Providence St. Vincent Medical Center: Oregon's First Permanent Hospital

By Sydney Clevenger

Originally published, in a different version, as Sydney Clevenger, "St. Vincent's and the Sisters of Providence: Oregon's First Permanent Hospital," Oregon Historical Quarterly 102, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 210-21. © 2001 Oregon Historical Society, reprinted with permission.

The first St. Vincent Hospital, on 12th Street between Marshall and Northrup, Portland. The center section of the building (behind the buggies) was completed in 1875, with the wings and bell tower added a few years later. The laundry, morgue, isolation ward, and windmill formed separate outbuildings behind the main structure.

This photograph dates to the early 1890s. Ambulatory male patients and employees pose on the first-floor gallery; nurses, female patients, and at least one child on the second floor; and sisters on the third floor gallery.

(Providence Archives, Seattle, WA. (53) St. Vincent Hospital Collection, 53.A1.1)

Almost 145 years ago, a small group of Sisters of Providence from eastern Canada left their homes to forge new lives caring for the poor and sick and educating children in the Oregon and Washington territories. One of their most lasting contributions was Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, Oregon's first permanent hospital.

In 1856, five Sisters of Providence, led by Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart, traveled to Fort Vancouver at the request of the Most Reverend A.M.A. Blanchet, bishop of Nesqually (Washington Territory), who had long hoped for assistance in his diocese. On December 8, following a five-week stormy ocean voyage, the women arrived, exhausted but filled with a "truly apostolic zeal to work for the glory of Him to whom they had consecrated their lives."(1) They were assigned temporary quarters in the attic of Bishop Blanchet's house on the grounds of the original St. James Mission near the fort. Despite their crowded and harsh living conditions, they were enthusiastic about having their own mission, and within a few weeks they began visiting families and caring for the sick.(2)

The sisters also took a special interest in caring for orphaned and abandoned children. Within a few months, they opened Providence Academy, a boarding and day school and orphanage. Soon, additional sisters arrived from Montreal, and a cluster of small buildings surrounding by a white picket fence--the "Providence enclosure"--took shape.

In March 1858, at the request of the people of Vancouver and with the assistance of a small group of charitable women, the Sisters of Providence opened a hospital in a building that was originally planned to house a laundry and bakery for the mission complex. The two-story hospital with four beds was named St. Joseph Hospital after one of the sisters' patron saints. It was the first permanent hospital in the Pacific Northwest, and continues today as Southwest Washington Medical Center. The Sisters of Providence incorporated their charitable work in 1859, forming what is now one of the oldest corporations in the region, and slowly expanded their ministry, first north to Puget Sound and then into eastern Washington and Montana.

Invitation to Portland
Shortly after St. Joseph Hospital opened, the Most Reverend F.N. Blanchet, archbishop of the Diocese of Oregon City, invited the sisters to establish a hospital in Portland.(3) The city was being served by a handful of private clinics operated by local doctors, but people who were seriously ill or injured often made the journey down the Willamette River and across the Columbia to St. Joseph's.(4) The sisters agreed that there was certainly a need for a hospital in Portland, but circumstances and financial concerns made them unable to accept Archbishop Blanchet's invitation for more than a decade. The project gained new momentum when businessman Ben Holladay made an enticing offer, which the sisters recorded in their chronicles:

Mr. Ben Holladay, an important and wealthy Portland man, offered the bishop his influence and funds for the hospital. Wishing to have the hospital in East Portland near the railroad depot, his property, he offered a fine piece of land, a lovely house, his doctor, and money to cover part of the expenses.

Concerned that such benevolence might come with strings attached, the annalist added: "It was, in appearance, a too liberal offer not to suspect some deception."(5)

The sisters prayed and discussed how best to serve the people of Portland. On July 19, 1874 (then celebrated as the Feast of St. Vincent), they received a letter from the local St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic charitable organization, offering a block of land in northwest Portland bounded by Twelfth, Marshall, and Northrup streets, and one thousand dollars in cash for construction.(6) This donation freed the sisters to reject Holladay's offer, and finally, after more than fifteen years, they could respond to Archbishop Blanchet's request. Given the circumstances, there was little question that the institution should bear the name of St. Vincent.

