Thursday 07.25.2019

St. Joseph Hospital, Chicago Celebrates 150 Years

Screen Shot 2019 07 25 at 9.36.42 AMWhen Sister Walburga Gehring was chosen to head up the first Catholic hospital on the North Side of Chicago, the beginning could hardly have been less auspicious.

Sister Walburga was sent from a hospital established by the Daughters of Charity years before in St. Louis to begin a new hospital with capital of less than $10, according to a talk delivered at St. Joseph Hospital June 11 by Daughter of Charity Betty Ann McNeil, the Vincentian Scholar-in-Residence in the Division of Mission and Ministry at DePaul University.

Shortly after Sister Walburga arrived, Chicago’s fourth bishop, James Duggan, who had asked the community to start a hospital, was admitted to a mental institution, and all of his promises were voided. So Sister Walburga and the two sisters who accompanied her remained at Holy Name School, living with other members of the community, sewing mattress ticks and pillows, and trying to get the project going.

Six months later, Vincentian Father Francis Burlando, the spiritual director for the sisters’ St. Joseph House in Emmitsburg, Maryland, visited, and advised Sister Walburga to “make a beginning, even if we will be obliged to break it up later,” according to an account Sister Walburga wrote before she left Chicago in 1882.

At those words, she wrote of herself, “The poor Sister shed an abundance of tears.”

But make a beginning she did, opening the doors to what was then known as Providence Hospital in a converted summer house near what is now the intersection of Clark Street and Diversey Avenue in what was then the town of Lake View in June 30, 1869. It was predated by Mercy Hospital, which opened near Rush Street and the Chicago River in 1852. By the time the Daughters of Charity opened their hospital, Mercy had relocated to the South Side.

The Daughters of Charity hospital — named St. Joseph when it opened its first purpose-built building at what is now Burling Street and Dickens Avenue — is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

It has survived many challenges since its founding, from longwinded priests who kept the sisters at Mass, delaying patients’ breakfasts (according to Sister Walburga), to the Great Chicago Fire, which erupted less than two months after the groundbreaking of the first St. Joseph Hospital and threatened — but did not burn — both the cottage hospital and the building under construction.

The sisters distinguished themselves caring for victims of the fire in one of four “barracks hospitals” established in its wake, and cemented their relationships with Catholic and non-Catholic supporters, donors and patients, according to Sister Walburga’s account.

By the time the 100-bed hospital opened, Sister Walburga estimated that the land, construction and furnishings cost $70,000.

The hospital grew over the years, and amassed a series of firsts, from opening a free outpatient clinic for the poor in 1884 to starting an inpatient unit for AIDS patients around 1994.

One rule, published in 1899, said that no patient should stay in the hospital more than three months, except on the recommendation of their doctor; an article in the New World the year before noted that nearly 1,500 poor men had been given meals at the hospital during the winter.

The hospital moved to its current site, near Diversey Avenue and Lake Shore Drive, in 1964, after purchasing the land 10 years earlier. The 500-bed facility’s attached nursing school also changed from a three-year certificate program to a four-year baccalaureate program.

The new hospital also featured the Daniel B. Ryan Memorial Chapel, created with the help of a $150,000 donation from Ruby Ryan, after her husband died in 1961.

The chapel features large, faceted art-glass windows, made in Italy, that tell the story of the founding of the hospital. The chaplain, Father Ted Ploplis, calls the whole chapel “classic 1960s architecture” which is often visited by art students.

As part of the sesquicentennial celebrations, the chapel was restored and was the site of a June 23 Mass celebrated by Bishop Mark Bartosic, Ploplis said.

The Daughters of Charity withdrew from sponsorship after the hospital — which had already merged with Columbus Hospital in 1995 — became part of Resurrection Healthcare in 2000. Since then, Resurrection merged with Provena to become Presence Health in 2011, and Presence in 2018 became part of Ascension Health’s AMITA Health.

Originally published by Chicago Catholic.