The Origin of Saint Joseph Hospital, Denver, Colorado

Honoring the People Who Created What We've Inherited

On March 15, 1864, the Sisters of Charity opened St. John's Hospital in Leavenworth, the first civilian hospital in Kansas, because "the city increased so rapidly in population that it became apparent a hospital was needed in which to care for the sick poor and others who might wish to avail themselves of the ministrations of the Sisters . . . .

Sister Joanna Bruner, Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth "Sister Joanna had charge of St. John's during the early years of its existence, and was indefatigable in her efforts to render it in every way a true home to the afflicted who were received within its walls. Her very existence seemed to be wrapped up in the well-being of the sick under her charge, and it was no uncommon occurrence for her to remain up night after night in attempting to alleviate the sufferings of her patients." (Sister Mary Buckner, 1898).

Sister Joanna Bruner (right) was the first woman to run a hospital west of the Mississippi, and her reputation in Denver corresponded to what Sister Mary Buckner wrote about her work in Leavenworth.

Sister Joanna — who once said "the love of my life is the sick" — was a founder of a humanitarian healthcare tradition in Colorado as well as in Kansas.

St. Vincent's Hospital

At the beginning of the summer of 1873, the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth came to Colorado at the request of Bishop Joseph Machebeuf. Mother Xavier Ross and Sister Joanna Bruner arrived on the train from Leavenworth, and they were initially the guests of the Sisters of Loretto at St. Mary's Academy.

Sister Joanna was a registered nurse who had come to Denver to open the first private-sector hospital in the Colorado Territory.

On September 14, 1873, Sister Theodora McDonald, Sister Veronica O'Hara, and Sister Clare Bergen arrived in Denver to join Sister Joanna. The Sisters spent about a week remodeling and cleaning a small brick home at 1421 Arapahoe Street — across the street from today's Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

On September 22, 1873, the Sisters opened the six-room St. Vincent's Hospital. The building had been donated by Mrs. William Perry, who knew the Sisters of Charity from when she lived in Leavenworth.

By the end of October, Sister Joanna had rented a house for the Sisters to live in, and reinforcements arrived from Leavenworth to help at the new hospital: Sister Francis Xavier Davy, Sister Marcella Hurley, and Sister Apollonia Rohr.

Bishop Machebeuf published an announcement in the Denver papers that "the Sisters of Charity are now ready to receive patients without any distinction of nationality or creed." A few months later William Byers' Rocky Mountain News began running editorials that wondered why the people of Denver would want to support a hospital that only served Catholics.

The Sisters of Charity and the Rocky had an exchange of views in the paper that ended with a letter from the Sisters that was perfectly clear: "You will be kind enough we hope to allow us to take exception to the manner in which claims of our hospital for public support are referred to in your paper by representing it as a denominational or sectarian institution. We do not expect public support for our institution on denominational grounds but on the plea of universal charity . . . . Our institute is for all the sick, wounded and destitute."

Moves to Market Street and Blake Street

In 1874 the Sisters moved their St. Vincent's Hospital from their six-room building at 1421 Arapahoe Street to a larger building at 26th and Market, in Denver's red-light district. When someone asked Sister Joanna Bruner about the advisability of locating in a questionable neighborhood, she replied, "we'll take the question out of the neighborhood."

The Sisters began raising money to build a hospital that would be big enough to meet the need, and an 1874 fair in Denver helped them start their construction fund. Two Sisters came out from Leavenworth to travel around Colorado asking for financial support for the new hospital. They reported that Coloradans were generous.

At the end of 1874 or early in 1875, the Sisters moved St. Vincent's Hospital again — this time to the former Pacific House hotel at 22nd and Blake, where it remained for about a year. The Sisters paid $80 a month to rent the building, which was usually all that they had because few of their patients could pay anything.

At one point, Dr. Frederick J. Bancroft expressed concern about how the Sisters could possibly afford to take care of so many patients who couldn't pay. They explained that as Sisters of Charity, the poor were their first concern, and Sister Theodora McDonald later remarked that Dr. Bancroft was himself particularly kind to the poor. Dr. Bancroft, the Denver city physician, and Dr. Augustus L. Justice were the first two physicians on the staff of what in 1876 became St. Joseph's Hospital.

In mid-1875, Sister Joanna Bruner and Sister Martha Meade moved to Laramie, Wyoming Territory, to open St. Joseph's Hospital there at the request of the local pastor and the Union Pacific railroad, and Sister Francis Xavier Davey became administrator of St. Vincent's Hospital in Denver.

