Providence St. Vincent Medical Center: Oregon's First Permanent Hospital
By Sydney Clevenger
Originally published, in a different version, as Sydney Clevenger, "St. Vincent's and the Sisters of Providence: Oregon's First Permanent Hospital," Oregon Historical Quarterly 102, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 210-21. © 2001 Oregon Historical Society, reprinted with permission.
Part I: Foundation
First St. Vincent Hospital
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Almost 145 years ago, a small group of Sisters of Providence from eastern Canada left their homes to forge new lives caring for the poor and sick and educating children in the Oregon and Washington territories. One of their most lasting contributions was Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, Oregon's first permanent hospital.
In 1856, five Sisters of Providence, led by Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart, traveled to Fort Vancouver at the request of the Most Reverend A.M.A. Blanchet, bishop of Nesqually (Washington Territory), who had long hoped for assistance in his diocese. On December 8, following a five-week stormy ocean voyage, the women arrived, exhausted but filled with a "truly apostolic zeal to work for the glory of Him to whom they had consecrated their lives."(1) They were assigned temporary quarters in the attic of Bishop Blanchet's house on the grounds of the original St. James Mission near the fort. Despite their crowded and harsh living conditions, they were enthusiastic about having their own mission, and within a few weeks they began visiting families and caring for the sick.(2)
The sisters also took a special interest in caring for orphaned and abandoned children. Within a few months, they opened Providence Academy, a boarding and day school and orphanage. Soon, additional sisters arrived from Montreal, and a cluster of small buildings surrounding by a white picket fence--the "Providence enclosure"--took shape.
In March 1858, at the request of the people of Vancouver and with the assistance of a small group of charitable women, the Sisters of Providence opened a hospital in a building that was originally planned to house a laundry and bakery for the mission complex. The two-story hospital with four beds was named St. Joseph Hospital after one of the sisters' patron saints. It was the first permanent hospital in the Pacific Northwest, and continues today as Southwest Washington Medical Center. The Sisters of Providence incorporated their charitable work in 1859, forming what is now one of the oldest corporations in the region, and slowly expanded their ministry, first north to Puget Sound and then into eastern Washington and Montana.
Invitation to Portland
Shortly after St. Joseph Hospital opened, the Most Reverend F.N. Blanchet, archbishop of the Diocese of Oregon City, invited the sisters to establish a hospital in Portland.(3) The city was being served by a handful of private clinics operated by local doctors, but people who were seriously ill or injured often made the journey down the Willamette River and across the Columbia to St. Joseph's.(4) The sisters agreed that there was certainly a need for a hospital in Portland, but circumstances and financial concerns made them unable to accept Archbishop Blanchet's invitation for more than a decade. The project gained new momentum when businessman Ben Holladay made an enticing offer, which the sisters recorded in their chronicles:
Mr. Ben Holladay, an important and wealthy Portland man, offered the bishop his influence and funds for the hospital. Wishing to have the hospital in East Portland near the railroad depot, his property, he offered a fine piece of land, a lovely house, his doctor, and money to cover part of the expenses.
Concerned that such benevolence might come with strings attached, the annalist added: "It was, in appearance, a too liberal offer not to suspect some deception."(5)
The sisters prayed and discussed how best to serve the people of Portland. On July 19, 1874 (then celebrated as the Feast of St. Vincent), they received a letter from the local St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic charitable organization, offering a block of land in northwest Portland bounded by Twelfth, Marshall, and Northrup streets, and one thousand dollars in cash for construction.(6) This donation freed the sisters to reject Holladay's offer, and finally, after more than fifteen years, they could respond to Archbishop Blanchet's request. Given the circumstances, there was little question that the institution should bear the name of St. Vincent.
The sisters immediately began designing Oregon's first hospital. Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart, who has since been widely recognized not only for her long-range vision and commitment to the needs of society but also for her well-honed architectural skills, led the design team. The daughter of a carriage-maker who had taught her at a young age how to work with wood, Mother Joseph was a perfectionist and was skilled at carpentry. She also could cleverly bargain for a load of lumber, carve an altar, and plan and supervise all aspects of construction.
