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Take a look at the proclamation sent to us by the Mayor of the City of Phoenix, Kate Gallego.
In January 1895, the Sisters of Mercy rented a six-room cottage on Polk and Fourth Streets in downtown Phoenix that became known as St. Joseph’s Sanitarium. Dedicated to the treatment of patients who suffered from tuberculosis, the sanitarium evolved to help others in need and eventually grew to become St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center.
While the Sisters of Mercy initially came to Phoenix to start a school, they were so moved by those suffering from tuberculosis that they began to care for patients in a six-room cottage at Polk and Fourth Streets. According to the sisters’ annuals: “These poor afflicted ones had come to Phoenix believing that a few months on the desert, breathing its dry air, would effect a cure. They were, however, unwelcome visitors. The doors of the hotels were closed to them. The poor health seekers were left to choose between a tent on the desert or a cot in a cheap boarding house. Many died alone and were buried— nameless—in paupers’ graves.
Fun Fact: Many of Phoenix’s institutions and landmarks were started to care for tuberculosis patients or by those with the disease. These include: Bethany Home Road, Phoenix Mystery Castle, Desert Mission, and Helen Lincoln (wife of John C. Lincoln, for whom the hospital and Lincoln Road are named).
Shortly after the Sisters of Mercy began caring for tuberculosis patients in a six-room cottage at Polk and Fourth Streets, the property’s landlord started legal proceedings to evict them. He believed the Sisters’ work was devaluing his property.
Other citizens recognized the importance of the Sisters’ efforts. Friends in the business community helped the women religious purchase the small cottage, and Gen. Clark Churchill donated two adjoining lots.
Fun Fact: Over the years, St. Joseph’s has provided care in several buildings, but its main campus has only ever occupied two sites: Polk and Fourth Streets and its current address at 350 W. Thomas Road. Ironically, the Dignity Health – Cancer Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center opened a few short blocks from where the original hospital was located.
Throughout the hospital’s 125-year history, St. Joseph’s and the Sisters of Mercy faced several different kinds of adversity—including the weather. Air conditioning was not widely adopted in Phoenix until after World War II. Prior to that, some physicians wore two pairs of boots during surgery. One pair was much larger than the other, and physicians would fill the gap between the two with ice to keep cool. The Sisters also used ice to cool patient rooms, setting up fans over big ice blocks to create a pleasant breeze and provide comfort. In the hospital kitchen, Sister Mary Agnes tended to “St. Agnes’ Well,” a big jug of ice water that was available 24 hours a day.
The Sisters likely needed more water than most. For many years, they wore wool habits and heavy fabrics that trailed to their ankles. Sister Alice Montgomery recalled it getting so hot that starch would “melt” and run down her face. When a visitor witnessed the spectacle and asked what was happening, she replied she was having “a little meltdown.”
Fun Fact: The Sisters were not the only ones to use creative methods to keep cool during Phoenix’s hottest months. Many people slept on roofs, in yards, or on porches during the summer. It wasn’t unheard of for people to wrap themselves in wet sheets. Some individuals who slept outside put the legs of their iron cots into cans of water to ward off scorpions and insects.
The 2019 Novel Coronavirus has been heavily covered by international media but in 1918, another disease was the focus of headlines from around the world: A strain of influenza spread globally and would eventually become a pandemic, impacting an estimated 500 million people.
To accommodate flu patients filling St. Joseph’s Hospital, two rows of beds were placed in the hospital’s long ward. Portable screens separated the men’s and women’s section. As the number of patients grew, St. Joseph’s ran out of patient beds, so treatment areas were set up in the hospital’s corridors. The Women’s Club and other buildings throughout the city became “emergency hospitals.” When a bed opened, St. Joseph’s would receive a transfer from the emergency facilities.
On February 14, 2020, Arizona celebrated 108 years of statehood. When the Sisters of Mercy opened St. Joseph’s in 1895, Arizona was still a territory and much less populated. According to the census, Arizona had 122,931 residents in 1890.
