The education and care of the “dear neighbor” for 145 years in KC

The 39 sisters working at St. Joseph’s Hospital in 1952 posed on the front steps of the hospital at Linwood and Prospect for a photograph. (photo courtesy of St. Joseph Medical Center)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter

KANSAS CITY — Kansas City was a rough town in the mid 1860s — muddy, rocky and full of the vestiges of bitterness caused by decades of border warfare, the still fresh memories of the infamous Order 11 and Civil War campaigns. Order No 11, issued by Union general Thomas Ewing on Aug. 25, 1863, gave an eviction notice to all people in Jackson, Cass, Bates and Vernon counties who could not prove their loyalty to the Union cause. Ewing’s decree wiped out much of the entire region. Kansas City was populated with Civil War veterans, transient families stocking their Conestoga wagons for weeks of travel on the Santa Fe Trail, and a growing number of visionary men and women who believed in the town’s future.

Among them was a parish priest, Father Bernard Donnelly, who pastored a small Catholic community while helping to grade roadbeds and build a brick church and school on 10-acres he owned between 11th and 12th streets and Broadway. He had heard of an order of French nuns who had been invited to come to St. Louis in late 1835 to open a school. Six sisters, ages 21-30, arrived in New Orleans on March 6, 1836. They were met by the first bishop of St. Louis, Bishop Joseph Rosati, who accompanied them on their steamboat trip upriver to St. Louis. By 1837, they had established the St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf, where the sisters communicated with the students using sign language. It quickly grew in both student population and reputation.

In 1865 Father Donnelly appealed to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet to send sisters to teach children at a parish school in Kansas City. And so before the Diocese of Kansas City was established in 1880, Mother Francis Joseph Ivory and five sisters arrived on Aug. 4, 1866, to establish and staff a school. Originally called St. Joseph’s Academy, the school was incorporated in 1867 as St. Teresa’s Academy. It was located at 11th and Washington streets, near the site of today’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Daughters of some of Kansas City’s earliest leaders enrolled at the new academy, including Kersey Coates’ daughter Laura, and over the course of the next 50 years, St. Teresa’s Academy became a source of pride to many early residents.

Its students were kept busy, studying orthography (spelling), reading, writing, grammar, composition, rhetoric, arithmetic, algebra, bookkeeping, sacred and secular history, astronomy, chemistry, botany, French and German, piano, harp and vocal music, drawing and painting, plain and fancy needlework, the making of fabric flowers and how to use a globe.

By 1908 however, wealthy families in the neighborhood were moving out and their mansions became boarding houses. The booming cattle trade brought congestion, taverns and brothels along with drunken brawls and gunfire to the area. The 1991 diocesan history book, This Far By Faith, indicated there were 18,000 citizens and 6,000 saloons in Kansas City in 1908. Mother Evelyn O’Neill, who had recently been appointed the superior of St. Teresa’s, decided it was time to move the Academy elsewhere.

In early 1909, she purchased 20 acres at 5600 Main Street in the Country Club district, a swampy moor-like tract she named Windmoor for the constant wind. The first classroom building on the new campus, Music and Arts, was dedicated and opened for classes on Sept. 10, 1910.

While that first group of sisters was establishing St. Teresa’s Academy in Kansas City, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet sent small groups of sisters to other towns in Northwest Missouri, where Bishop John Hogan, founding bishop of the Diocese of St. Joseph, received them with joy. In 1868, he welcomed a small band of sisters to St. Joseph and Chillicothe, saying, —I welcome you to your own diocese of St. Joseph, quite as poor and unknown to the world as he was.

The sisters took charge of St. Mary’s Orphanage for boys in St. Joseph in 1880, staying until it closed in 1900. St. Columban Parish School in Chillicothe opened in 1883 and St. Patrick Parish School in St. Joseph opened in 1892.

Another group of Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet arrived in Kansas City to establish St. Patrick’s School in 1872, but because there was no school built for the children, left after just a few months. They would return to the school in 1882, just two years after the Diocese of Kansas City was established, and stay until 1890. Annunciation School, in what is now called the West Bottoms, was established in 1878 by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, who taught there until 1883.

