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Borderlands: Sisters of Charity Began Hotel Dieu Hospital 19 (2000)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Sisters of Charity Began Hotel Dieu Hospital

Article first published in Vol. 19, 2000.

By Debbie Vasquez and Guadalupe Dominguez

Ten years after the arrival of the first railroads in 1881, the small town of El Paso began to be known for its warm, sunny climate. "Tent Town," a collection of small tents and shacks at the base of Mount Franklin, sprang up in 1891 to house people from all over who had come to find a cure for "consumption," or tuberculosis. That is when people realized they needed a hospital. Historian Cleofas Calleros says, "There was a tremendous need for medical attention, and the squalid sanitary conditions were an immense problem." Doctors from other towns aided the sick as much as possible in the tent city, but small pox and tuberculosis were rampant.


Image caption:  Hotel Dieu Hospital in 1909. Photo courtesy of the El Paso Public Library 

A group of concerned citizens led by Edward V. Berrien asked Reverend Charles Ferrari, pastor of St. Mary's Chapel, for help. The father spoke to Mother Marianna Flynn, Visitatrix of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul about El Paso's need for professional medical assistance. Four nuns from Detroit arrived here the first week of February 1892 to open St. Mary's Hospital of the Sisters of Charity, which became known as Sisters Hospital. Their purpose was to administer to the sick and afflicted of all nationalities, all faiths.

Sisters Mary Stella Dempsey, Dolores Sofia Eggert, Genevieve Alice Hennessy, and Mary Lee started the first hospital in a small two-story house at 1015 E. Overland rented by Father Ferrari. Their patient load grew rapidly, and the hospital quickly outgrew its three rented rooms. In March 1892, the nuns moved their hospital to the Dieter home at 415 Upson, where it operated from May 1892 until January 25, 1894. But this location also proved to be too small to handle El Paso's needs.

With the help of El Paso women, the Sisters began a huge fund- raising campaign, eventually borrowing the money from a local bank and the motherhouse to purchase an entire block of land between Arizona and Montana Streets. On January 25, 1894, Hotel Dieu, as the sisters named it, moved to its new location at the corner of Stanton and Rio Grande Streets. The new hospital, luxurious in comparison to its previous site, was modeled and named after the famous hospital building Hotel Dieu in Paris where the first Daughters of Charity cared for the sick and indigent.

Costing $75,000, the hospital had 80 rooms with a chapel on the second floor. The business office, a nursing lecture room and pharmacy occupied the rest of the second floor while the third floor provided private rooms for surgical patients and the fourth floor was devoted to obstetrics. The fifth floor, like the basement, had operating rooms. Historian Calleros reminds us that there was no electricity so gas was used for lighting, and wood was used for fuel and heating. Two years later, in 1904, the north wing was completed and dedicated. Hotel Dieu and the nuns received as a gift their first ambulance, a buggy drawn by two sleek black horses, a donation valued at $1,200.

When the Sisters of Charity arrived in El Paso, they had in mind to start a nursing program to be able to staff their hospital. And so in 1898, they opened a training school for nurses on North Kansas and Arizona Streets, the first nursing school in El Paso. That the hospital was next to the school was important because nursing students could train with actual patients. In 1902, the first graduating class consisted of four students: Bessie Parker of Nova Scotia, Rose Worden of El Paso, Bessie Driscoll of Chicago and Sarah Morris of Philadelphia. These registered nurses then began working at Hotel Dieu Hospital. During World War I, many students used their skills in aiding the wounded.

The school then moved to the old Morehead School at the corner of Arizona and Campbell in 1927 and housed about 65 students. As the school improved and more students applied for admission to the three-year program, the Sisters moved to another location in the 1960s. Receiving a grant of $100,000 from the Moody Foundation, the then-new nursing school, housing 200 students, opened on Kansas Street across from the old school. The Nursing School is now part of the University of Texas at El Paso College of Nursing and Allied Health.

Hotel Dieu itself continued to grow in the twentieth century, and once more in 1946, the Sisters of Charity began raising funds to build a new hospital. In April 1950, groundbreaking ceremonies took place for building a 270-bed facility. When the south wing was completed, the original building was razed to make room for the center wing. In April 1953, the new Hotel Dieu opened to serve patients. In the early 1970s, a third north wing was added.

As Hotel Dieu grew, so did its medical specialties and technology. The hospital offered telemetry, coronary and intensive care units. It specialized in renal disease treatment and boasted a respiratory care center. The hospital was also known for its obstetrics department.

Hotel Dieu served El Paso and surrounding communities for almost a century until El Paso found itself with 800 too many hospital beds, and the Sisters sold the medical center on December 5, 1987. The building still stands at the corner of Stanton and Rio Grande Streets and has been rented out to various tenants for office space. Small medical practices have come and gone, and the empty building, now named the Landmark and owned by the county, is still in search of a buyer.

Sister Paula Ansel, former director of nursing at Hotel Dieu, told El Paso Times columnist Mary Margaret Davis, "When we sold the hospital, we promised the people that we would remain in El Paso." Seven of the Sisters work at San Vicente Family Health Center, opened by the order in 1988, at 8061 Alameda. This center helps the less fortunate who have no insurance or money to pay for medical needs. The Sisters of Charity also distribute food and clothing to the poor at the Ladies of Charity Center at 1012 N. Campbell. The Sisters practice the same philosophy that brought them to the Sun City over 100 years ago reflected in their motto: "The Charity of Christ Urges Us."

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tags: religion, medicine, women

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