Observed each March, Women’s History Month celebrates women’s contributions to history, culture and society. The national observation started as weeklong commemoration in 1980 until the National Women’s History Project successfully petitioned Congress to expand it to the entire month of March in 1987.
This year’s theme, “Women Providing Healing, Promoting Hope,” was designated by the Women’s
History Alliance as “both a tribute to the ceaseless work of caregivers and frontline workers during this ongoing pandemic and also a recognition of the thousands of ways that women of all cultures have provided both healing and hope throughout history.”
In keeping with the national theme, El Paso Inc. recounts the story of El Paso’s first hospital, Hotel Dieu, or “the house of God,” which was started by the Sisters of the Daughters of Charity in the late 1800s.
It was a dry, dusty, cold day Feb. 3, 1892, when the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul– a religious institute of non-cloistered women devoted to charity – first got off the train in El Paso to help start the city’s first hospital.
Among them were Sisters Stella Dempsey, Dolorosa Eggert and Vincent Lee.
“Now, I must tell you, dear Sister. We found the house (at Overland and Ochoa streets) very poor in every detail; the beds were iron, some clothing, blankets, etc. for about twelve,” Sister Stella wrote to the Visiatrix (Mother Superior) Sister Mariana, who helped set up the mission.
“About twelve chairs, a few small tables, lamps, and stoves; and a good range, with cooking utensils, and dishes with towels. This I believe completes our house furniture. It will take us a little while to make things look or feel any way comfortable.”
Sister Dolorosa also wrote to a sister in the Central House in Maryland about her first impressions of El Paso.
“I feel as if I have been let down upon some sandy desert. Every place seems covered with sand; so hard to keep clean.”
Despite the conditions, the sisters wrote they were determined to serve the people in the community. They took in their first patient the very next day.
They soon moved into a larger home at Upson and Prospect streets and were joined by Sister Genevieve Hennessy.
By June 23, the sisters filed for incorporation of what had been named St. Mary’s Hospital to the new name Hotel Dieu, according to former El Paso Times Editor Barbara Funkhouser in her book, “The Caregivers: El Paso’s Medical History 1898-1998.”
Under Sister Stella’s leadership, money was raised and borrowed to buy the full block bounded by Stanton, Arizona, Kansas and Rio Grande streets for $5,600. That became the original Hotel Dieu with 80 beds in January 1892.
In 1950, ground was broken for new wings on the original building. But because the old building was crumbling, all of it was replaced.
The sisters sold the building to Millbrook of Fort Worth in 1987 and it became Landmark Medical Center. It closed a year later, and the building was demolished in 2003 after sitting vacant for several years.
Hotel Dieu and its sisters remain a large part of El Paso’s history and marked many firsts in the region’s medical care.
In 1894, the hospital staff performed the first appendectomy. The nuns also founded Hotel Dieu School of Nursing under the direction of Sister Stella’s replacement, Sister Olympia Stack, in 1897. In 1902, the first class of nurses in Texas graduated.
A native of Tortugas, New Mexico, Sister Isabel Fierro, now 85, remembers her time as a nursing student at Hotel Dieu from 1954-57. Her father supported her desire to become a nurse.
“One of our friends, a woman, asked him why he was wasting money sending me to school. She’ll end up getting married and all your money is gone.”
Instead, she not only completed her three-year program, she learned through her interactions with the sisters that she also had a vocation. “Because of the sacrifices that especially my father had made, I worked for a year before I entered (the novitiate).”
It was an auspicious time for nuns because, Sister Isabel said. “Pope Pius XII believed religious sisters should be as prepared educationally professional as their equivalent in same profession.”
Sister Isabel obtained her master’s in maternal child health. She helped the school of nursing transfer to UTEP in 1971-72, and for 18 years was a nurse midwife at Centro San Vincente.
When the sisters sold the hospital in 1987, Sister Isabel said, the sisters wanted to maintain a presence in El Paso. “Two Daughters of Charity were asked to find out what needs of very poor were in El Paso and what would be an appropriate measure.”
They found that south of I-10, a high percentage of families had no insurance and little access to health care. So, $1 million raised from the sale went to start Centro San Vicente on Alameda Avenue in 1988. They now have three clinics in El Paso serving the poor and underserved.
Three Daughters of Charity are still in El Paso, mostly helping with immigrant issues. Sister Isabel is formally retired but just went to New Orleans to help with the Central American immigrant influx.
In a letter from the Visiatrix, Sister Mariana, to the sisters in El Paso in March 1892: “May God Bless El Paso and its works! We are so interested in everything about it. Keep up your courage – That is just the field for a Sister of Charity. What an honor to be chosen – I almost envy you.”
Originally published by El Paso Inc.