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The Cornerstone of St. Mary’s Hospital

Nov. 10, 2010
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When Columbia St. Mary’s debuted its new state-of-the-art hospital in October, it was a momentous step in its 160-year history of providing health care to the people of Milwaukee. When the hospital first began caring for patients, Milwaukee was a young frontier settlement, a place of opportunity for foreign immigrants seeking work and a better life. The 1840s brought a flood of newcomers who overwhelmed the pioneer town’s simple infrastructure, which suffered from insufficient housing, sewage services and water services. Drinking water was untreated, animals roamed the unpaved streets and raw sewage flowed freely. Immigrants carried germs from their countries of origin and introduced them to Milwaukee. As a result, the rates of disease and death grew ghastly high.

Milwaukee was without a central government until 1846, when the city was chartered, so it was up to private individuals to try to address these life-threatening problems. With cholera, diphtheria, smallpox, tuberculosis and typhus on the rise, Catholic Bishop John Henni decided to provide health care through the church. According to Caring for Milwaukee: The Daughters of Charity at St. Mary’s Hospital by Brenda Quinn and Ellen Langill, Henni asked the Sisters of Charity, a religious order in Emmitsburg, Md., renowned for their health-care expertise, to send two or three sisters to join his diocese in order to provide parish education and desperately needed nursing skills. Thankfully, the ladies answered his call, and in August 1846, Sisters Mary Simeon Byrnes, Mary Ann Paul and Mary Agnes Frances Flanley arrived in Milwaukee.

Within two weeks of their arrival, the sisters established a school in the basement of St. Peter’s Church, though they spent most of their days walking from home to home, caring for the growing number of ill parishioners. Recognizing the inefficiency in this, Bishop Henni began fund-raising efforts to establish an infirmary that would be staffed by the sisters and visited by several of the most reputable doctors in Milwaukee. The two-story frame building was located on the corner of Jackson and Oneida (now Wells) streets near St. John’s Cathedral. Once again, the bishop wrote to Emmitsburg, asking for more sisters to come to Milwaukee.

A devoted Catholic, Solomon Juneau, Milwaukee’s first mayor, took charge of collecting contributions to establish the new infirmary in February 1848. Just three months later, on May 15, St. John’s Infirmary, the forerunner of St. Mary’s Hospital, officially opened its doors—just in time for the cholera epidemic that would hit Milwaukee the following year.

The Sisters (now known as Daughters) of Charity helped the citizens of Milwaukee weather the cholera storm of 1849-1850 and the arrival of a “plague ship” carrying 300 Scandinavian immigrants, many of who were dying of typhus. As grateful as the city was, there was deep concern that the infirmary’s location at the center of town posed a threat to public health. In 1856, a letter was printed in the Sentinel urging civic leaders to donate land on the north end of the city for the construction of a charity hospital to be operated by the Daughters of Charity. Architect John Dillenberg drew plans for the new hospital, and in January 1857 the Common Council adopted a resolution to donate three acres of land on the northeast side of Fourth Avenue (now Lake Drive). The cornerstone of the soon-to-be-named St. Mary’s Hospital was laid on the 80-foot bluff overlooking Lake Michigan on May 15, 1857.


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