History Project – Mathew 25 Dental Clinic

Susyn GiaQuinta shares personal memories of the early days of the Matthew 25 Dental Clinic and some of the other dedicated, hard-working individuals who shared their expertise to serve persons in need.

In 1979, my husband and I moved back to Fort Wayne. After graduating from Ohio State University in 1976 with degrees in Dental Hygiene, I lived and worked in Bloomington while my husband finished law school. We decided to move back to Fort Wayne to begin the next phase of our life.

In the spring of 1979, I attended a gathering at a friend’s home, where I met Don Brogan. Once he heard I was a Dental Hygienist, he eagerly told me about a volunteer Dental Clinic that was opening soon, to be staffed with volunteers to serve “the working poor”. He didn’t have to tell me more. I enjoyed volunteering during college as a Big Sis and at the Deaf School, and more recently a Girl Scout leader in Bloomington. I signed up immediately.

The Dental Clinic occupied a home on Clay Street, across the street from the Health Clinic. The Health Clinic opened their doors in 1976 after a need was recognized by a group from St Mary’s, who addressed poverty with a volunteerism in legal defense. This group recognized that health needed to be addressed first. Likewise, the Health Clinic recognized the interrelation of Dental Disease and systemic health, and the need for dentures and restorative oral needs. Prior to the opening of the Dental Clinic, patients were referred to the office of Dr. Robert Getty DDS who provided dental service at no cost.

I met my colleagues, who consisted of Dr James Lawrence DDS, and June Moord. June was coordinator of volunteers, assistant to Dr Lawrence, and in charge of the sterilization of instruments. The clinic housed two very old fashioned chairs ( the kind you pump up and down.) The instruments weren’t plentiful, and also a little primitive. However, we were grateful for the donations.

Our patients were referred by the Health Clinic. They took medical histories, and screened patients for serious health needs that might interfere with Dental procedures. We saw patients in the evening, maybe once a week.

The patients we served were known as “the working poor”. They had jobs, and did not qualify for government assistance, i.e. Medicaid. Many did not have health insurance; or some had a catastrophic illness that used up their life savings. Our dental patients needed dentures, (we teamed up with one of the schools who taught and made Dental prosthesis.) Patients also needed fillings, root canals, and extractions. Cleanings were offered, along with education to maintain a healthy mouth and body.

We saw immigrants, transgender individuals, people of color, old and young, people who used to have wealth and now were faced with living without, people who were caregivers and didn’t have the means to take care of themselves. (I remember asking a female patient why she looked so tired. She explained that she is up half the night, monitoring her husband’s heartbeat, worrying his heart might stop.) Transportation of patients was a challenge. June and I took many a patient home after clinic hours. But the underlying connection of all these patients was their gratitude. They had the opportunity to have a place that recognized their dignity. Our patients walked out with a new smile.

In 1981, with a baby now, I was asked to be a member of the Board. I remember sitting in the rectory at St Mary’s with Don Brogan and others, to review our goals and finances. Inevitably, we would need equipment and I remember praying for it – and we would always get it! We worked with Parkview Hospital and St Joseph Hospital, to refer some of our patients. Personally, I recruited volunteers from our local Dental Hygiene School, and our local Dental Hygiene Society. But it soon became obvious that we needed to expand our services. Patients continued to come. In January 1985, the two clinics moved to a nearby building on Jefferson, and just in time, as Fort Wayne lost it’s biggest employer, International Harvester.

Today Matthew 25 has expanded to include vision care, diabetes care, and a pharmacy. It continues to be free, and is funded by individuals, grants, corporations, churches – no government funding. Fr Tom O’Connor, lived his life professing the Gospel of Matthew 25, but he did more, by inviting us all on this walk… ME! Don Brogan, Eve Bratton, Dr. Jim Lawrence, June Moord, Suzi Beard, Dr Keith Yoder, Dr. Jim Fry, to name a few. And the walk continues. It will always be my favorite experience, touching the lives of those who allowed me to serve them.

Many of the names mentioned above are no longer with us. This article is dedicated in their honor and memory.

Happy 175 Jubilee to St Mary’s. More than a building – A Breath of the Holy Trinity…
breathing out, as the community accepts and breathes in.

Susyn GiaQuinta, August 2023