The sisters immediately began designing Oregon's first hospital. Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart, who has since been widely recognized not only for her long-range vision and commitment to the needs of society but also for her well-honed architectural skills, led the design team. The daughter of a carriage-maker who had taught her at a young age how to work with wood, Mother Joseph was a perfectionist and was skilled at carpentry. She also could cleverly bargain for a load of lumber, carve an altar, and plan and supervise all aspects of construction.

Certainly there was no stranger sight for the soldier or average citizen ... than finding Mother Joseph in her black habit bouncing on a high crossbeam to test its strength, ripping up flooring to see what had happened underneath, or wriggling out from beneath the ground level where she'd been inspecting a foundation.(7)

For the site in northwest Portland, overlooking Couch Lake, Mother Joseph designed a three-story, fifty-by eighty-two-foot wood-frame building with space for seventy-five beds. A typical ward was twenty by thirty-two feet with tall windows and curtains between each bed for privacy.(8) The total cost of the building was $22,244.(9)

Sister Mary Theresa, foundress and administrator, 1874-1891

To raise the necessary funds, Mother Joseph, Mother Mary Theresa (the hospital's first administrator), and two other sisters went door-to-door asking for donations. At the time, Portlanders were mostly Protestant, and the Catholic sisters in their long black habits must have been an unusual sight. Language was also a barrier for the French-Canadian sisters, yet they managed to raise more than sixteen hundred dollars in this first "begging tour."(10)

The women also made and sold wax images of the baby Jesus and organized local fairs and bazaars. Later, they raised money from workers in the mines in eastern Oregon and Idaho and lumber camps and fishing ports throughout the Northwest.(11)

There were many delays during construction, but the April 1875 Oregonian reported that the building "presents a handsome exterior, and the interior arrangements are such that for comfort and accommodation, they will be equal to any hospital on the coast."(12) On May 10, 1875--almost a year after the St. Vincent de Paul Society donated the land--Mother Mary Theresa and Sister Joseph of Arimathea moved into the almost finished hospital to make the final preparations. They arrived that day "with only bread and butter for their first meal and confidence in Divine Providence for their second." They bought on credit what provisions they needed, and several charitable women in the neighborhood agreed to help if the sisters could not meet their obligations.(13)

On May 24, Sister Peter Claver, a trained nurse and pharmacist sent from Montreal, arrived to help prepare the hospital. She was followed by Sisters Mary Sabina, Mary Perpetua, and Marie de Bon Secours. They set to work cleaning. "By hard work, we succeeded in making the house presentable. But the floors, the painting, and the plaster were so dirty that it was only after eight months of daily washing that we really had them clean."(14)

Men's ward, first St. Vincent Hospital, in the early 1890s. The beds were curtained for privacy, with the attending physician's name pinned to the drape. The sister at right holds individual doses of medicine; nurses and physicians stand in the rear.

(Providence Archives, Seattle, WA. (53) St. Vincent Hospital Collection, 53.C7.3)

Although the sisters intended to open the hospital after its dedication later in the summer, George Allen, a 22-year-old plumber from Yamhill, appeared on the doorstep on June 24. Allen was desperately ill; and, although the rooms were not yet ready, the sisters "admitted" him and nursed him back to health. Grateful for their care, he stayed for more than a year to help with various projects.(15) Allen's early admission had an added benefit: he and the next six patients were all non-Catholic, helping to calm any concerns in the community that the sisters would restrict their care to members of their own faith.(16)

On July 19, 1875, St. Vincent Hospital was dedicated. At two o'clock in the afternoon, members of local Catholic organizations met near the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (then at the corner of Third and Stark streets) to process through the main streets to the hospital. The Catholic Sentinel reported:

The inspiring strains of music, the beautiful banners and the pretty appearance of the schoolchildren gave the city quite a gala-day aspect and many an inquiry was made relative to the cause that called forth such a demonstration on a day not known hitherto in Portland on the calendar of festivals.(17)

Hundreds of Portlanders met the procession at the hospital. Archbishop Blanchet and clergy from throughout the Northwest also were on hand. The Reverend J.F. Fierens, vicar general of the archdiocese of Oregon City, gave the dedication:

