fellow human beings.”
In two decades, about 20,000 people have come through the clinic, some repeatedly, some with serious health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer that might otherwise have gone undetected, Manson said. The clinic also boasts hundreds of volunteers committed to maintaining the sister’s goals.
Born one of 11 children raised on a farm, the former Evelyn Marcella Beres entered St. Rose Convent in 1944 and took her vows as a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration three years later, following an older sister, Theone, as a Catholic nun.
Her work in administration at St. Francis Hospital and the clinic sometimes overshadowed that she was a fine nurse, with a master’s degree and gentle rapport with patients. Kruse said his four sons, now grown, viewed her as a grandmother.
And anyone who has an image of nuns as stern or somber never met Beres. Her friends described her as playful, sometimes giggly, even a bit mischievous, a great storyteller and fond of parties.
“She loved to be with people,” Kruse said. “She had a great sense of humor, delightful and funny.”
Brekke said when Beres became fixed on a project or goal, they would tease her by singing an adapted version of a “Sound of Music” song: “How do you solve a problem like Leclare?”
Because they knew in the end Beres would convince whoever needed persuading to go along with her plans.
“People trusted her. When she asked, people responded,” Kruse said. “She spoke with complete credibility as a person. You knew what she was interested in had nothing to do with her -- it was the people she wanted to serve."
Her work earned her many honors -- the YWCA Tribute to Outstanding Women, the Viterbo University Pope John XXIII Award, the Iverson Freking Ecumenical Recognition Award, the Marquette University Alumni Service to the Community Award, among them -- and in 2002 she became the Tribune’s first Person of the Year Award. She was grateful for the accolades but sometimes embarrassed, friends said.
When they marked St. Clare’s 20th anniversary a year ago, “I told her she was one of my heroes,” Manson said.
Beres kept busy even after stepping down as clinic director in 2003. She spent several months teaching nursing in China -- a place she originally had hoped to do missionary work in only to see the government close off the country -- and regularly volunteered at the clinic into this summer.
Yet as her health and age began to take its toll in the past year, “You got the feeling if she could no longer do service here on Earth,” Brekke said. “She was ready to move on to the next step.”
But Beres remained mentally sharp and as active as possible until the end, going out to dinner Tuesday with a fellow Franciscan sister, Brekke said. Even Friday, Beres repeatedly spoke of being “so grateful” for the life she had been granted, Brekke said.
“I think the world is a little sadder today, but again, she would hate to hear that,” Brekke said. “She would want people to be inspired and continue the work.”