St. Joseph's Hospital

In 1876, the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth replaced the St. Vincent's Hospital that they had established in 1873 with a new facility and they gave it a new name — the three-story brick, 30-bed St. Joseph's Hospital.

St. Joseph's opened at 18th Avenue and Humboldt Street in Denver, where it would remain for about 135 years. Sister Mary Ignatia Nealon supervised the planning of the new hospital, and Sister Benedicta Maloney took over as administrator when it opened.

Two former territorial governors, neither of them a Catholic, provided major financial and public relations assistance to the Sisters of Charity. Dr. and Mrs. John Evans donated some land to the Sisters, who because the location was not suitable for a hospital sold it and deposited $1,000.00 into their construction fund. William Gilpin donated the land at 18th and Humboldt where the Sisters actually built St. Joseph's Hospital, despite their concern that it was too far away from central Denver.

These gestures by the former governors sent a message to the citizens of Denver that the Sisters of Charity were reliable healthcare providers, and the outspoken anti-Catholicism that the Sisters had endured began to fade away . . . very slowly.

St. Joseph's Hospital had been principally financed by the Sisters themselves, who had also asked for help in Denver and across the region, including in Laramie, Leadville, and Telluride.

Expansion in 1899–1900

On March 22, 1899, the Denver Times reported that "the success of [St. Joseph's Hospital] and its rapid growth is due in large measure to the non-sectarian character of the charity, to the high efficiency of the medical staff, and the keen interest which the Sisters take in the work to which they have devoted their lives."

Some of Denver's wealthiest women held fundraising events that collected about $10,000 for the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth at St. Joseph's Hospital in Denver. The women were led by:

  • Margaret Tobin Brown, 31—who would later become famous as the "unsinkable Molly"—wife of mining engineer James J. Brown, who had made his fortune in Leadville
  • Nellie Campion—wife of John F. Campion, owner of mines in Leadville
  • Edith Daniels—wife of William Cooke Daniels of the Daniels & Fisher Department Store
  • Catherine Smith Mullen, 49—wife of John K. Mullen, owner of grain elevators, warehouses, and mills
  • Frances Thatcher—wife of Joseph Addison Thatcher, founder and president of the Denver National Bank
The women's May 12-20, 1899, bazaar was held at Coliseum Hall, and their "Monster Progressive Euchre Card Party" for 1,500 people was at the Denver Armory on June 22, 1899. Both events were covered extensively by the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Times, which helped to publicize the work of the Sisters and the construction of St. Joseph's new addition that would open in 1900. The fact that such prominent women supported the Sisters of Charity helped soften some of the anti-Catholic prejudice that was still strong in Denver at the time.

In 1964 the hospital changed its name from "St. Joseph's Hospital" to "Saint Joseph Hospital" and in 1998 it became Exempla Saint Joseph Hospital.

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


Sister Marie Brinkman, SCL: Emerging Frontiers: Renewal in the Life of Women: Religious Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, 1955-2005. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2008.

Sister Mary Buckner, SCL: History of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kansas. Kansas City, Missouri: Hudson-Kimberly Publishing Company, 1898.

Sister Mary Carol Conroy, SCL: The Historical Development of the Health Care Ministry of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. PhD Dissertation, Kansas State University, 1984.

Dave Fishell: Towers of Healing: The First 125 Years of Denver's Saint Joseph Hospital. Denver: The Saint Joseph Hospital Foundation, 1999.

Sister Julia Gilmore, SCL: We Came North: Centennial Story of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. St. Meinrad, Indiana: Abbey Press, 1961. The centennial story of the Sister of Charity of Leavenworth, carries the history up to 1958-1959.

"Saint Vincent's: 'We take all who come,'" Leadville Herald Democrat, March 11, 2004.


Sister Maureen Hall, SCL, and Sister Barbara Sellers, SCL, in Leavenworth and Sister Melissa Camardo, SCL, at Exempla Saint Joseph Hospital in Denver have given information, support, and encouragement.

Margaret Bandy, director of the Exempla Saint Joseph Hospital Library in Denver, has loaned books, sent photographs, and offered guidance.

A stimulating conversation with Carl Unrein of the Exempla Saint Joseph Hospital Foundation strengthened our determination to honor what fourteen communities of Catholic Sisters did for heatlhcare in Colorado, and to help preserve their amazing legacy.

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