Certainly there was no stranger sight for the soldier or average citizen ... than finding Mother Joseph in her black habit bouncing on a high crossbeam to test its strength, ripping up flooring to see what had happened underneath, or wriggling out from beneath the ground level where she'd been inspecting a foundation.(7)
For the site in northwest Portland, overlooking Couch Lake, Mother Joseph designed a three-story, fifty-by eighty-two-foot wood-frame building with space for seventy-five beds. A typical ward was twenty by thirty-two feet with tall windows and curtains between each bed for privacy.(8) The total cost of the building was $22,244.(9)
Sister Mary Theresa, foundress
and administrator, 1874-1891
To raise the necessary funds, Mother Joseph, Mother Mary Theresa (the hospital's first administrator), and two other sisters went door-to-door asking for donations. At the time, Portlanders were mostly Protestant, and the Catholic sisters in their long black habits must have been an unusual sight. Language was also a barrier for the French-Canadian sisters, yet they managed to raise more than sixteen hundred dollars in this first "begging tour."(10)
The women also made and sold wax images of the baby Jesus and organized local fairs and bazaars. Later, they raised money from workers in the mines in eastern Oregon and Idaho and lumber camps and fishing ports throughout the Northwest.(11)
There were many delays during construction, but the April 1875 Oregonian reported that the building "presents a handsome exterior, and the interior arrangements are such that for comfort and accommodation, they will be equal to any hospital on the coast."(12) On May 10, 1875--almost a year after the St. Vincent de Paul Society donated the land--Mother Mary Theresa and Sister Joseph of Arimathea moved into the almost finished hospital to make the final preparations. They arrived that day "with only bread and butter for their first meal and confidence in Divine Providence for their second." They bought on credit what provisions they needed, and several charitable women in the neighborhood agreed to help if the sisters could not meet their obligations.(13)
On May 24, Sister Peter Claver, a trained nurse and pharmacist sent from Montreal, arrived to help prepare the hospital. She was followed by Sisters Mary Sabina, Mary Perpetua, and Marie de Bon Secours. They set to work cleaning. "By hard work, we succeeded in making the house presentable. But the floors, the painting, and the plaster were so dirty that it was only after eight months of daily washing that we really had them clean."(14)
Men's Ward, c. 1890s (detail)
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Although the sisters intended to open the hospital after its dedication later in the summer, George Allen, a 22-year-old plumber from Yamhill, appeared on the doorstep on June 24. Allen was desperately ill; and, although the rooms were not yet ready, the sisters "admitted" him and nursed him back to health. Grateful for their care, he stayed for more than a year to help with various projects.(15) Allen's early admission had an added benefit: he and the next six patients were all non-Catholic, helping to calm any concerns in the community that the sisters would restrict their care to members of their own faith.(16)
On July 19, 1875, St. Vincent Hospital was dedicated. At two o'clock in the afternoon, members of local Catholic organizations met near the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (then at the corner of Third and Stark streets) to process through the main streets to the hospital. The Catholic Sentinel reported:
The inspiring strains of music, the beautiful banners and the pretty appearance of the schoolchildren gave the city quite a gala-day aspect and many an inquiry was made relative to the cause that called forth such a demonstration on a day not known hitherto in Portland on the calendar of festivals.(17)
Hundreds of Portlanders met the procession at the hospital. Archbishop Blanchet and clergy from throughout the Northwest also were on hand. The Reverend J.F. Fierens, vicar general of the archdiocese of Oregon City, gave the dedication:
[St. Vincent Hospital] is one of those institutions which bring the greatest blessing to whatever society or community is favored with it, and with which a benign Providence has now blessed the city of Portland. This auspicious occasion is then of the greatest interest to this community, and I dare say to all of us. I think we may feel proud of our St. Vincent Hospital, this future home of the sick, as it is the first in the state and one in which not only Catholics, but every citizen is interested, as it admits all religionists. True charity knows no creed nor country.(18)
A tour of the hospital and its grounds followed, along with refreshments and music. At about seven-thirty in the evening--as the crowds began to disperse--a horse-drawn ambulance delivered a Chinese man known only as Joe, whose arm had been badly mangled by machinery. The arm had to be amputated, and Dr. Alfred Kinney performed the first surgery at St. Vincent's.(19)
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During the first year, 320 patients--mostly men--were treated for everything from gunshot wounds to fractures to typhoid to toothache. Patient ledgers indicate that charges for board, room, and medical attendance averaged one dollar per day--paid by cash, work, or barter, with some accounts marked simply "charity care."(20)
Later in 1875, the Episcopal diocese opened a second hospital in the city, Good Samaritan, at Twenty-first and L streets, and there were plenty of patients to keep both facilities busy.
