A Heritage of Loving Service: The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in Tucson
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Heritage: The Story of St. Mary's Hospital, 1880-1980
By Leo G. Bryne and Sister Alberta Cammack, C.S.J

Chapter I Frontier Hospital

St. Augustine Church and St. Joseph's Academy
St. Augustine Church and St. Joseph's Academy
[AHS #13,927 H17]

It was not always so -- this humming, organic reality that we know today, pulsating round the clock in its shell of mortar and steel. This microcosm of modern, technological society where dozens of sciences converge to serve the talents and energies of hundreds of professionals engaged in a single pursuit: the welfare of their fellow humans -- this hospital that is St. Mary's does have its story. Its beginnings already go back beyond the memory of living men. Yet, it is a story of continuous living that reaches back to yesterday, touches today, and leaps toward the unknown tomorrow. This, perhaps, is the fascination of history -- the realization that the humdrum, taken-for-granted today was someone else's completely unpredictable tomorrow.

Without a doubt, the tomorrow on the minds of seven determined women who were approaching Picacho Peak from the north on the evening of May 25, 1870, must have been the twenty-four hours that lay immediately ahead. These women, all of them Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Missouri, had left their motherhouse over a month before. They had been traveling to Tucson on a circuitous route that had taken them from St. Louis to San Francisco by rail, thence to San Diego by sea. After a brief rest, they had set out once again, this time by wagon for Arizona. The trail cut south through the mountain passes in Baja California, eastward through the ranges along the border and north again into the sand dunes west of Yuma. Finally, it took them across the Colorado to Fort Yuma one week after they left San Diego. Eleven days later, they had passed through the worst of the desert, following the course of the Gila River as far as the ruins of Casa Grande where they had turned south for the final leg of the journey to Tucson.

If the rigors of the journey itself had not been enough to have the Sisters thirsting for an end to it, then certainly a new sense of danger must have had them praying for a quick arrival in Tucson, as the little party of seven nuns, a driver, and the Vicar-General of the Vicariate of Arizona, Father Jouvenceau, who met them at Yuma, had by now come well within the range of an Apache sweep. Ranchers had warned of the dangers along the way and told of the depredations of Cochise and his marauding bands. Even more threatening were the very vivid memories of the fresh graves marking the final resting place of isolated pioneer families which they had seen along the trail from Yuma. Apache terror was a reality, not a newspaper headline.

By then, however, the party was no longer traveling alone having been met the previous evening by a mounted escort of sixteen troopers from Ft. Lowell. On the morning of the 25th, a party of miners heading for Tucson eagerly sought the protection of the same military escort. Paradoxically, the tension increased as the party grew in numbers because each addition brought with it the implied likelihood of a large band of hostiles in the area. Nor was this sense of an imminent attack dispelled in any way by the arrival of a large body of armed Tucson citizenry which had met the group about noon. By the time darkness fell, the sisters' wagon was surrounded by what must have been the largest armed company to approach Picacho Pass since the notorious battle of Picacho during the Civil War. Whether or not any Apaches were in the neighborhood is not known, but by midnight, the entire throng was galloping past the truncated silhouette of Picacho Peak to the accompaniment of fierce yelling on all sides and the thunder of hundreds of hooves.

Fortunately, the night itself and the last lap of the trek continued without any violence. By the evening of the 26th of May, the Sisters were welcomed into Tucson with cheers and fireworks. They were in their new home.

What was it that impelled these seven women who began the story of St. Mary's Hospital and Health Center to set out upon this long trip to an isolated and unknown corner of the American Southwest? Obviously, it was a sense of mission, and that sense of mission can be understood only in light of the religious community to which they had bound their individual lives. These women, and they should be named -- Emerentia Bonnefoy, Monica Corrigan, Euphrasia Suchet, Hyacinth Blanc, Martha Peters, Ambrosia Arnichaud, and Maxime Croisat -- had separately chosen a religious society that emphasized individual conviction and inner strength dedicated to the service of God and of the neighbor.

The Sisters of St. Joseph date their beginnings as a religious community in the year 1650 when the society was organized in Le Puy in the Upper Loire Valley of France. The first institutes of the new group consisted of small secret clusters of three sisters living among the people and ready to undertake anything within their abilities, so long as it was for the benefit of the "dear neighbor." Mediocrity was unwelcome, and each candidate was measured by whether or not she had the quality that would enable her to be chosen as Superior of the entire Congregation. Only a crystal clear perception of life bonded to great humility and charity could possibly hold such a group of women together.

