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Via Christi Hospital in Pittsburg history

History of Ascension Via Christi Hospital in Pittsburg

On a rainy morning — April 14, 1903 — Mother Bernard Sheridan and five Sisters opened the doors of Mount Carmel Hospital, the first of many healthcare ministries the Sisters of St. Joseph would later sponsor throughout Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and California.

Young Mother Bernard, the only area nun with any hospital experience, had answered the call of the Rt. Rev. John J. Hennessy, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, to build a hospital in the Pittsburg region where countless immigrant miners flocked to work the coalfields of the day. 

One of the first Sisters to arrive wrote an account of what she found: “Shallow shafts had been sunk into shallow veins of coal. Laboring through long hours in a crouched position often unskilled in such operations, reckless of danger in an effort to gain a few extra cents and unprotected by the safety devices of a later day, the miners had many accidents.

“When the miner’s wife and children fell ill as a result of these unsanitary conditions or when the miner himself was carried out of the pit broken and bloody or overcome by gas or powder fumes, there was no sickroom but the hot, overcrowded, dust-covered, fly-infested shack.” 

Early history shows the mining company would build a few rows of wooden shacks around the shaft for the miners to live in and a company store at which to buy supplies. There were no sewers, no running water, no electric current, no paved streets or sidewalks. Injury and illness were rampant. In 1898, manager C.J. Devlin of the Mount Carmel Coal Company presented the Sisters with $5,000 and 40 acres of land between Frontenac and Pittsburg to build a hospital. As a gesture of appreciation for his generosity and his devout Catholic faith, the new facility was named Mount Carmel Hospital under the patronage of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Insurance plan

The contract was let for construction in 1901. Businessmen of Pittsburg and Frontenac, as well as District 14 miners, aided with funds for the building. An agreement was also reached between the Sisters and Santa Fe operating companies to take care of their employees for $80 and 15 tons of coal each month. The miners were organized into a hospitalization group, and for 25 cents per month a miner and his family were assured hospital care for the length of time it was needed.

However, one Sister recalled, “They had to go after the 25 cents before the saloon got it.” Big Anthony Gallagher of Frontenac would drive Sister Antony Mahoney in his buggy from one mine to another where she would hail each grimy digger as he stepped from the pit to collect his payment. Thus, the first prepaid hospital insurance plan was implemented in Kansas — a plan that lasted until 1923 in several of the mines at the same rate of 25 cents a month.

Coal was also provided by the Mount Carmel Coal Company — a policy that was continued by the Mackie Clemens Coal Company until 1960. In less than two years, at a cost of $18,000 plus $12,000 in furnishings, the new building opened its doors on April 14, 1903. Mount Carmel — the first hospital operated by the Sisters of St. Joseph in Wichita — began its mission of healing. 

Lean beginnings

Although still lit by oil lamps (the Pittsburg Electric Plant had promised electricity but had been unable to supply it citing a “lack of energy”), the hospital was well equipped and modern by standards of the day and was described by one newspaper account “as one of the finest buildings of its kind in the West.” When Mr. Devlin arrived for the dedication of the new building, he was heard to remark that he did not see how Mother Bernard was going to pay for everything. No doubt, she shared his concern. In later years, she admitted she had little more than $5 in her pocket when the hospital opened.

Mount Carmel Hospital could accommodate 20 patients with each private room furnished by individuals or associations who selected the pieces themselves. Gasoline stoves were used for sterilizing and heating water. Ice was brought nearly three miles by horse and carriage. There were no hired personnel at that time. 

Mother Bernard instructed Sister Alphonsus McEnniry, Sister Josephine Casper, Sister Barbara Maher, Sister Catherine Marnell and Sister Francis Hayden to serve “as God should deal with themselves and their loved ones.” The six women worked seven days a week attending to the nursing, cooking, laundry, cleaning and minding of the furnace. Electricity, paved roads, and running water would come in later years. The Sisters were aided by a dedicated staff of physicians, including Drs. Robert B. Gibb, Robert McClaren, Arthur Moberg, H.L. Steele, D.O. Munsun and W.E. Welch.

