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First steps taken in 1886 to build hospital that only needed name

Nearly 125 years ago, Spokane’s first hospital had a plot of land, a cornerstone and a plan for the future.

The only thing it didn’t have, embarrassingly, was a name.

On July 2, 1886, a group of Catholic fathers and sisters gathered for a cornerstone-laying ceremony on a parcel of land at Trent Avenue and Browne Street, where the Spokane Convention Center now sits.

Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart, the hospital’s founding mother, was watching Bishop Junger, the Bishop of Nisqually, deliver the dedication prayers.

She had arrived in Spokane two months earlier from Vancouver, Wash., to supervise construction and had hastily arranged the cornerstone ceremony to take advantage of the bishop’s presence in town for another event.

Suddenly the bishop turned and asked for the name of the hospital, so he could dedicate it properly.

Mother Joseph froze.

She had no idea. Her order, the Sisters of Providence, had given her no direction on this matter. An uncomfortable silence ensued.

Then an assistant priest, Jesuit father Aloysius Ragaru – realizing that it was the day of the Feast of the Sacred Heart (and possibly also remembering that “Sacred Heart” was part of Mother Joseph’s name) – broke the spell and announced confidently: “Sacred Heart Hospital.”

It was an ad-lib, but it stuck. Today, we still say “Sacred Heart” when referring to Spokane’s largest hospital, although it is officially known as Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center.

Mother Joseph was certainly no amateur builder. She had been one of her order’s “pioneer founders” in the Northwest, coming to Oregon Territory in 1856.

For 30 years, she had “chosen the land, drafted the plans and superintended the building of every academy, hospital and orphanage of the order” in the Northwest, according to “Fifty Golden Years,” a 1936 history of Sacred Heart.

So when it became clear that the growing town of Spokane Falls needed a hospital, the choice of Mother Joseph was obvious.

The 63-year-old sister set out by train for Spokane Falls with another similarly named nun, Sister Joseph of Arimathea, on April 30, 1886. Mother Joseph acquired a piece of land right on the Spokane River, near the main business district.

Mother Joseph and Sister Joseph camped on the site, in a rickety wooden cabin, while workers prepared the ground. Soon a grand, three-story, brick-veneer building took shape. Four more sisters arrived in December 1886 to start readying rooms for patients.

The building was still unfinished when the sisters stumbled across their first patient, a young transient, John Cox, shivering and alone in an old shed. They took him to their hospital and treated his pneumonia.

Cox was too far gone, and Sacred Heart Hospital’s first patient soon became its first death.

The hospital soon had to treat another patient: Mother Joseph herself, who tumbled into the cellar during construction and broke several ribs.

By the time the hospital officially opened on Jan. 27, 1887, the patient census was seven, one of whom was “an old Grand Army man” (Union veteran of the Civil War) who remained there for more than a decade.

Mother Joseph returned to Vancouver after the hospital was finished, while Sister Joseph of Arimathea became the first sister superior, or hospital administrator. Six more sisters arrived to help handle the nursing load. The bustling Sacred Heart Hospital desperately needed more money for operations and equipment.

Sister Joseph embarked with another sister on an alms-gathering expedition into the Coeur d’Alene mining district (the Silver Valley). They hoped to collect some donations from the thousands of miners – many of them Catholic – who had flooded to the region.

Miner Phil O’Rourke immediately donated the generous sum of $100. Another new miner, Dennis Clark, contemplated whether to donate half of the wages he had received on his first day.

Finally Clark settled on donating all of his first day’s wages and he never regretted it. He “ascribed his later prosperity to this action,” reported The Spokesman-Review.

By 1888, patient demand was so high that Sister Joseph immediately began work on a new west wing, completed in 1889 (an east wing would follow in 1902). A six-doctor medical staff was organized, soon to double.

Sacred Heart became a vital institution in Spokane Falls, never more vital than during the Great Fire of 1889. The hospital barely escaped damage and was deluged with burned and injured patients, “as many as could be crowded into the wards and rooms,” according to “Fifty Golden Years.”

Funding came from thousands of small donors.

“There were no handsome gifts of note, no large donations from millionaires,” the book says, “… (but) wholehearted cooperation was given by the citizens, non-Catholic as well as Catholic, during fund-raising bazaars.”

By the end of the century it became clear that demand for nurses was outstripping the supply of sisters. So in 1898, the hospital opened a training school and in 1899 graduated its first class: two nurses.

It had been a close call for one of them. Her supervising sister had written, “While not flighty, (she) enjoyed too much her freedom and was not always submissive.” But she eventually made “notable progress” on these issues.

Life for a student nurse was strictly regimented. They lived in the hospital and had to attend three lectures a week for 10 months out of the year.

They also worked regular, demanding shifts in which they learned such skills as making poultices, applying leeches, dressing wounds, preparing diets, bathing patients, compounding prescriptions and rendering assistance on the operating tables.

By 1900, the sisters running the hospital had reached an inescapable conclusion: They needed a new, much bigger building in a different location. The railroad tracks roared right outside the hospital – hardly conducive to restful convalescence.

Another decade would elapse before the sisters finally raised enough money, bought the land and built a grand new $800,000 building on the brow of the South Hill.

The move to the new site (the same land occupied by today’s Sacred Heart) took place in March 1910 and resembled a kind of convalescent parade.

“Throughout yesterday afternoon, ambulances and cabs were pressed into service in moving the patients from the old to the new Sacred Heart hospital,” reported The Spokesman-Review. “… Some were even able to walk to their new infirmary.”

The city was overwhelmed with pride over this new, modern 240-room hospital. The Spokesman-Review called it “perhaps unexcelled or unsurpassed among all hospitals west of Chicago.”

“This vast structure, where sisters of mercy and numberless ‘white angels’ minister to the afflicted, stands out as one of Spokane’s most secure strongholds against death,” the newspaper said.

The story of Sacred Heart has, of course, continued through the decades, as the hospital expanded and opened new departments, new labs and new training programs.

It was the site of Spokane’s first open-heart surgery in 1959, the first kidney transplant in 1981 and the first heart-kidney transplant in 2003.

The bed capacity rose to 505 with new wings in 1949. In 1971, the new 14-story Sacred Heart Medical Center was dedicated on the same South Hill site.

The 1910 building was demolished for what Robert B. Hyslop called “a hideous car parking structure” in his book “Spokane Building Blocks.”

The hospital went through profound changes in other ways, too. The number of Sisters of Providence working there peaked at 50 around 1940 and began a slow decline.

When Sister Peter Claver retired in 1988, she was the 19th and final administrator to be a Sister of Providence. Today, Sister Rosalie Locati, director of missions and values, is the only member of the order working full-time at the hospital.

Just two days ago, a group of dignitaries, including priests and sisters, gathered at a statue near the Spokane River in Riverfront Park. They rededicated and blessed a statue of Mother Joseph, created in 1986 for the hospital’s centennial by Spokane sculptor Ken Spiering.

This gathering was on almost the same spot where, 125 years ago, an assistant priest uttered Sacred Heart Hospital into existence.