Despite Arizona’s size and formidable terrain, the Sisters’ work took them all over the territory and beyond. When the hospital was in need of funds, the Sisters would take “collection” trips, traveling to Tombstone, Bisbee, Douglas, Nogales, and Tucson.
St. Joseph’s has been the site of many special events over the years, even serving as the “state capitol” for a short time in 1924. In that year, Arizona Governor George W.P. Hunt underwent surgery at St. Joseph’s for appendicitis.
Governor Hunt’s surgery went so well that he was soon allowed to transact business from his hospital bed. This was during the pre-election period, and the Sisters of Mercy noted that the work of the governor and his secretaries increased daily. Governor Hunt was discharged from the hospital after a smooth recovery, generously leaving St. Joseph’s chapel full of flowers that had been sent to him.
Governor Hunt would return to St. Joseph’s in 1932 while suffering from a long illness. During his hospitalization, the governor affixed his signature to a petition presented by the residents of the State of Arizona. The petition focused on offsetting the restrictions imposed by the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (the petition mainly focused on ending Prohibition).
Fun Fact: George W.P. Hunt was Arizona’s first governor, who served seven terms between February 1912 and January 1933. He referred to himself as “Old Walrus.” Governor Hunt was a Freemason and, inspired by the pyramids of Egypt, built a tomb for his wife after she died in 1931. Many Phoenix residents are familiar with Hunt’s Tomb, which is the white pyramid in the heart of Papago Park and visible from the Phoenix Zoo. Governor Hunt was also interred there after he died of heart failure on Christmas Eve in 1934.
By early 1942, Arizonans were feeling the effects of the United States’ involvement in World War II. The Sisters noted that while Arizona had no shoreline, the Lord had provided the state with some water and plenty of sand—just what authorities had ordered in case of air raids. St. Joseph’s roof was equipped with both items, along with shovels, should a raid result in fire.
The Red Cross established a plasma bank in St. Joseph’s laboratory, and Red Cross nursing aides trained three hours a day at the hospital. The extra help came in handy as the Sisters witnessed their doctors and nurses leave for military service almost on a weekly basis. According to the hospital’s annuals, Dr. E.P. Palmer felt “lost” without the assistance of his two physician sons, Payne and Paul, who had been called to military duty.
Fun Fact: Hollywood star Joan Fontaine volunteered at St. Joseph’s during World War II as an aide for the Red Cross. Joan’s husband, actor Brian Ahearne, served at one of the local military camps. Although not Catholic, the starlet had requested to work at a Catholic hospital. St. Joseph’s nurses were surprised when the movie star bathed four patients one morning and was then ready for more work.
Throughout its history, St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center has been blessed by the generosity of others. One early benefactor was Mr. Daniel O’Carroll who, in the spring of 1906, surprised the Sisters of Mercy with a check for $500.
Mr. O’Carroll emigrated from Ireland when he was a boy and spent most of his life mining the Arizona mountains for gold. By 1912, the miner and Civil War veteran’s interest in the hospital had increased, and he often stayed at St. Joseph’s as a guest. During one visit, he decided that the family living next door did not make suitable neighbors for the Sisters, so he bought the neighboring cottage and then donated it to the hospital. A few months later, he did the same with another cottage. Both buildings were used to house nurses.
Fun Facts: When reading the Sisters’ annuals, the history of Mr. O’Carroll takes on some of the folkloric qualities found in other stories about early miners. In 1906, Mr. O’Carroll, a satisfied patient, is described as being a gentleman more than 90 years old who insisted that he was of hearty health except “for a little stiffness of the limbs.” In 1915, it’s noted that Mr. O’Carroll, who loved all things Catholic, considered himself an “outsider” who had not been to church since he was a boy. Having drifted from religious influences in his later years, he lived a hermit’s life with his dog and two burros while prospecting for gold in Arizona. The Sisters often prayed for Mr. O’Carroll’s reconciliation with the Catholic Church and that was achieved when he was hospitalized at St. Joseph’s for a time in 1924. When Mr. O’Carroll died four years later, at the reported age of 113, he remarked that God had taken good care of him.