Hospital growth

The first patient to arrive was a 21-year-old woman brought in by miners who had put her on a cot and transported her on the streetcar that ran by the hospital. At first, there were few patients, because the consensus was that such an institution was designed only for the most serious and hopeless conditions, although the accident cases from the mines came from the beginning. 

To meet the demand for nurses, Mother Bernard opened a school of nursing for the Sisters in 1904, which began admitting lay students in 1906. It was the first of many nursing schools to be sponsored by the Sisters. The program continued into the 1970s when it was transitioned to the Pittsburg State University Nurse Education program. 

By 1907, hospital admissions had increased to 419 and in 1908, the first addition was made to Mount Carmel, including a chapel, dormitory space for the Sisters — who had been sleeping in the attic, more patient rooms, guest accommodations and quarters for the chaplain.

In 1916, a two-story building referred to as “the annex” was built over an up-to-date boiler room. The latest equipment was installed to furnish high-pressure steam to the surgery area and the kitchen in another new addition being planned. The cost of the completed project — which was greater than that of the initial building — marked the trend toward a more modern hospital. 

Another addition was built in 1918 under the supervision of Sister M. Martina. It was an imposing four-story frontage on the east side and not only increased bed capacity to 80, but also added space for a dumbwaiter, three operating rooms, utility rooms and diet kitchen. Through a drive for funds, the Sisters received $22,000 from Pittsburg and the vicinity. 

On Feb. 1, 1924, Mother Bernard Sheridan died at Mount Carmel at age 69 — “worn out but never weary of her work for humanity.”

Hard work

At times the work was discouraging. An early Sister wrote: “Year after year brought more sick and wounded to our door. Lest the increasing struggle to meet expenses should grow monotonous, the dear Lord sent variety. There were biting Kansas blizzards and parching oven-hot winds. There were epidemics and droughts and floods and shut-downs and strikes. There were wars that stripped the hospital of its best doctors, nurses and Sisters just when they were needed the most. And to climax the litany of catastrophes, the very ground caved in,” she concluded, referring to the loss of the hospital’s garden into an underground mineshaft. 

In the 1940s, overcrowding became a problem and in 1947, expansion plans were drawn by Sister Mary Ann McNamara. However, the Order had other plans for Sister, who was elected Mother General in 1948. The project was completed by Sister Aloysia Friedrich, who served as administrator from 1949 to 1951.

Golden anniversary, then war

A modern nursing school was dedicated in 1948. A four-floor wing was added to the south side of the hospital in 1950 (bringing bed capacity to 100) at a cost of more than $600,000 plus $35,000 for new equipment. Among other improvements, it housed a new modern kitchen. The community again responded to the Sisters’ appeal for financial assistance with donations amounting to $150,000. In 1953, the hospital celebrated its 50th anniversary with 125 paid employees. There were eight RNs who were Sisters, 26 doctors on staff and 13 “Gray Ladies” who volunteered at the hospital. The hospital had cared for a total of 77,377 patients. 

World War II greatly changed the focus of the volunteer effort. Hence, the Mount Carmel Guild reorganized in 1959. Following state affiliation, the Guild became the Mount Carmel Auxiliary. Previously more of a fundraising group, the organized volunteers began working even more visibly in the hospital in 1960.

New hospital

In 1965, the Carmelettes — later known as the Candy Stripers — were revived under the direction of Helen McNally. In 1966, the first male hospital volunteers — the Red Coats — offered their services. Hospital space was at a premium, and with the increasing trend toward more and more inpatient care and les at-home care, hospital officials once again began looking at expansion in just 10 short years. The problem reached critical proportions in 1964 with the hospital regularly operating at over 100 percent capacity. Patients lined the hallways and filled the alcoves. Only immediate family visitors were allowed, with regular visiting hours eliminated almost entirely. 