The nursing sisters regularly read medical books and attended lectures by Dr. Kinney to stay abreast of the latest developments in patient care. They also relied heavily on their own materia medica, The Little Medical Guide of the Sisters of Charity of Providence, first published by the Mother House in Montreal in 1869 and regularly updated. The women spared no expense when outfitting the hospital for the future. In 1879, for example, St. Vincent's installed telephones for $2.50 a month.(21) The sisters also were exceedingly thrifty, however, doing most of the cleaning, shopping, and cooking themselves and accepting donations of old towels and linen that could be boiled, cut, and torn for bandages.
The hospital's first decade was a tough go, as the sisters confronted floodwaters from nearby Couch Lake, a lack of adequate finances, and a full house. In 1883, the sister-annalist began the chronicles with these words: "The year opens with a worry. Situated as we are, surrounded by shops and inns and factories with their noise and polluted air, we need to move; but we have no funds to buy other land. What to do? God will provide."(22) New wings had been added to alleviate the crowded conditions--St. Anthony's ward with thirteen beds and St. Mark's ward with twenty-five beds--but it was apparent that a larger hospital would soon be needed.
Continued in Part II: A New Location
Sydney Clevenger is a free-lance writer in Portland, Oregon (contact: firstname.lastname@example.org). Formerly senior public relations coordinator for Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, Sydney has fond memories of both the second and third St. Vincent's. Loretta Greene, Archivist, and Terri Mitchell, Assistant Archivist, assisted with the research and editing of this article.
1. Catholic Sentinel (Portland, OR), Aug. 20, 1925, special supplement, "St. Vincent's hospital Golden Jubilee, 1875-1925," p. 4
2. Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart to Bishop Laroque, Montreal, Aug. 15, 1857, and subsequent correspondence, Personal Papers of Mother Joseph, Providence Archives, Seattle, WA.
3. The Reverend J.B.A. Brouillet, Vicar General, to Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart, Apr. 12, 1859, Personal Papers of Mother Joseph, Providence Archives.
4. Ellis Lucia, Cornerstone: The Story of St. Vincent--Oregon's First Permanent Hospital, Its Formative Years (Portland, OR: St. Vincent Medical Foundation, 1975), p. 22.
5. Chronicles of St. Vincent Hospital, Portland, OR, July 19, 1875 [sic]-July 1, 1876, Providence Archives (hereafter cited as Chronicles).
7. Lucia, Cornerstone, p. 37
8. Ibid., p. 50.
9. Personnel and Works Report, General Receipts and Expenses, July 1875-July 1876, St. Vincent Hospital collection, Providence Archives.
10. Chronicles, Oct. 20, 1874.
11. Loretta Zwolak Greene, archivist, Providence Archives, interview with author, Fall 2000.
12. Cited in Lucia, Cornerstone, p. 45.
13. Chronicles, May 10, 1875.
15. Chronicles, June 24, 1875; Patient Ledger, St. Vincent Hospital, vol. 1, 1875-1886, Providence Archives.
16. Lucia, Cornerstone, p. 47.
17. Catholic Sentinel, July [?] 1875.
19. Chronicles, July 19, 1875. Although the chronicles state that the injured limb was an arm, other sources refer to the patient's leg.
20. Patient and Account Ledgers, St. Vincent Hospital, 1875-1876, Providence Archives.
21. Lucia, Cornerstone, p. 71.
22. Chronicles, July 1, 1883-July 1, 1884.