The Origin of Mercy Hospital, Durango, Colorado
Honoring the People Who Created What We've Inherited
In 1831, Catherine McAuley, 53, founded the Sisters of Mercy in Dublin, Ireland.
Beginning in 1882, Sisters of Mercy from St. Louis built hospitals in Durango, Ouray, Cripple Creek, Manitou, and Denver.
In April, 1882, five Sisters of Mercy from St. Louis, Missouri, established an eight-bed hospital in Durango, which was a two-year-old wild west town populated by cowboys, prospectors, miners, railroad construction crews, and the businesses that served them, including numerous saloons and brothels.
Mother Mary John Baptist Meyers, Sister Michael Cummings, Sister Euphrasia Hanker, and Sister Ignatius deHarte were accompanied to Durango by Margaret Coleman, a postulant who later became Sister Peter. The motto of the Sisters of Mercy was "To shield the sick is to serve God."
Mother Baptist, 35, had trained as a nurse at St. John Hospital in St. Louis. She was charming and capable of multi-tasking in circumstances that may have discouraged many others. In Durango she borrowed $10,000 at 8% interest to build a hospital and — because people started bringing orphans to the Sisters — an impromptu orphanage.
The Sisters opened two schools, one on each side of the Animas River, because they didn't want the children to have to cross the unsteady bridge.
On September 1, 1882, the Sisters of Mercy admitted their first patient. The Durango Herald wrote that "This is a 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 in Southwestern Colorado." The Durango Male Quartet gave a benefit performance for the Sisters, and other fundraising activities were arranged.
Sister Kathleen O'Brien wrote in Journeys that Mother Mary John Baptist Meyers "was known for her 'incessant activity,' for her charm and for her ability to involve others in her projects. She and the other pioneer Colorado Sisters were not afraid to begin projects in the most rugged and inaccessible mountain towns and they were not afraid to terminate those projects when the need for them no longer existed. This was a characteristic very fitting for the 'boom and bust' gold and silver mining milieu of Colorado at the turn of the century."
In May 1884, an outbreak of smallpox in May at Durango's Mercy Hospital, where the school and hospital were in the same building, caused Mother Baptist Meyers to close the hospital for five months. Sister Josephine Healey, who had just arrived from St. Louis, contracted the disease and was permanently scarred. The Sisters of Mercy almost immediately started planning for a new hospital building that would be separate from the school.
In 1885, the Sisters of Mercy began to call their Durango clinic Mercy Hospital of the San Juan Basin when they opened a two-story sandstone 30'x50' building with two wards on each floor with a total of 25 beds.
In 1886, LaPlata County contracted with the Sisters of Mercy at Mercy Hospital of the San Juan Basin to care for indigent patients. The county paid $1.20 per patient per day, plus $1.00 each for a night nurse.
In 1974 the name of Mercy Hospital was changed to Mercy Medical Center.
Barbara Moorehead and Guy Walton: Mercy Hospital of the San Juans. Montrose, Colorado: Lifetime Chronicle Press, 2006.
Sister Kathleen O'Brien, RSM: Journeys: A Pre-Amalgamation History of the Sisters of Mercy Omaha Province. Omaha, Nebraska: The Sisters of Mercy, 1987.
Monte G. Kniffen, CA, at the Sisters of Mercy Archives in Omaha has provided information and answered questions beyond the call of duty. Sister Mary Regis Leahy, RSM, has been my guide to everything about the Sisters of Mercy in Colorado. Sister Peggy J. Maloney, RSM, of Regis University in Denver generously shared her perspective as a member of the Mercy Regional Medical Center board.
Contact book [at] coloradohealthcarehistory [dot] com or @ColoradoHealth on Twitter with additions, corrections, suggestions, or for more information. Thank you!
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