A Heritage of Loving Service: The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in Tucson
navigation bar: histories, photograph collections and homepage

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
The Hospital

Bishop Salpointe who founded St. Mary's Hospital in 1880
Bishop Salpointe who founded St. Mary's Hospital in 1880 sold it to the Sisters in 1882 with the provision that it always be called St. Mary's and that it be used as a hospital for 99 years.
[AHS-BC #B93,421 H19]

The plea posed a cruel dilemma for the missionary prelate. In 1877, he had purchased a tract of ground about one-and-one-half miles west of the city, adjoining the grounds of the Sisters' novitiate. Here, he was erecting a trade school for the Indian youth of the area, and, with their help, the building was almost completed; however there was no questioning the need for a hospital -- not only for the railroaders but for the welfare of the entire community. Given the circumstances of time, there was no way by which he could open the trade school and also establish a hospital. The painful decision was made -- the trade school was postponed, the building was turned into a hospital, and the Sisters of St. Joseph accepted the responsibility of staffing it. Deeply disappointed and hurt, the Indians nonetheless returned to help finish the building when they saw the nuns laboring to carry the heavy rocks. St. Mary's Hospital was dedicated on April 24, 1880, and received its first eleven patients on May 1st.

The sudden turn of events was no easier for the Sisters than it had been for the Bishop. Even though their numbers had increased in the intervening decade, the demand for their services had far outstripped their capacity to meet the needs. Additionally, sickness and death had touched them as well as it had visited all who faced the rigors of the life on the frontier. Sister Emerentia, the first Superior, had succumbed as early as 1874. More than anything else, though, those who were assigned to the new hospital -- Sister Basil Morris, the new superior, Sister St. Martin Dunn, Sister Julia Ford, and Sister Mary John Noli -- each sensed a terrible inadequacy in their preparation for the new work. Even in a day when nursing education, in general, was primitive compared to the present day, they were not satisfied with mediocrity. Only the twofold determination to help the sick and injured and to learn how to do it as quickly as possible made up for what they felt they lacked in professional preparation.

Portrait of St. Mary's first physician Dr. John C. Handy
Portrait of St. Mary's first physician Dr. John C. Handy
[AHS #1,484 H20]

Dr. Handy standing with his rig in front of his office on Camp Street (now Broadway)
Dr. Handy standing with his rig in front of his office on Camp Street (now Broadway)
[AHS #28,383 H21]

Fortunately, they were not entirely alone in the venture, for there was a doctor in Tucson, John C. Handy, who had served alternately and often simultaneously, as contract surgeon for the army, as the railroad doctor, as county physician, and as private practitioner to the inhabitants of Tucson. Dr. Handy had graduated from Cooper College near San Francisco at the age of nineteen and had received his medical diploma from Toland Medical School in 1865. Army medical service had brought him to Southern Arizona in 1871, with responsibility for medical work at Fort Grant, Camp Thomas, Camp Goodwin, and probably at Fort Lowell. He had seen the gamut of military injuries and illnesses, both those arising from the perpetual conflict with outlaw Apaches and those stemming from workaday injuries and illnesses in garrison duty -- battle wounds, broken bones, pneumonia, typhoid fever, and other less well-defined epidemic diseases. Civilian afflictions were much the same, adding the expected range of childhood diseases and gynecological cases, with "general debility" ranking high among the listed diagnoses. Contemporary accounts depict him as a man, kind and gentle with the poor and ill, but a man not to be questioned. The promise of daily care for his patients that the new hospital offered motivated him to pitch in and instruct the four sister-nurses in the basic techniques of health care. The reality of the hospital, moreover, helped him lure his brother-in-law, Dr. William Holbrook, to join him before the year was out. Organized health care was underway in Tucson.

With but two doctors and four nurses to care for the patients of a twelve-bed hospital, it is obvious why we have no detailed descriptions of the daily hardships involved. There was a constant, twenty-four-hour a day job to be done, and that was the care of the sick and the dying. The nursing, bathing, feeding, the cooking and scrubbing, the tending of the physical plant, the repair, supplies, equipment, the bills -- all this and more were part of each and every day. There were no handy spigots to draw water for drinking, for bathing, for cooking or cleaning. Every drop had to be carried from a well, and late in 1880, the Daily Citizen mounted a public campaign to provide a windmill for pumping water.

