|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.
All photos courtesy of St. Joseph's Hospital