Courtesy of Mercy archives
A legacy is an inheritance or gift passed from one generation to the next. On Sept. 18, the employees and staff of Mercy Regional Medical Center will celebrate a legacy brought to the hospital by the Sisters of Mercy 130 years ago – a legacy of caring.
On Sept. 1, 1882, Mercy Hospital of the San Juans opened its doors to patients. It was a grand name for a rather humble annex of St. Mary’s Academy. The hospital held six to eight beds. But Durango celebrated its opening in grand style with music featuring the Durango Male Quartette and an editorial in the Herald declaring, “This is truly a noble and much-needed institution and it merits the most generous support of our people ... the sisters are experienced and trained nurses and their new hospital will be a great boon to Southwestern Colorado.”
And it was, but not without a cost. There were five nuns who originally came to Durango from St. Louis. Their leader, Mother Mary Baptist Meyers, was new to the role. None of them had experience with building schools or hospitals from scratch. They lived the same hard life most of Southwest Colorado’s residents lived, and spent their first night here sleeping in the loft of a barn next to St. Columba Church. It was a hard life, and two of the religious women returned to St. Louis after the first year, replaced by other young women. One of these, Sr. Mary Josephine Brennan came to Durango from Ireland, by way of Santa Fe. She has the distinction of being the first sister to die here after a brief (unnamed) illness within months of her arrival. Sister Josephine was buried by a cluster of lilac bushes near the school and hospital. Hers was one of the first graves moved to Greenmount Cemetery.
The sisters who survived were as tough as the cowboys, miners and railroad workers they cared for. Within a few short months they had opened two schools, a temporary orphanage and the hospital. We don’t have ledgers of the earliest patients, and most information on these earliest patients is gleaned from one of the five newspapers of the time. With few restrictions on patient confidentiality, their names and diagnoses could be found anywhere in the paper from a headline, to the social page, to an obituary.
But we do know the tiny hospital shut its doors to most other patients in May 1884 with the unexpected arrival of a smallpox victim. Because the school and hospital were attached, St. Mary’s Academy had to be closed for the protection of the students. Those 25 boarders and 70 day pupils did not pay tuition while the sisters nursed the original smallpox victim back to health. Some hospital patients too ill to be moved also developed smallpox, but there were no deaths.
The five months the hospital and school were closed were financially devastating. Even before this incident, there were plans to build a separate hospital building and efforts were renewed after the crisis. This resulted in the original sandstone hospital built across the street from St. Mary’s Academy and St. Columba’s Church, where the Durango Public Library now stands. It was topped with a stone cross now located inside the ground floor entrance to the newest hospital at Three Springs.
Why was a hospital so important to Durango’s early residents? Late 19th-century hospitals had a mixed role in society. They often were the facility of last resort for people without anyone to help nurse them through an illness or serious injury. Most of our earliest residents were men, far from the wives or mothers who would normally serve as caretakers. The lives they led were full of danger, whether in the mines, sawmills, ranches or railroad construction. They needed people and an institution that could care for them in their hour of need.
Our world has changed in the last 13 decades. Medications, microbiology, radiology, surgical techniques and other innovations have changed health care dramatically. And there is a new emphasis on maintaining health, not just treating illness.
There are no longer Sisters of Mercy working at the hospital they created. And although the name has changed over the years, a key word has never left the title – Mercy. The act of mercy is showing compassion for others, showing that you care. That is the legacy those nuns brought to the community in 1882, and it’s what the employees and staff will be celebrating on Mercy Day.
Guy Walton is the infection prevention nurse at Mercy Regional Medical Center. He co-wrote Mercy Hospital of the San Juans with Barbara Moorehead.
Courtesy Mercy archives
JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald file photo