Sisters of Mercy/St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center   
Staff of Isolation Unit, St. Joseph's Hospital Original St. Joseph's Hospital St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center, 1950s
On March 19, 1895, the religious order of the Sisters of Mercy founded the first hospital in Phoenix, a 12-bed sanitarium for indigent patients suffering from tuberculosis. By the mid 1940s, the order needed a larger hospital, so the Sisters purchased ten acres at Third Avenue and Thomas Road. Completed in 1953, the new hospital at 350 W. Thomas Road has continued to evolve and is now a world-class facility, providing care for patients regardless of their ability to pay.

Region: Phoenix and Central Arizona
Theme: Women in Science, Medicine and Health

A Catholic religious order, the Sisters of Mercy, was founded in Ireland in 1831 by Catherine McAuley. By the 1850s, the order's work had expanded to the New World and New Mexico. The order first sent sisters M. Peter and M. Alacoque to Phoenix in 1892 to open a parish school, but the teachers quickly noted that disease was a paramount issue in the area. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, tuberculosis plagued an estimated ten percent of the nation's population and, in an era before antibiotics were available, doctors commonly recommended a warm, dry climate for patients. Many afflicted with this disease traveled to Phoenix hoping to prolong their lives. Local doctors provided care for those able to pay, but the poor were often forced to live in tents or boarding homes where they received inadequate care, at best. Those without resources who succumbed to the disease were buried in paupers' graves.

The sisters found this situation unacceptable. They requested permission to care for indigent tubercular patients and received approval from Mother Paul in New Mexico. But she offered no funding, so the sisters traveled Arizona raising money for a facility to provide health care for the poor.

Sister M. Peter McTernan, who was described by historian Kathy Franklin as a woman with "boundless energy" and a "bubbly personality," decided to visit miners on their payday and ask them to contribute 50 cents to the project. Since the nuns were dressed in the black robes of their religious order, they were accorded "a status unavailable to many women in Phoenix," according to Franklin. The sisters collected even larger donations from Phoenix's wealthy local businessmen, including prospector Daniel O'Carroll and merchant Charles Korrick. The sisters began their hospital by renting a six- room cottage at Fourth and Polk streets in early 1895. Two of the sisters provided nursing care. The original 12 beds filled quickly, and the sisters screened in a porch to house more patients.

Despite their early success, the sisters faced two problems — anti-Catholic sentiment and a continuing shortage of space. They solved the second conundrum by building a new building in the fall of 1895. As to the first: Catholics in America often faced discrimination in the 19th century and the sisters did, too. Protestants feared Catholics were trying to destroy their faith. Popular lore even had it that Catholics stored weapons and explosives to blow up Protestant homes and buildings. When rumors reached the townsfolk that the sisters had concealed explosives in the sanitarium's basement, their landlord threatened eviction. At this point the sisters returned to the business owners, most of whom were not Catholic, and pointed out the importance of isolating people with a contagious disease. The sisters quickly raised enough funds to build their own building, containing 24 private rooms.

From then on the nursing sisters worked 24-hour shifts, often assisted by Mexican American laywomen. They segregated patients based on ethnicity, but never discriminated against patients in need, regardless of their religion or race. In 1898 the facility expanded to include surgical patients and, by 1916, had two operating rooms, x-ray machines, a laboratory, maternity ward, and could serve up to a hundred patients. During the early days at St. Joseph's, the Sisters owned the hospital. Later they only operated it. Today the Sisters sponsor the hospital.

By the 1940s the community had grown so much that the sisters purchased ten acres of land for $25,000 at Third Avenue and Thomas Roads, the site of today's St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center. The new hospital opened in July of 1953. Today it is run by Catholic Healthcare West and has become a 743-bed not-for-profit hospital that continues the Sisters of Mercy's early mission to provide health and social services, with special advocacy for the poor.

For more information, consult Kathy Smith Franklin's 1997 master's degree thesis titled, "A Spirit of Mercy: The Founding of Saint Joseph's Hospital, 1892-1912," at Arizona State University, and Trudy Thompson Rice's St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center, the First 100 Years; Heritage Publishing.

Photo Credits:
All photos courtesy of St. Joseph's Hospital


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