[St. Vincent Hospital] is one of those institutions which bring the greatest blessing to whatever society or community is favored with it, and with which a benign Providence has now blessed the city of Portland. This auspicious occasion is then of the greatest interest to this community, and I dare say to all of us. I think we may feel proud of our St. Vincent Hospital, this future home of the sick, as it is the first in the state and one in which not only Catholics, but every citizen is interested, as it admits all religionists. True charity knows no creed nor country.(18)

A tour of the hospital and its grounds followed, along with refreshments and music. At about seven-thirty in the evening--as the crowds began to disperse--a horse-drawn ambulance delivered a Chinese man known only as Joe, whose arm had been badly mangled by machinery. The arm had to be amputated, and Dr. Alfred Kinney performed the first surgery at St. Vincent's.(19)

Early Surgery

During the first year, 320 patients--mostly men--were treated for everything from gunshot wounds to fractures to typhoid to toothache. Patient ledgers indicate that charges for board, room, and medical attendance averaged one dollar per day--paid by cash, work, or barter, with some accounts marked simply "charity care."(20)

Later in 1875, the Episcopal diocese opened a second hospital in the city, Good Samaritan, at Twenty-first and L streets, and there were plenty of patients to keep both facilities busy.

The nursing sisters regularly read medical books and attended lectures by Dr. Kinney to stay abreast of the latest developments in patient care. They also relied heavily on their own materia medica, The Little Medical Guide of the Sisters of Charity of Providence, first published by the Mother House in Montreal in 1869 and regularly updated. The women spared no expense when outfitting the hospital for the future. In 1879, for example, St. Vincent's installed telephones for $2.50 a month.(21) The sisters also were exceedingly thrifty, however, doing most of the cleaning, shopping, and cooking themselves and accepting donations of old towels and linen that could be boiled, cut, and torn for bandages.

The hospital's first decade was a tough go, as the sisters confronted floodwaters from nearby Couch Lake, a lack of adequate finances, and a full house. In 1883, the sister-annalist began the chronicles with these words: "The year opens with a worry. Situated as we are, surrounded by shops and inns and factories with their noise and polluted air, we need to move; but we have no funds to buy other land. What to do? God will provide."(22) New wings had been added to alleviate the crowded conditions--St. Anthony's ward with thirteen beds and St. Mark's ward with twenty-five beds--but it was apparent that a larger hospital would soon be needed.

Sydney Clevenger is a free-lance writer in Portland, Oregon (contact: Formerly senior public relations coordinator for Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, Sydney has fond memories of both the second and third St. Vincent's. Loretta Greene, Archivist, and Terri Mitchell, Assistant Archivist, assisted with the research and editing of this article.


  1. Catholic Sentinel (Portland, OR), Aug. 20, 1925, special supplement, "St. Vincent's hospital Golden Jubilee, 1875-1925," p. 4
  2. Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart to Bishop Laroque, Montreal, Aug. 15, 1857, and subsequent correspondence, Personal Papers of Mother Joseph, Providence Archives, Seattle, WA.
  3. The Reverend J.B.A. Brouillet, Vicar General, to Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart, Apr. 12, 1859, Personal Papers of Mother Joseph, Providence Archives.
  4. Ellis Lucia, Cornerstone: The Story of St. Vincent--Oregon's First Permanent Hospital, Its Formative Years (Portland, OR: St. Vincent Medical Foundation, 1975), p. 22.
  5. Chronicles of St. Vincent Hospital, Portland, OR, July 19, 1875 [sic]-July 1, 1876, Providence Archives (hereafter cited as Chronicles).
  6. Ibid.
  7. Lucia, Cornerstone, p. 37
  8. Ibid., p. 50.
  9. Personnel and Works Report, General Receipts and Expenses, July 1875-July 1876, St. Vincent Hospital collection, Providence Archives.
  10. Chronicles, Oct. 20, 1874.
  11. Loretta Zwolak Greene, archivist, Providence Archives, interview with author, Fall 2000.
  12. Cited in Lucia, Cornerstone, p. 45.
  13. Chronicles, May 10, 1875.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Chronicles, June 24, 1875; Patient Ledger, St. Vincent Hospital, vol. 1, 1875-1886, Providence Archives.
  16. Lucia, Cornerstone, p. 47.
  17. Catholic Sentinel, July [?] 1875.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Chronicles, July 19, 1875. Although the chronicles state that the injured limb was an arm, other sources refer to the patient's leg.
  20. Patient and Account Ledgers, St. Vincent Hospital, 1875-1876, Providence Archives.
  21. Lucia, Cornerstone, p. 71.
  22. Chronicles, July 1, 1883-July 1, 1884.

