To imagine four women traveling to the far reaches of Nome, Alaska in 1902 is remarkable. For the Sisters of Providence, it was their mission - a mission of compassion, caring, and dedication that has carried them across the state to communities in need.
Today we honor that partnership with Alaska - a partnership that continues to grow and strengthen as the Sisters of Providence look to meet the needs of Alaskan for generations to come.
A Rich Heritage
Founded in Montreal, Canada in 1843, the Sisters of Providence were well prepared for new challenges. Following their mission to minister to the needs of the poor, sick and unfortunate, they responded to communities throughout the Northwest United States. By 1900 they had established 29 hospitals, schools, orphanages, homes for the aged, shelters for the mentally ill, and Indian schools. Within two years, they would respond to yet another need. This time, in Alaska.
Alaska and the Gold Rush
Following rumors that three of the largest gold nuggets ever found in Alaska were near Nome, prospectors head west. By 1900, over 10,000 inhabitants occupy the town. With no formalized government, the community has few provisions for social welfare and local leaders look beyond the town for help. Heeding their call, two Roman Catholic priests arrive in July, 1901. Knowing of the great works of the Sisters of Providence, they persuade the Sisters to establish a much needed hospital in Nome.
Early 1900’s in Nome
Though short-handed, the missionary tradition of the Sisters of Providence compel them to extend their work to the far reaches of Alaska. To the delight of the community, the Sisters arrive in Nome on June 10, 1902. However, due to an outbreak of small pox the Sisters remain quarantined aboard the ship for three days. Once settled in Nome, the Sisters purchased a two-story building and establish the Holy Cross Hospital. They begin to provide shelter, care and compassion to anyone, regardless of their ability to pay.
Seeking to fund their hospital, the Sisters set out on foot, dogsled or horseback to the mines surrounding Nome. There, the Sisters would sell the miners ‘tickets’ for care. On the ticket it read, "Let a few dollars of your wages go to Holy Cross Hospital, and when you get sick or injured, you will find in its wards the best treatment you can get in Alaska…"
In 1903 Willem Einthoven invents the first electrocardiogram (EKG) machine that records the electrical activity of the heart.
It’s 1904 and the Sisters of Providence respond to yet another community need by establishing a school. Not only do the Sisters offer academic classes, but for $4 a month children can take music lessons.
By 1906, Holy Cross Hospital outgrows its current location. With record generosity and support the community opens the second Holy Cross Hospital. But by 1918 the troubled mining industry forces the majority of residents to leave. Called to join the Sisters of Providence in Fairbanks, the remaining Sisters depart Nome with the two boarders still in their care.
Blind Joe Terrigluck — named so after an accident left him blind — came to work for the Sisters as a handyman, and soon became an entertainer by playing the accordion, organ and singing. Because of his strong friendship with the priests and Sisters, the Alaskan Native moved with the Sisters from Nome to Fairbanks and lived and worked with them until his passing at St. Joseph Hospital.
Early 1900’s in Fairbanks
It was 1902 when the gold rush enveloped the natural hub of central Alaska — Fairbanks. In 1910, responding to a community need, the Sisters purchase St. Joseph Hospital for $10,000. Soon, they are caring for an average of 300 patients a year.
Adapting to the severe temperatures in Fairbanks, the Sisters layer their habits with furs and pelts to keep warm.
When the United States enters World War I in 1917, many believe Fairbanks will dissipate like other boomtowns. Instead, Fairbanks grows with the influx of the railroad industry and receives national recognition when President Harding visits the hospital after driving the final golden stake on the Alaska Railroad.
1926 the first air-transported patient arrives at St. Joseph Hospital in Fairbanks from 500 miles away.
A Time of Progress. While The Depression hits the Lower 48 in the 1930’s, Fairbanks enjoys a period of growth. St. Joseph Hospital is known statewide for some of Alaska’s most modern medical facilities. In fact, when the Army decides to build a military base in Fairbanks, they see no reason to open an additional hospital with such a "splendid institution" available.
In 1937 the Anchorage community had started growing with the construction of the Seward to Fairbanks railroad. The Alaskan Engineering Commission made Anchorage its headquarters and funded several new facilities, including the railroad hospital. But as the community continued to expand, the need for a larger hospital was inevitable. In 1935, the Anchorage Daily Times reported, "A much larger hospital with more conveniences is sorely needed." Approximately a year later, the Sisters of Providence formally announce their decision to open a two-story, 52-bed hospital in Anchorage.
In 1939, just down the road from the airstrip, now known as the Park Strip, the new Providence Hospital opens on Ninth and L Streets. There, the Sisters of Providence sought to provide the best medical care available. As a result, Alaskans begin to stay in-state for their medical care.
In 1940 two Oxford University professors, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, develop Penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic.
In 1942, as the United States is reeling from Pearl Harbor and entering World War II, Alaska increases their military presence in Kodiak and the Aleutians. Concurrent with the battle of Midway, Japanese invasion forces occupy Attu and Kiska islands in the Aleutians. After a hard-fought battle, the Japanese are driven out of Attu and evacuate Kiska.
After the war, Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city. The new military bases and the war effort contributes greatly to the economy and modernization of Alaska. Right inline with progress are the Sisters of Providence.