A combined Crawford County-Mount Carmel Hospital was proposed to be built onto the existing facility with room for 200 patients. A campaign was launched for voter approval of the project, but in November 1964, the voters defeated the bond issue. It was time to consider other options if the hospital were to survive. A dedicated group of citizens and Sisters began plans for a new privately financed hospital. 

After much discussion and extensive testing of the land, it was agreed to relocate the entire facility to a 70-acre site at Centennial and Rouse, which was devoid of any previous mining activity. The original hospital had been located over an ancient vein of coal. Investigation proved that the coal beneath the small plot had been left intact, but the surrounding area was completely undermined. To prevent this situation at the new site, mineral rights were purchased along with the land. 

In 1968, a highly successful fundraising drive, co-chaired by Edward McNally and George Nettels, was initiated within the community. In one of the shortest fund drives on record in Pittsburg, $1 million was raised. On Oct. 20, 1968, ground was broken for the construction of the new Mount Carmel Medical Center. Dedication ceremonies were held at the new facility on March 28, 1971.

On May 9, 1971, the five-floor, 175-bed facility was occupied under the direction of Sister DePaul Maas. The patients were served breakfast at the old hospital and transferred by a motorcade of ambulances, private cars and trucks to the Medical Center. Mrs. Thomas McNally, the mother of Edward McNally, was the first registered admission to the hospital.

Modern era

As in years past, Mount Carmel took the lead in providing complete medical care for the residents of southeast Kansas and the bordering regions of Missouri. With the new building, it again entered an era of rapid changes and developments. A 13-bed mental health unit was completed in 1972, occupying the south wing of the fifth floor and leased under a cooperative agreement between Mount Carmel and SEKAN Comprehensive Mental Health Services.

The 1970s also saw a new influx of physicians into the community, as well as ongoing construction in the vicinity of Mount Carmel of many related facilities, including nursing homes and doctor offices. A $1.5 million expansion project was undertaken in 1979 to construct a new emergency department and expand radiology services bringing 24-hour coverage to the emergency department — a first in the region. 

Through several years in the 1980s, Mount Carmel struggled with significant healthcare changes, especially in the area of reimbursement. However, it overcame the adversity successfully. In 1991, the American Hospital Association recognized Mt. Carmel Medical Center as one of the top three hospitals in the nation in responding to the changes in healthcare. The Mt. Carmel Regional Cancer Center was opened in 1995, following years of planning and community donations of $1.3 million. 

Mt. Carmel Regional Cancer Center was the first in the region to provide radiation and medical oncology specialists in one location along with needed support services. A free-standing Rehabilitation Services facility was completed in 1996 to accommodate a growing demand for physical, speech, and occupational therapy. A medical office building with space for 14 physicians soon followed. 

Mt. Carmel achieved more national recognition as the 1999 American Hospital Association’s NOVA winner for innovative community collaboration in recognition of its role in creating the Family Resource Center. The following year, the Medical Center received the Catholic Health Association’s highest honor, the Citation Award, for its collaborative role in the creation of this Center. In 2000, ground was broken for the largest expansion in Mt. Carmel’s history — a $16.5 million outpatient services center. The project more than doubled the size of the facility’s first floor.

To reflect its role in healthcare throughout southeast Kansas, the name was changed to Mt. Carmel Regional Medical Center. Completed in 2003, the outpatient facility houses a new emergency department, occupational health department, surgery center, diagnostic imaging center (including MRI), dedicated space for women’s imaging services, an expanded laboratory, pharmacy and the Mt. Carmel Regional Heart Center. 

Mt. Carmel Regional Medical Center also celebrated a century of service to the region with formal dedication of the new Outpatient Services addition in 2003. Many things have changed since 1903, and Mother Bernard would most certainly not recognize much of what is common in healthcare today. However, she would be gratified that Mt. Carmel’s healing mission is as real today as it was that rainy day in April more than a century ago. It is that same faith, mission and vision which will continue to guide us as we look forward to the next 100 years of serving those in need.