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Hostory from OHA: St. Joseph’s Health Hospital-150 Years of Faithful Medical Care

By Thomas Hunter

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St. Joseph’s Health Hospital celebrates its 150th anniversary of continuous medical care in Syracuse and Onondaga County in 2019. Founded by the sisters of the Third Franciscan Order, the hospital first opened its doors on May 6, 1869. 

The operating room at St. Joseph’s Hospital - May 1, 1897. (PHOTO CREDIT: OHA Collection)

The sisters had recently purchased a brick saloon and dance hall on Prospect Hill (Prospect Avenue) for $12,000 with plans to convert it into a medical facility, thereby establishing the first hospital in Onondaga County. These dedicated and ambitious women started their hospital with 15 beds and no money. One week later, on May 13, they welcomed their first patient, eventually caring for 53 additional people in their first year. The Franciscan Sisters welcomed all patients to the hospital regardless of “creed, race, or color.” 

For the last 150 years, St. Joseph’s Health Hospital has significantly impacted the social, economic, and architectural composition of its Prospect Avenue neighborhood, the city of Syracuse, and Onondaga County. In the early days of the hospital, the sisters went to their local neighbors asking for monetary assistance and held an annual Donation Day to help defray their costs. Grocers supplied dried prunes and coffee, and farmers gave potatoes, eggs, and firewood. Individual citizens also donated cake, bread, ham, fish, fresh fruit and vegetables, and wine, as well as shoes, clothing, and books and magazines. Others gave towels and medical supplies, while still others repaired and reupholstered the hospital’s furniture. These donations and other acts of kindness were recorded in monthly hospital reports that were published in the Syracuse newspapers. Readers were kept apprised of the efforts put forth by generous and compassionate citizens who contributed to the welfare of their sick family, friends, and strangers, and also lightened the burden of the sisters. Fifty years ago, the then hospital administrator, Sister Wilhelmina, said that for the first 100 years, “St. Joseph’s ha[d] been the recipient of God’s bounty through the generosity of His people, the men and women of Syracuse.” 

Observing cardiopulmonary equipment at St. Joseph’s Hospital in 1959. (PHOTO CREDIT: OHA Collection)

Those many modest contributions of food, firewood, and other supplies allowed the hospital to become financially solvent and to grow. Hospital administrators added a surgical wing in 1897 that put St. Joseph’s modern infrastructure, state-of-the art equipment, and patient care on par with some of the best American hospitals of the time. The new wing included telephone service and an elevator. The overall appearance of the enlarged, advanced hospital radiated a confidence in Syracuse’s medical facilities. 

In October of the following year, the Franciscan sisters began a nursing school dedicated to training lay nurses who would augment the nuns’ ability to care for the community’s patients. By 1900, with the school attracting a growing number of nursing students, administrators were prompted to rent a house in the block just below the hospital to lodge them.

At the beginning of the 20th century, with the improved medical amenities, the influx of better-trained doctors and nurses, and the continued generosity of local businesses and individuals, St. Joseph’s Hospital was able to “minister to suffering humanity even to a greater degree than it ha[d] in the past.”   

St. Joseph’s Hospital in the 19th century. (PHOTO CREDIT: OHA Collection)

However, by 1923, part of the original hospital had fallen into disrepair and administrators decided to abandon it. Community leaders established a fund drive to build a new hospital. An initial $326,000 was bequeathed from local estates, and later in 1923 more than 18,000 subscribers pledged another $518,000. On Oct. 18, 1924, Reverend Daniel Curley, Bishop of Syracuse, laid the cornerstone for the new building, with assistance from some Franciscan fathers from Assumption Church. Rabbi Benjamin Friedman of Temple Concord and Syracuse University Chancellor Charles Flint addressed the assembled crowd at the dedication ceremony. Construction took about 18 months and the new 5-story hospital opened on May 25, 1926.

Other fundraising campaigns appealed to the community in December 1947 and January 1948 to raise money to build a 5-story, T-shaped, 170-bed addition, as well as replace the original surgical wing built in 1897. Among the fundraising subscribers was the New York Telephone Company, which donated $12,000 to the cause. Reverend Walter Foery, Bishop of Syracuse, broke ground on April 13, 1949. The new $2 million addition opened in November 1950 to rave reviews by hundreds of Syracusans who toured the building. Dr. Arnold Kaufman, president of the hospital staff praised the community for its financial and moral support of St. Joseph’s Hospital over many years. “You have furnished us with a flourishing structure. We will try to do our part to put in it all the resources that kindle the loyalty and affection so many of you have towards us,” Dr. Kaufman said. By this time the hospital had cared for more than 200,000 patients and positioned itself to continue caring for the sick well into the future.

Fifty years ago, in 1969, St. Joseph’s Hospital celebrated its centennial. The hospital had grown with the community and the community had supported its growth for 100 years. Centennial publications and newspaper articles cited the dedication, compassion, and care that the Franciscan Sisters and hospital staff tendered to thousands of sick and needy people in Syracuse and Onondaga County. They also recounted the physical expansions, the introductions of advanced medical equipment, the continued success of the nursing school, the quality of the physicians and nursing staff, along with the support of the St. Joseph’s Hospital Aid Society and the Women’s Auxiliary. The Sisters’ legacy of mercy given to all in need was persisting, even amid the socio-political tumult of 1969. Speaking at a centennial dinner that May, Reverend Casimir Sabol stated, “[I]t is the human spirit that never changes and makes an institution great. The needs are the same and the essential sense of duty necessary to meet those needs is unchanging.” 

Fifty years hence, Reverend Sabol’s sentiments about St. Joseph’s sense of duty meeting the needs of the community still have not changed. Now known as St. Joseph’s Health Hospital, St. Joseph’s continues to provide a wide variety of community-based health care. It is now associated with the Franciscan Companies, a network providing patients with post hospital patient care, services, and medical products to ensure their complete healing. St. Joseph’s community partnerships include Hospitals Home Health Care and PACE (Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly) in conjunction with Loretto CNY. Since 2007, St. Joseph’s Health Hospital has collaborated with CenterState CEO, Franciscan Collaborative Ministries, and Catholic Charities of Onondaga County on an economic-revitalization strategy for Syracuse’s northside known as Northside UP (Northside Urban Partnership). This collaboration’s mission is to “radically improve the quality of life on the Northside of Syracuse” and is “dedicated to engaging diverse groups of people and organizations in turning the Northside of Syracuse right-side up.” Through economic development and civic-improvement projects, the initiative focuses on decreasing unemployment and neighborhood blight by increasing neighborhood-owned businesses and owner-occupied houses, and enhancing the aesthetics and, ultimately, the quality of life for those living and working in Syracuse’s Northside. Northside UP brings the original 19th century Franciscan Sisters’ mission full circle by tending to needs of the whole person. 

From that humble beginning in 1869, to looking ahead throughout the 21st century, St. Joseph’s Health Hospital will undoubtedly continue to search for advanced ways to treat patients while keeping its original mission of extending compassionate care to those in need.                                

Thomas Hunter is the curator of collections at the Onondaga Historical Association (OHA) (www.cnyhistory.org), located at 321 Montgomery St. in Syracuse.

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