Continuing their mission of caring, the Sisters of Providence travel throughout Alaska ministering to those along the way. In 1949, two Sisters begin an annual summer vacation bible school. From military bases to Kotzebue, the two-week program offers Alaskan youths religious lessons combined with games and activities. It is a success — both to the children who participate and the Sisters who learn from the cultures of Alaska.
A time of progress — C. Walton Lillehei performs the first successful open-heart surgery earning him the title, ‘The Father of Open Heart Surgery.’ Dr. Jonas Salk creates the first vaccine against polio.
For Alaska, the postwar era provides new opportunities through medical advancements and improved communications allowing the Sisters to reach more communities. Anchorage becomes a global aviation crossroad and in 1959 President Eisenhower signs into law Alaska as the 49th state. Meanwhile, the Sisters open more Catholic schools and plan to build a new and bigger Providence Hospital.
In September 1961, four Sisters of Providence come to Anchorage to open Catholic Junior High School.
On October 26, 1962, the new Providence Hospital opens at Goose Lake and continues to be its home today as Providence Alaska Medical Cente
In 1964 the Great Alaska Earthquake reaps havoc in Anchorage. Amidst the devastated community Providence Hospital stands strong. With the rest of the town blanketed in darkness, the Sisters keep the hospital running on auxiliary power while working with the community and helping those in need. Providence Hospital is in its finest hour.
1967 Dr. Christiaan Barnard makes a giant leap for medicine by performing the first human heart transplant operation.
Continuing their tradition of caring, the Sisters of Providence and Providence Hospital expand their services to meet the growing needs within Alaska. These are a few of the many innovations that the Sisters achieved prior to the 21st century:
The Sisters of Providence bid farewell to Fairbanks in 1968. After the Chena River flood of 1967, the Sisters are unable to finance the renovations and the decision is made to turn the hospital over to the community.
In 1979 Providence Hospital opens a new Thermal Unit to treat burn and frostbite victims.
Official opening of the Providence Cancer Therapy Center in 1980.
In 1982 the first person to receive and successfully live with an artificial heart in his chest. The artificial heart was designed by Robert Jarvik.
1983 construction begins on Project 90, a comprehensive program designed to prepare Providence Hospital for the 1990’s.
Providence House’s grand opening. Now patients’ families from out-of-town have a place to stay close to the hospital.
Providence offers individuals with acute and/or chronic illness a long-term facility with Providence Extended Care Center. Remodeling and additions make it the largest, long-term care facility in Alaska with 224 beds and three great rooms.
In 1984 Providence becomes the only hospital, excluding the military, in the area to offer helicopter ambulance service.
In 1985 the new Maternity Center and Newborn Special Care Nursery opens making Providence the only Level III facility with their Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).
A team of climbers reach the top of Denali in the first-ever benefit climb for the Providence Hospital’s Cancer Therapy Center.
In 1987 the first open-heart surgery is performed on a child at Providence. The surgery is a success.
To provide for the elderly, the Sisters of Providence open the Mary Conrad Center, a 90-bed skilled nursing facility.
In 1990, Providence’s Air Ambulance Service, LifeGuard Alaska, flies to Magadan, USSR, to transport an eight-year-old burn victim from the Soviet Union to the United States for medical treatment. The victim stays 10 hours at Providence for stabilization. This LifeGuard flight marks the first time that a foreign aircraft had landed in Magadan.
1991 a $1.5 million Cardiovascular Services remodeling project enables Providence to become the only hospital in Alaska to offer a full service heart center including angioplasty, coronary atherectomy, open-heart surgery, cardiac rehabilitation and LifeGuard Air Ambulance System.
1992 the Sisters ongoing commitment to the community is reflected in their work at the Brother Francis Shelter where they serve hot meals to an average of 150 guests per night. This service continues today and Providence Alaska Medical Center has not missed a day in more than nine years. More than 500,000 meals have already been served since the service began.
1996 Seward General Hospital becomes Providence Seward Medical Center.
1997 Kodiak Island Hospital officially becomes Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center. Providence has a ten-year lease and operating agreement to operate the Kodiak medical center.
The American College of Radiology accredits Providence Imaging Center’s stereotactic breast biopsy program. Providence was the first imaging center in the nation to apply for accreditation.
1999 The new Children’s Hospital at Providence Alaska Medical Center celebrates its official grand opening. Now children and their families have the option to stay in-state to receive special medical services. In addition, the family-centered care allows parents and loved ones to stay with their children as they receive treatment.
Providence Alaska Medical Center achieves its highest Joint Commission of Accreditation of Hospital Organizations survey score in 15 years. Surveyors noted the complexity of the organization and are impressed with the enthusiasm of the employees as well as the strength of the management team.
2001 a new, state-of-the-art Emergency Department opens at Providence Alaska Medical Center completing the first phase of a 100,000 square-foot expansion. It is the largest and most-advanced Emergency Department in Alaska.
The Sisters of Providence receive the 2001 Gold Pan Award for Distinguished Community Service by an Organization.
Today, in the new millennium, the Sisters of Providence and Providence Health System in Alaska continue to meet the needs of Alaska’s growing communities. Every year brings new achievements and inspiring possibilities for the future.