TRAIL’S END – Denver’s Saint Joseph Hospital

Denver’s Saint Joseph Hospital. Photo courtesy of Denver Public Library.

Denver’s Saint Joseph Hospital. Photo courtesy of Denver Public Library.

Linda_WommackMother Xavier Ross of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kansas, sent four Sisters to the Colorado Territory to begin a hospital. She gave them nine dollars and the challenge: “Look forward for what good there is yet to be.” 

In 1873, Sister Joanna Bruner, along with Sisters Clare Bergen, The odora McDonald and Veronica O’Hara, arrived in Denver. Under the direction of Sister Joanna Bruner, a professional nurse, the sisters looked for a suitable building to establish their hospital. It didn’t take long. Mrs. William Perry, a native of Leavenworth, donated a small brick home she owned to the Sisters. Located at 1421 Arapahoe Street, it was across the street from today’s Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

On September 14, 1873, the Sisters took possession of the house and spent the next week cleaning and remodeling the six rooms into a small hospital. On September 22, 1873, the Sisters opened St. Vincent’s Hospital. Bishop Joseph Machebeuf published an announcement in the Rocky Mountain News: “The Sisters of Charity are now ready to receive patients without any distinction of nationality or creed.”

Evidently owner and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News, William N. Byers, took exception to the new hospital. For the next few months, Byers ran editorials against the hospital, and the Sisters of Charity responded with letters to the editor. Finally the Sisters seemed to have ended the war of words when they wrote a declaration of sorts which Byers actually printed: “You will be kind enough we hope to allow us to take exception to the manner in which claims of our hospital for public support are referred to in your paper by representing it as a denominational or sectarian institution. We do not expect public support for our institution on denominational grounds but on the plea of universal charity. Our institute is for all the sick, wounded and destitute.”

Despite the war of words in the Denver newspapers, by October of the following year the six-room hospital was too small for the growing health care institution. The Sisters moved their facility to a brick building at 26th and Holladay streets, later renamed Market Street. Because this area included Denver’s red light district, several people questioned the decision to relocate the hospital to such a neighborhood. Sister Joanna Bruner replied, “We’ll take the question out of the neighborhood.” Evidently the Sisters were not able to overcome the reputation of the neighborhood. By the end of that year the Sisters moved their hospital again, to the former Pacific House Hotel at the corner of Blake and 22nd streets, the site of today’s Coors Field. The Sisters paid $80 a month in rent for the next two years.

During that time, the Sisters held fund raisers and received donations for the establishment of a new hospital. Construction began at 18th and Humboldt streets on land donated by Territorial Governor William Gilpin. Under the supervision of Sister Mary Ignatia Nealon, the three-story brick building, with operating rooms and a 30-bed private care facility, opened in 1876.

The Sisters of Charity renamed their hospital Saint Joseph Hospital. Sister Benedicta Maloney, serving as hospital administer, recruited Denver’s well-known physicians Dr. Frederick J. Bancroft and Dr. Augustus L. Justice. For the next 140 years, the historic heath care institution served the Denver community with the best care and state-of-the art technology. Extensive equipment was installed during the ensuing years, including a brass sterilizing machine, reputed to be the first of its size west of the Mississippi River. New X-ray equipment was also added, a remarkable accomplishment as the procedure was relatively new, having been invented in 1895. 

In early 1899, the Sisters began a donation drive across the city to raise funds for an expansion of the hospital. The March 22, 1899, issue of the Denver Times ran the following editorial regarding the efforts of the Sisters of Charity: “The success of the hospital and its rapid growth is due in large measure to the  non-sectarian character of the charity, to the high efficiency of the medical staff, and the keen  interest which the Sisters take in the work to  which they have devoted their lives.” 

Led by flour baron John K. Mullen and his wife, Catherine Smith Mullen, several fund raising events were held throughout the city. Mrs. Catherine Mullen organized “The Women’s Social Bazaar.” Others who joined her cause were the wives of other prominent Denver businessmen, including Edith Daniels (Daniels & Fishers Department Store,) Frances Thatcher (Denver National Bank,) and Nellie Campion, (Leadville silver mines owner.) It was an impressive event, held from May 12 through May 20, 1899, at Denver’s Coliseum Hall. This was followed by their “Monster Progressive Euchre Card Party.” This event, organized by Mrs. Margaret (Molly) Brown, was held at the Denver Armory on June 22, 1899, with over 1,500 people attending. The combination of these events raised over 10,000 dollars for the hospital.

In 1900, the new addition of the Saint  Joseph  Hospital was completed. Constructed adjacent to the hospital, at 1835 Franklin Street, the new building featured twin towers.

In January 1998, Saint Joseph Hospital joined Lutheran Medical Center and Exempla Medical Group to form Exempla Healthcare, a not-for-profit, community-based organization. Saint Joseph Hospital moved again in 2014 when it merged with National Jewish Health. The new facility, located at East 18th Avenue and Lafayette Street, cost a cool $623 million. A far cry from the money collected by fund raisers a hundred years ago. Nevertheless, the modern health care facility continues the mission and legacy of the Sisters of Charity.

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