The Origin of St. Joseph Miners' Hospital, Ouray

Honoring the People Who Created What We've Inherited

In 1831, Catherine McAuley, 53, founded the Sisters of Mercy in Dublin, Ireland.

In 1862, Ouray, 29, leader of the Tabeguache (or Uncompahgre) Utes, had emerged as someone the whites in Colorado thought of as the representative of the Utes. While their decentralized tribal structure didn't allow anyone to speak for them all, Ouray negotiated with Territorial Governor Evans, and in 1863 was part of a Ute delegation that met with President Lincoln.

In 1876, the town of Ouray — located in western Colorado between Montrose and Telluride — was founded following the arrival of gold and silver miners. The town was named after Ute leader Ouray (c. 1833-1880).

Beginning in 1882, Sisters of Mercy from St. Louis built hospitals in Durango, Ouray, Cripple Creek, Manitou, and Denver.

St. Joseph Miners' Hospital

In 1887, Mother Mary John Baptist Meyers sent three Sisters of Mercy from Durango to Ouray.

On August 27, 1887, the Sisters opened St. Joseph Miners' Hospital, a two-story white stone building with a basement. Sister Mary Michael Cummings was administrator, Sister Mary Teresa Hoey was a nurse, and Sister Josephine Healy cooked, cleaned, and performed other duties in the hospital.

Sister Kathleen O'Brien, RSM, wrote about the Ouray Sisters of Mercy in Journeys:

"Given the inaccessibility of the area, the proximity of many smaller mining camps and the dangers inherent in the occupation of mining, the hospital was sorely needed and much appreciated by the people of Ouray.

"The townspeople organized fairs and benefits of various kinds for the Sisters and their hospital. These turned into marvelous social occasions for these isolated people. They were also a source of bonding for the people of the parish and the town as well as a way for them to share the responsibility of caring for those who could not otherwise afford adequate health care. The Sisters who served in Ouray did not confine their ministry to the hospital, but journeyed out into the hills and mining camps seeking those in need of their ministry."

In 1889, Sister Mary Alacoque Houle became administrator at St. Joseph's Miner's Hospital.

Demonetization: The Beginning of the End

In 1893, because of the demonetization of silver, miners in Ouray were no longer able to pay $1.00 a month for healthcare, which had been the principal source of income for the Sisters of Mercy at St. Joseph Miners' Hospital. The hospital steadily lost patients, and the Sisters were gradually moved to busier hospitals, but they returned to Ouray in 1899 and remained until 1918.

During the period when there were no Sisters of Mercy in Ouray, the hospital was looked after by Mrs. Brockschmidt, whose sister was Mother Baptist Meyers, the head of the Sisters of Mercy in Colorado.

In 1899, Tom Walsh, who since 1895 had operated the Camp Bird mine near Ouray, paid off the St. Joseph Miners' Hospital's debt of $3,500 and persuaded the Sisters of Mercy to return to Ouray, where they remained until 1918, when the hospital was sold. Over the course of about twenty years, miners produced more than $20 million worth of gold and other minerals from Camp Bird, and Walsh became a very wealthy man when he sold the mine to British investors in 1902.

The Sisters of Mercy had run St. Joseph Miners' Hospital between 1887 and 1918, with that brief interruption due to the decline of Ouray's mining industry. The hospital was finally closed in 1964, and the building eventually became a museum operated by the Ouray County Historical Society.

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Bibliography

Sister Kathleen O'Brien, RSM: Journeys: A Pre-Amalgamation History of the Sisters of Mercy Omaha Province. Omaha, Nebraska: The Sisters of Mercy, 1987. A scholarly account by a fascinating writer who makes the stories of the Sisters in Colorado beginning in the 1880s come alive.

Acknowledgements

Colorado's own Monte G. Kniffen — senior archivist for the Sisters of Mercy, West Midwest Community in Omaha — has always been ready with guidance, documents, and information. Sister Pat McDermott, RSM, president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, has given advice and encouragement on a couple of occasions. Sister Mary Regis Leahy, RSM, is my guide to everything about the Sisters of Mercy in Colorado.

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