The second St. Vincent Hospital, completed in 1895, was a huge structure of brick and stone. It fronted on Westover Road (then known as Cornell Street), between Glisan and Irving. The campus doubled in size with the purchase of an additional five acres to the north in 1902. The hospital was remodelled and expanded over the years, with major additions in 1910, 1924, and the 1950s.

(Providence Archives, Seattle, WA. (53) St. Vincent Hospital Collection, 53.A2.2)

In 1888, the sisters' tenacious fund-raising efforts, including several more trips to the region's mines, and the support of the Portland community enabled Mother Mary Theresa to purchase a five-acre tract of hilly land from M.G. and Ada M. Griffin about a mile to the west of the hospital, near Northwest Westover Road.(23)

At the time, many people in Portland, including some local doctors, opposed using the land for the second St. Vincent Hospital because it was considered to be too far out of the city to travel for health care. Despite the opposition, Mother Mary Theresa and Mother Joseph forged ahead on the construction of a new building, laying the foundation's cornerstone (now located at the main entrance of the current St. Vincent's) in 1892.(24)

The second St. Vincent Hospital was officially dedicated three years later, on July 14, 1895. It was considered one of the nation's foremost medical facilities, with a spacious operating room illuminated by day via a rotunda window and at night by dozens of gas and electric lights. A seven- by ten-foot electric elevator was located in the center of the building so patients would not have to be moved from their beds when transferring from one floor to the next--a novel approach to patient care. There was also a complete system of electric bells and speaking tubes throughout the facility. (25)

"A great hospital ... is something more than a collection of buildings, and their furniture," said Dr. William Jones at the dedication. "A great hospital is not created in a year.... It must have a history, traditions, achievements behind it, and a promising future before it. To thousands of people, St. Vincent Hospital is something more than a name. In thousands of homes, it is a household word."(26)

The new St. Vincent's quickly became a busy place. Shortly after its opening the sisters purchased an adjacent house for use as a sanatorium. Contagious patients (except for those with smallpox) were isolated and cared for in the sanatorium, until the mid-1920s, when the city built a special hospital to treat them. The Sisters of Providence also built a power plant to supply light, electricity, and heat to the hospital, sanatorium, and laundry.

Rosa Philpott, instructor (center), with the Class of 1896

School of Nursing
Anticipating the growing need for professional nursing care, the sisters had earlier embarked on an ambitious project to establish a training school for lay nurses. They recruited Theresa Cox, a graduate nurse from Bellevue Hospital in New York, to plan the curriculum and to train the first class. St. Vincent Hospital School of Nursing opened in 1892, and two years later Agnes Johnson was the first nurse to graduate from the program.(27)

As the nursing school grew, special quarters were constructed exclusively for the nurses. In 1910, St. Theresa Hall, a beautiful brick building behind the hospital, was finished. It included "living rooms, libraries, lecture halls, classrooms, private rooms, dormitories, a kitchenette, a small laundry, and every modern equipment to provide the proper environment for the social and professional life of the nurses."(28) By 1930, the school's enrolment had grown so much that new accommodations were needed, and the hospital's former sanatorium was demolished and replaced by a seven-story classroom and dormitory. In 1938, the nursing school became a four-year degreed program through the University of Portland. "There was a lot of camaraderie among the nurses!" remembers Dee Rennie Wallo, class of 1946. "Living together in such close quarters, you got to know everybody's secrets and everyone became quite attached to one another."(29)

In Wallo's time, the nursing school was run by Sister Genevieve, a no-nonsense administrator who imposed a ten o'clock curfew and conducted a nightly room check. Nurses in training began their day with prayers or mass and reported for duty shortly thereafter. The students generally worked a split shift. Nurses on the night shift, for example, worked from seven to eleven at night and from four to seven in the morning, taking one or two classes during the day. Uniforms had to be sparkling clean and fall below the knee, hair had to be short or contained in a net, and makeup was not allowed. "The sisters were a big focus in our life," Wallo remembers. "They were the ones who ran the place, and we respected them. They helped us through many hard times."(30)

