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Heroines of Saint Joseph

September 02, 2008
perspective Heroines of Saint Joseph By Tom Noel Article Launched: 07/27/2008 12:30:00 AM MDT Among Colorado's most forgotten heroes have been the immigrant women — Germans, Irish, Italian and others — who lived here as nuns. You never see them in Westerns, yet these sisters, in their distinctive black-and-white habits, were a common sight in Colorado cowtowns and mining camps. They were busy setting up and running schools, hospitals, orphanages and shelters for the poorest and most unfortunate. Various orders of nuns walked the streets in pairs begging for funds to build and run hospitals in many Colorado towns. On Denver's Market Street, with its infamous "Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence," a different type of sister appeared in 1872: the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. Sister Superior Joanna Brunner and sisters Theodora MacDonald, Veronica O'Hara and Mary Clare Bergen came to open Saint Joseph Hospital on Sept. 22, 1873, in a small cottage at 1421 Arapahoe St. (That site is where the 45-story luxury high rise Four Season Residences, with its $10 million penthouse, is now under construction). The sisters did all the nursing, cooking, washing, housekeeping and much of the doctoring. Their hospital filled rapidly, so the nuns moved into the attic and used their small kitchen as an operating room. They turned no one away, not even penniless Protestants, practicing their order's motto: "The greatest of these is charity." In 1874, the sisters moved their hospital to a larger building at 26th and Market streets. When warned that Market Street was questionable because it housed Denver's "soiled doves," "brides of the multitude" and "sisters of sin," Sister Superior Joanna replied, "We'll take the question out of the neighborhood!" The sisters moved a few years later to a much larger site at the northwest corner of Humboldt Street and East 18th Avenue. First Territorial Gov. William Gilpin and his wife, Julia, a devout Catholic, donated the site for a $40,000, 80-bed hospital. Other supporters included another territorial governor, John Evans, a medical doctor and staunch Methodist. He donated $1,000, along with a note praising "the devoted attention and skillful care given to the sick by the ladies of your order." The Unsinkable Molly Brown chaired a "gigantic city wide bazaar" that raised $10,000 for the hospital. Such community support later enabled the Sisters of Charity to replace their 1879 hospital with a twin-towered, eight-story landmark. It stood until the 1960s, when it was replaced by the current 11-story, twin-towered building. Now Saint Joseph is growing again, according to Sister Mary Aloys Powell. She started working at Saint Joseph in 1950 as a nurse. "Saint Joseph has always been where the greatest number of Colorado babies are born," Sister Powell smiled. "It has been a privilege to work here with wonderful patients, staff, physicians and 10 other Sisters of Charity who are still here." Hospital Foundation president and CEO Carl Unrein reports that in 2007, Saint Joseph purchased most of the Children's Hospital site after it moved to Aurora. "We plan to build a 400-bed hospital to open as early as 2012 on a green campus setting that will connect the new and old hospitals. We are committed to remaining downtown and continuing to work with the poor as we have for the past 135 years." Amen.