The Origin of Saint Francis Sanatorium, Denver, Colorado

Honoring the People Who Created What We've Inherited

In 1924, Franciscan Sisters from Rochester, Minnesota, bought a large home on Denver's west side and used it as a residence for their own Sisters who had tuberculosis. In 1931, the Sisters opened their facility to the public after numerous requests from local physicians. Denver doctors who knew exactly who these Sisters were, and wanted to be able to send patients to them. Here's what the doctors knew:

The Background

In August 1883, a tornado killed a couple of dozen people in Rochester, Minnesota. Dr. William W. Mayo and his son Dr. Will Mayo treated more than 200 people who had been injured, and they asked the Sisters of Saint Francis, who were local teachers, to assist them.

The Sisters' founder, Mother Alfred Moes, subsequently told Dr. W.W. Mayo that she would build a hospital in Rochester if he would manage the medical staff.

In 1889, the Franciscan Sisters opened the 27-bed St. Marys Hospital in Rochester. Sister Joseph Dempsey, who had been a teacher, was the first administrator of St. Marys Hospital, a position she held for 39 years. The attending physicians were William W. Mayo, MD, 70, and his sons Will Mayo, MD, 28, and Charlie Mayo, MD, 24. Sister Joseph Dempsey was also Dr. Will Mayo's surgery assistant.

Like Will and Charlie Mayo, the Sisters were new to hospital work. Edith Graham, the only trained nurse in Rochester, began training some of the teaching Sisters to be nurses. Close collaborators, they all agreed to live by the philosophy that Dr. Will Mayo later put into words: "The needs of the patient come first."

When they dedicated the first addition to the Sisters' hospital, the senior Dr. Mayo noted that "the grounds were purchased by the sisters, and the building was erected under the supervision of the Mother Superior. She was a wonderful woman, so full of hope and energy." When people praised Dr. Mayo and his sons, they praised the work of the Sisters. Dr. William W. Mayo retired in 1892, and by the following year, their reputation — and their low mortality rate — was becoming known nationwide.

In 1914, Dr. William J. Mayo (1861-1939) and Dr. Charles H. Mayo (1865-1939) built a five-story medical building — the Mayo Clinic. The Sisters continued to run St. Marys Hospital and the Mayo brothers continued as the hospital's staff physicians and surgeons. In 1986, St. Marys Hospital became part of a complex that includes the Mayo Clinic and Rochester Methodist Hospital.

Dr. Will Mayo, Dr. Charlie Mayo, and Sister Joseph Dempsey all died during the period from March to July 1939.

Sisters from Rochester Come to Denver

Since 1913, the Sisters of Saint Francis of Rochester, Minnesota, had owned a residence in Sierra Madre, California, to which they sent their Sisters who had contracted tuberculosis.

In 1924, so that the Sisters could be closer to their community's general headquarters in Rochester, they bought the former home of Denver architect William N. Bowman at 325 King Street, on the east side of Lowell Boulevard between 3rd and 4th Avenues. The Sisters renamed the building Mount Alverna Home.

Saint Francis Sanatorium, Denver, Colorado
"The building stands on an elevation said to be the highest point in the city of Denver. From it one has a commanding view of the city on the east and south, while the majestic Rockies stand in relief against the western sky. Being in a strictly residential district, it is removed from the dust and noise of the city and thus enjoys invigorating air and quiet, both essential to the sick.

"The original building was a two story structure of red brick and stone, consisting of twelve rooms. In addition there was a two story frame building of five rooms, and a two car garage on the premises. . . ." (from a typewritten document in the Sisters' archives)
Sister Caroline Jungels was the founding superior of Mount Alverna Home. Sister Helena Pannek was the housekeeper, and the nursing and support staff included Sister Loretto Koch, Sister Pius Fitzgerald, Sister Martina Wesley, Sister Catherine Kain, and Sister Aquinata Sipple.

The Franciscan Sisters enlarged the kitchen and added an addition to the room that became their chapel. In 1925, they bought additional adjoining lots for future expansion.

The facility changed names over the years as its mission evolved:
  • 1924 — Mount Alverna Home
  • 1927 — Saint Francis Sanatorium
  • 1955 — Saint Francis Convalescent Hospital
  • 1965 — Saint Francis Nursing Home
In 1931, due to persistent requests from local physicians, the Sisters began admitting "secular patients." It was not unusual for Colorado physicians who were having health problems to go to the Mayo Clinic for treatment, so they knew from personal experience the kind of care the Franciscan Sisters could give.

The Sisters closed the nursing home in 1966, and sold it to a group of Denver businessmen who used it to establish Savio House, a home for at-risk teenage boys.


Congregational Secretary Sister Elaine Frank, OSF, and Congregational Archivist Sister Mary Lonan Reilly, OSF, of the Sisters of Saint Francis in Rochester, Minnesota, have been generous with their time. They gathered this information, sent it to me, expressed their willingness to help, and provided the photo of Saint Francis Sanatorium in Denver.

Matt Dacy and Kathy Shepel at Mayo Clinic have been wonderfully supportive. The folk art painting of the Mayo brothers with Franciscan Sisters assisting is courtesy Mayo Clinic.

Contact book [at] coloradohealthcarehistory [dot] com or @ColoradoHealth on Twitter with additions, corrections, suggestions, or for more information. Thank you!

Note that the Franciscan Sisters of Rochester, Minnesota, are a different community from the Franciscan Sisters who founded St. Francis Hospital in Colorado Springs and St. Anthony Hospital in Denver.

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Copyright © 2013 Thomas J. Sherlock
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