The first hospital in St. Louis? It was Catholic.

Image courtesy of SSM Healthcare.

Being the first of anything can be difficult. Like opening the first hospital west of the Mississippi -- really, it's not as easy as it sounds.

Luckily for St. Louis, one religious order was up for the challenge. In November 1828, four Daughters of Charity arrived in St. Louis -- at the time home to 6,000 residents -- to establish a hospital at the request of Archbishop Joseph Rosati. The project was funded by John Mullanphy, a local philanthropist who fronted $150 for the journey and $350 to start St. Louis Hospital. It would be the first hospital west of the Mississippi River and the first Catholic hospital in the nation.

The first building was a three-room log cabin at Third and Spruce streets downtown. It served as the hospital in St. Louis until a brick facility opened a block away in 1832. The sisters ran the city's only hospital, caring for all government and city patients, until the city opened its own hospital in August, 1846.

Father John Rothensteiner wrote about the sisters' austere beginnings, "Per aspera ad astra (Through hardship to the stars)." Despite the rustic setting, the sisters quickly started providing medical care, which sometimes led to the conversions of the patients. Bishop Rosati wrote, "Conversions are frequently effected there, which bestow on those who came there with the sole intention of regaining bodily health, true life and vigor."

For 42 years the sisters cared for St. Louians in that building, and they faced many challenges. A fire burned much of downtown but narrowly missed their building in 1849. In 1856 the city hospital was destroyed by fire and its patients were transferred to St. Louis Hospital. Perhaps the most difficult challenges were the cholera outbreaks in 1832 and 1849. These outbreaks killed thousands of St. Louisans. Of the first outbreak, Bishop Rosati wrote in his diary, "They [patients] were visited by us day and night with the greatest alacrity and without any fear of death." Four Daughters of Charity died in their mission to help those afflicted in 1849.

By 1874, downtown business development encroached on St. Louis hospital, and the sisters built a third hospital building at Bacon and Montgomery streets, near Grand Avenue. The sisters named the new building St. Louis Mullanphy Hospital, in recognition of the Mullanphy family's financial support. The building and land cost $150,000.

Mullanphy Hospital served St. Louis until 1930, when the sisters finished construction of and moved into DePaul hospital at Kinsghighway and Wabada Avenue. The Daughters of Charity, continuing their mission of medical care in St. Louis, moved to present-day DePaul Hospital in 1977, almost 150 years after their ministry here began.

Zac Boesch and SSM HealthCare contributed to this story.

This is the second of a 6-part series marking the 250th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis. Each part examines an aspect of the history of the archdiocese and the impact the Catholic Church has had on St. Louis.


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