The society grew along these lines during its first century, but, as with all religious orders, it was cruelly suppressed at the time of the French Revolution. The Sisters were dispersed, and during the Reign of Terror, five of them sent to the guillotine. It was a temporary roadblock, however, for once the nation tired of the Terror and the anti-religious laws were relaxed, the Sisters of St. Joseph reappeared and spread all over France. They also looked beyond the borders of France, and by 1836, they had crossed the Atlantic Ocean and had reached as far inland as St. Louis where they opened a school at Carondelet in answer to the prayers of Bishop Rosati. Less than forty years later, Carondelet was the hub of the Congregation's American efforts and the Sisters were just as ready to answer the plea of the newly appointed Vicar Apostolic of Arizona, Jean Baptiste Salpointe, when he called for help. .

On Ascension Thursday, May 26,1870, the Bishop had been granted his Sisters and Tucson had its first school. The Sisters began their teaching duties without delay. They learned to speak Spanish quickly because of their desire to gain the goodwill and confidence of those they served, and to be the good neighbor" made it imperative that every barrier be removed as soon as possible. In rapid succession, their efforts were extended beyond the confines of the "Old Pueblo" an Indian school at San Xavier, a hospital in Prescott for men injured in mining operations, a school in Yuma. The original Tucson school grew and divided into a secondary school, St. Joseph's Academy, and an elementary school, St. Augustine's, for the children of the Tucson parish, and within six years, the Sisters' efforts were capped by the opening of a novitiate for local girls who expressed an interest in joining the society. By 1880, the Sisters of St. Joseph were an established factor in the life of Tucson. The Old Pueblo was finally being tied into the arterial system of the United States, and a retrospective sweep of the decade of the 1870's offers a better perspective, perhaps, than does a detailed chronological narrative of the changes that had occurred.

The Federal Territory of Arizona had been established only in 1864, but the terrible exigencies of the Civil War then raging the East limited that establishment to the simple legal reality. A Federal presence, in the form of an effective civil administration was non-existent, and an operative military presence simply a bureaucratic fiction. As a result, a real vacuum of legal authority was filled by a crude and often cruel amalgam of frontier justice and outright injustice. The first to suffer were the Indian tribes, especially those who had accepted the guarantees of the Federal Government in the form of treaties. Then, when individual chiefs among them -- and Cochise was one -- could no longer tolerate the absurdity, there was no way that Federal forces could contain the Indian desire for revenge. Violence spawned violence, and, as late as August of 1873, a drumhead court tried, convicted, and executed four murderers in the space of twenty four hours. The sentence was carried out just moments before the arrival of a military attachment dispatched from Fort Lowell to prevent its implementation.

Such extremes of civil disorder were soon to disappear. The growth of military camps in Southern Arizona and the garrisons stationed in them -- Forts Lowell, Grant, Crittenden, Bowie and others -- created a commerce in stores and supplies that rapidly increased the status of Tucson as a hub of military transport. Mining was becoming an organized industry, pushing the image of the solitary, self-reliant prospector further and further into the realm of fiction and fantasy. More than anything else, though, it was the coming of the railroad that changed the role and destiny of Tucson. The tracks of the Southern Pacific reached the city in 1880, and the first train arrived at 11:00 a.m. on the 20th of March. Charles Crocker, the President of the Company, was on board the train, and his presence, while delighting the citizenry of Tucson, symbolized much more. It signaled that Tucson had really been connected to the rest of the nation and that the industrial revolution had arrived in the southwest. For the Sisters of St. Joseph, too, the new era would dramatic effects on their mission in Tucson and in Arizona.

One of the first trains in Arizona, 1880
One of the first trains in Arizona, 1880
[AHS #14,991 H18]

The evolution of mission that began to unfold with the advent of the "Iron Horse" was not a change of heart on the part of the Sisters. It was simply a case of their attention being called to a new and desperate need of their "dear neighbor."

Standing about midway in the lonely expanse between El Paso to the east and the Pacific Coast to the west, Tucson was a natural staging area for the railroad. For all its marvels, this new phenomenon was far from self-sufficient. Regional repair facilities and machine shops were badly needed; major fuel depots were an obvious part of the system; food and rest areas for crews and passengers, homes for railroad workers -- all these must have given Tucson the aura of a heaven-sent metropolis whatever its frontier limitations might be. Most of all, Crocker and his lieutenants knew, the railroad needed help in handling the daily toll of painful injuries that plagued train crews and track gangs. A hospital was needed in Tucson. They put their case to Bishop Salpointe.

Continue with Chapter I Frontier Hospital The Hospital

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