With each passing month Tucson was growing. The Federal Government had moved to end the dreary and cruel Indian campaigns once and for all. Before the troops were able to subdue Geronimo, however, upwards of five thousand soldiers were in and about the Southwest at one time. It was no longer a matter of teamsters and traders passing through Tucson. They had come to stay, centralizing their operations, and they were being joined by mining companies, by merchants and businessmen of all kinds. A telephone exchange had come into operation in 1881. A few years later, in 1885, the Territorial Legislature established a university -- with the curious proviso that the town had to provide the land for a campus. It is worth noting that, when the land was finally donated, it was because of the generosity of two gamblers and a saloon-keeper who pooled their resources to give a forty-acre tract east of town!

Sister St. Martin and Mrs. Spencer in front of St. Mary's Hospital
Sister St. Martin and Mrs. Spencer in front of St. Mary's Hospital
[AHS #30.074 H22]

Almost from the start, Bishop Salpointe, together with the Sisters and the doctors knew that St. Mary's had to grow with the city. A second floor, opened in 1882, had doubled the capacity, but even as that floor was put into operation, another addition was underway to the north of the first. In order to raise funds for the expansion, the gentle, scholarly Bishop wrote a booklet on the history of San Xavier del Bac which was published in San Francisco. The book was priced at fifty cents; we don't know how much income it provided, but we do know that a larger building was functioning in 1884, and the original twelve-bed hospital had, by then, grown to accommodate up to fifty patients. The names of the new doctors began to appear alongside those of Handy and Holbrook. Drs. Michael Spencer, Hiram Fenner, Henri Matas, and Pierre Guiot all came on the scene during the 1880's. These new arrivals -- some from Europe, some from eastern states -- constituted a reinforcement that allowed not only more time for diagnosis and treatment but also time for better recordkeeping, opportunities for consultation, experience-sharing and mutual assistance. Early in the decade, the Sisters of St. Joseph acquired complete ownership of the hospital from the Bishop, paying him $20,000, thus all operations under one administrative organization.

For St. Mary's Hospital, the decade from 1880 to 1890 was a period of great transition that was to blossom out in the next nine decades with a startling complexity. The personnel who came, and those who were to come, came with training, perspective, and ability to transform the whole institution.

In a tragic way, the death of Dr. Handy in 1891 from complications following a gunshot wound signaled an end of a pioneer era both socially and scientifically. Dr. Handy typified, in a unique manner, the thousands who had come to the frontier of the Southwest to make their lives. Only a few of them, like himself, brought any kind of special training with them. But all those who endured had to have a remarkable combination of talents and personal qualities that enabled them to survive -- strength, resourcefulness, initiative, and indeed, a quality of daring. Some of them have been enshrined as heroes; others, by one accident of circumstance or another, have been tagged as outlaws or desperadoes. Most of the pioneers left no individual mark in history; they are part of a common record of human development, and their lives are part of the goodly heritage we all possess. As a physician, Dr. Handy had to be resourceful. He was counted on as a diagnostician, practitioner, obstetrician, surgeon, pediatrician, pathologist -- he was the doctor on whom Tucson counted for many years.

Dr. George Goodfellow took Dr. Handy's position as Southern Pacific Railroad surgeon
Dr. George Goodfellow hurried from Tombstone to Tucson to treat Dr. Handy after he was shot. Dr. Goodfellow later took Dr. Handy's position as Southern Pacific Railroad surgeon.
[AHS-BC #13.278 H23]

The other doctors who joined him in the annals of St. Mary's were generalists, too, though we find them beginning to focus on one area of medicine or another as time and conditions permitted. Handy's successor as Southern Pacific doctor -- and at St. Mary's -- was Dr. George Goodfellow who had begun to specialize in abdominal surgery at a time when few men would attempt such operations. He came to Tucson from Tombstone where he had built an enviable practice and reputation. With Goodfellow's arrival, surgery began to move forward at St. Mary's. A special room was set aside for operations, and Lister's methods were followed in their entirety.

Continue with Chapter I Frontier Hospital Early Expansion

Go to the Histories Section Go to the Photograph Collections