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.
In 1888, the sisters' tenacious fund-raising efforts, including several more trips to the region's mines, and the support of the Portland community enabled Mother Mary Theresa to purchase a five-acre tract of hilly land from M.G. and Ada M. Griffin about a mile to the west of the hospital, near Northwest Westover Road.(23)
Second St. Vincent Hospital,
(click on image for full view)
At the time, many people in Portland, including some local doctors, opposed using the land for the second St. Vincent Hospital because it was considered to be too far out of the city to travel for health care. Despite the opposition, Mother Mary Theresa and Mother Joseph forged ahead on the construction of a new building, laying the foundation's cornerstone (now located at the main entrance of the current St. Vincent's) in 1892.(24)
The second St. Vincent Hospital was officially dedicated three years later, on July 14, 1895. It was considered one of the nation's foremost medical facilities, with a spacious operating room illuminated by day via a rotunda window and at night by dozens of gas and electric lights. A seven- by ten-foot electric elevator was located in the center of the building so patients would not have to be moved from their beds when transferring from one floor to the next--a novel approach to patient care. There was also a complete system of electric bells and speaking tubes throughout the facility. (25)
"A great hospital ... is something more than a collection of buildings, and their furniture," said Dr. William Jones at the dedication. "A great hospital is not created in a year.... It must have a history, traditions, achievements behind it, and a promising future before it. To thousands of people, St. Vincent Hospital is something more than a name. In thousands of homes, it is a household word."(26)
The new St. Vincent's quickly became a busy place. Shortly after its opening the sisters purchased an adjacent house for use as a sanatorium. Contagious patients (except for those with smallpox) were isolated and cared for in the sanatorium, until the mid-1920s, when the city built a special hospital to treat them. The Sisters of Providence also built a power plant to supply light, electricity, and heat to the hospital, sanatorium, and laundry.
School of Nursing
Anticipating the growing need for professional nursing care, the sisters had earlier embarked on an ambitious project to establish a training school for lay nurses. They recruited Theresa Cox, a graduate nurse from Bellevue Hospital in New York, to plan the curriculum and to train the first class. St. Vincent Hospital School of Nursing opened in 1892, and two years later Agnes Johnson was the first nurse to graduate from the program.(27)
| Rosa Philpott, instructor (center), with the Class of 1896
As the nursing school grew, special quarters were constructed exclusively for the nurses. In 1910, St. Theresa Hall, a beautiful brick building behind the hospital, was finished. It included "living rooms, libraries, lecture halls, classrooms, private rooms, dormitories, a kitchenette, a small laundry, and every modern equipment to provide the proper environment for the social and professional life of the nurses."(28) By 1930, the school's enrolment had grown so much that new accommodations were needed, and the hospital's former sanatorium was demolished and replaced by a seven-story classroom and dormitory. In 1938, the nursing school became a four-year degreed program through the University of Portland. "There was a lot of camaraderie among the nurses!" remembers Dee Rennie Wallo, class of 1946. "Living together in such close quarters, you got to know everybody's secrets and everyone became quite attached to one another."(29)
In Wallo's time, the nursing school was run by Sister Genevieve, a no-nonsense administrator who imposed a ten o'clock curfew and conducted a nightly room check. Nurses in training began their day with prayers or mass and reported for duty shortly thereafter. The students generally worked a split shift. Nurses on the night shift, for example, worked from seven to eleven at night and from four to seven in the morning, taking one or two classes during the day. Uniforms had to be sparkling clean and fall below the knee, hair had to be short or contained in a net, and makeup was not allowed. "The sisters were a big focus in our life," Wallo remembers. "They were the ones who ran the place, and we respected them. They helped us through many hard times."(30)
World War II brought new challenges to St. Vincent's, as physicians, nurses, and male employees entered military service or went to work in the local shipyards. In 1942, the annalist reported:
The rapidly increasing population of Portland, due to the influx of workers in defense industries, filled hospitals to capacity [just as] the increasing number of men and women entering defense industries and government service created a personnel problem. Medical and nursing staffs were reduced by calls to the Service at St. Vincent's, as elsewhere. The absence of male employees drafted into the army was keenly felt in hospital departments.(31)
In response, the hospital recruited more women to fill ancillary positions previously held by men, offering room and board in the nurses' dormitory as a perquisite of employment. One former admitting clerk who lived in St. Theresa Hall (the original dorm for nurses) when she was in her early twenties remembers:
We had great big rooms. There were four iron beds to a room, but there were usually just two girls assigned to each room. We had a housemother--different than the one in the nurses' dormitory--and a strict curfew. We could only have female visitors in our room. St. Theresa's was deemed a safe living place for single young women.
We didn't have much money. There was a park across the street from the hospital and we walked everywhere. I worked six days a week, eight-hour days, and made $22.50 a month, including room and board."(32)
Move to Current Site
In 1941, the sisters opened a second Portland facility on the east side of the Willamette River, the 448-bed Providence Hospital, known today as Providence Portland Medical Center. Despite this new hospital, and a steady pace of remodeling and expansion at St. Vincent's, demand for services continued to grow. For seventy years, the hospital on Westover Road had served the people, of Portland, and the building had become a city landmark. As Ellis Lucia noted in St. Vincent's centennial history, Cornerstone:
A lot of living--and dying, too--went on within those great brick walls. Hundreds of thousands of people were treated there, thousands of babies were born to succeeding generations, and the suffering of countless others was eased and people given renewed hope... Through seven decades of war and peace, hard times and booms, and a steadily changing Portland, this building felt much that was experienced by the community, the state, and the Pacific Northwest.(33)
Still, by 1960, it was clear that the building was nearing the end of its useful life. Extensive studies indicated that it would be more cost-effective to build a completely new St. Vincent's than to continue trying to remodel the 1895 building. On May 19, 1965, administrator Sister Mary Laureen [Rita] Ferschweiler announced that the hospital would move to the Beaverton area on the west edge of Portland. Construction began shortly thereafter, and on January 31, 1971, the third and current St. Vincent Hospital opened its doors. In just over four hours, with the assistance of military and private ambulances, eighty patients were moved from the Westover Road site and settled into their new rooms.(34) Now known as Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, the hospital celebrated its 125th anniversary in July 2000.
The original St. Vincent's was torn down in the 1930s, and a brick warehouse now covers the entire block. The second hospital was demolished in the late 1970s and is now the site of luxury condominiums. A number of historical, religious, and medical artifacts from the first two buildings--as well as historical records and photographs--are preserved at the current facility and in the Sisters of Providence Archives in Seattle, Washington.
A section of the campus of the third and current
hospital on Barnes Road
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.
23. Deliberations of the Corporation of the Sisters of Charity of Providence of St. Vincent Hospital, Portland, OR, 1876-1934, Dec. 21, 1888, Providence Archives.
24. Catholic Sentinel, Aug. 20, 1925, p. 6.
25. Advertising circular, c. 1895, Records, Province of Oregon, Letters 1894-1906, Providence Archives.
26. Dr. William Jones, manuscript, July 1895, St. Vincent Hospital collection, Subject Series: Dedication file, Providence Archives.
27. Margaret H. Tynan, R.N., "History of the School of Nursing" series, Vincentian (St. Vincent Hospital Alumnae Association), 1:1-4 (1931).
28. Catholic Sentinel, Aug. 20, 1925, p. 11.
29. Dee Rennie Wallo, interview with author, Spring 2000.
31. Chronicles, 1942.
32. Former resident M.S., interview with author, Summer 2000.
33. Lucia, Cornerstone, pp. 101-2.
34. Chronicles, Jan. 31, 1971.