World War II brought new challenges to St. Vincent's, as physicians, nurses, and male employees entered military service or went to work in the local shipyards. In 1942, the annalist reported:

The rapidly increasing population of Portland, due to the influx of workers in defense industries, filled hospitals to capacity [just as] the increasing number of men and women entering defense industries and government service created a personnel problem. Medical and nursing staffs were reduced by calls to the Service at St. Vincent's, as elsewhere. The absence of male employees drafted into the army was keenly felt in hospital departments.(31)

In response, the hospital recruited more women to fill ancillary positions previously held by men, offering room and board in the nurses' dormitory as a perquisite of employment. One former admitting clerk who lived in St. Theresa Hall (the original dorm for nurses) when she was in her early twenties remembers:

We had great big rooms. There were four iron beds to a room, but there were usually just two girls assigned to each room. We had a housemother--different than the one in the nurses' dormitory--and a strict curfew. We could only have female visitors in our room. St. Theresa's was deemed a safe living place for single young women.

We didn't have much money. There was a park across the street from the hospital and we walked everywhere. I worked six days a week, eight-hour days, and made $22.50 a month, including room and board."(32)

Move to Current Site
In 1941, the sisters opened a second Portland facility on the east side of the Willamette River, the 448-bed Providence Hospital, known today as Providence Portland Medical Center. Despite this new hospital, and a steady pace of remodeling and expansion at St. Vincent's, demand for services continued to grow. For seventy years, the hospital on Westover Road had served the people, of Portland, and the building had become a city landmark. As Ellis Lucia noted in St. Vincent's centennial history, Cornerstone:

A lot of living--and dying, too--went on within those great brick walls. Hundreds of thousands of people were treated there, thousands of babies were born to succeeding generations, and the suffering of countless others was eased and people given renewed hope... Through seven decades of war and peace, hard times and booms, and a steadily changing Portland, this building felt much that was experienced by the community, the state, and the Pacific Northwest.(33)

A section of the campus of the third and current hospital on Barnes Road

Still, by 1960, it was clear that the building was nearing the end of its useful life. Extensive studies indicated that it would be more cost-effective to build a completely new St. Vincent's than to continue trying to remodel the 1895 building. On May 19, 1965, administrator Sister Mary Laureen [Rita] Ferschweiler announced that the hospital would move to the Beaverton area on the west edge of Portland. Construction began shortly thereafter, and on January 31, 1971, the third and current St. Vincent Hospital opened its doors. In just over four hours, with the assistance of military and private ambulances, eighty patients were moved from the Westover Road site and settled into their new rooms.(34) Now known as Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, the hospital celebrated its 125th anniversary in July 2000.

The original St. Vincent's was torn down in the 1930s, and a brick warehouse now covers the entire block. The second hospital was demolished in the late 1970s and is now the site of luxury condominiums. A number of historical, religious, and medical artifacts from the first two buildings--as well as historical records and photographs--are preserved at the current facility and in the Sisters of Providence Archives in Seattle, Washington.

Sydney Clevenger is a free-lance writer in Portland, Oregon (contact: Formerly senior public relations coordinator for Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, Sydney has fond memories of both the second and third St. Vincent's. Loretta Greene, Archivist, and Terri Mitchell, Assistant Archivist, assisted with the research and editing of this article.


  1. Deliberations of the Corporation of the Sisters of Charity of Providence of St. Vincent Hospital, Portland, OR, 1876-1934, Dec. 21, 1888, Providence Archives.
  2. Catholic Sentinel, Aug. 20, 1925, p. 6.
  3. Advertising circular, c. 1895, Records, Province of Oregon, Letters 1894-1906, Providence Archives.
  4. Dr. William Jones, manuscript, July 1895, St. Vincent Hospital collection, Subject Series: Dedication file, Providence Archives.
  5. Margaret H. Tynan, R.N., "History of the School of Nursing" series, Vincentian (St. Vincent Hospital Alumnae Association), 1:1-4 (1931).
  6. Catholic Sentinel, Aug. 20, 1925, p. 11.
  7. Dee Rennie Wallo, interview with author, Spring 2000.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Chronicles, 1942.
  10. Former resident M.S., interview with author, Summer 2000.
  11. Lucia, Cornerstone, pp. 101-2.
  12. Chronicles, Jan. 31, 1971.