With the approval of Bishop Hogan, also the founding bishop of the Diocese of Kansas City, the Sisters of St. Joseph opened the German school of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in 1882, Our Lady of Perpetual Help (Redemptorist) School in 1885, and St. John the Baptist School in 1887.

By early 1874, it had become apparent that the establishment of a Catholic hospital in Kansas City was vital. According to Sister Martha Smith, CSJ, “The need for works of charity was great, since poverty, sickness and death were common among the poor in urban working class neighborhoods.”

In New York, a young physician, Dr. Jefferson Davis Griffith, completed his internship and decided to move out west. In 1873 he arrived in Kansas City and, with high hopes opened a practice. What little money he had was close to running out, and very few patients walked under his shingle. He had heard of the care the Sisters of St. Joseph gave to their students at St. Teresa’s Academy, so even though he was not a Catholic, Dr. Griffith approached Father Donnelly and asked for his assistance in inviting some of the sisters to open a hospital. Father Donnelly willingly wrote the Carondelet motherhouse in St. Louis, inviting more sisters to come to Kansas City.

Six sisters, led by Mother Celeste O’Reilly, arrived in 1874. Accustomed to poverty in the village of Carondelet, outside St. Louis, they were unfazed by the roughness of the young city on the Missouri River bend. About 35,000 people lived in the area bordered by the river on the north, the state line separating Missouri from Kansas on the west, Troost Avenue on the east and 20th Street on the south.

Mother Celeste and the sisters arranged to purchase the old Waterman home, a 10-room residence at 7th and Pennsylvania in the Quality Hill neighborhood, for $490 in back taxes. Six large rooms became wards with beds for 12 patients. The smaller rooms were used as living quarters for the sisters, with one room set aside for a chapel. The dwelling also had a large bathroom, a rarity in the 1870s, which was remodeled to become an operating room. The doors opened Oct. 15, 1874. St. Joseph’s was the first private hospital in Kansas City.

Hospitals were considered a last resort, the place a person went to die, in those days. According to John Doohan, Kansas City Star librarian in the 1970s, even physicians often ascribed the death of a patient as due to “the disadvantages of a hospital atmosphere.”

Hospital records for its first 14 months indicated that 69 people were treated at St. Joseph’s hospital, ranging in age from 7 to 50 years old. Eighteen people died, although three had been discharged from the hospital before they died and their deaths were attributed to tuberculosis (consumption).

Around this same time period, two men clattered into Dr. Griffith’s office and asked if he would be willing to treat a patient for $100, a princely sum in those days. Naturally the young doctor agreed, and had no objection to being blindfolded for the trip to the patient.

An hour’s buggy ride later, the blindfold was removed so the physician could remove a kidney stone from the patient. When the operation was finished, Dr. Griffith was blindfolded again, and driven to his office, another hour-long buggy ride. Then and only then was he informed that his patient was the notorious outlaw, Jesse James.

James was an outlaw, but he had many friends and admirers. Word got out, and Dr. Griffith no longer lacked for patients.

In 1875 he became chief of staff and surgeon at St. Joseph Hospital. Mother Celeste served as superintendent and director of nursing services. The sisters learned nursing by doing nursing. Nursing the sick and injured, “caring for the dear neighbor,” regardless of religious denomination or ability to pay, has always been the charism of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Between 18 and 20 percent of their patients were “charity cases.”

Within three years, it became necessary for the sisters to build a 50-bed addition to the hospital. The addition was enlarged in steps over the next decade to increase the hospital’s capacity to 150 beds. Patients were treated for gunshot wounds, malaria and typhoid fever. Some had been stepped on or kicked by horses. Some had been gored by cows. Most of the patients apparently were men, as their occupations were listed as coachmen, saloon keepers, carriage trimmers, actors, carpet stretchers and bronco trainers. Most women were reluctant to go to a hospital and the majority of babies were born at home.

In 1880, Father Donnelly retired from parish work. The Sisters of St. Joseph found him wandering in the neighborhood and took him in. They cared for him at the hospital until his death Dec. 14, 1880.

In the 1880s and 90s, abdominal surgical skills were perfected in Europe, and the sisters sent Dr. Griffith to New York for a year to master those skills after physicians and surgeons brought them to the United States. After his return to St. Joseph Hospital, Dr. Griffith developed the first surgical team in the Midwest, selecting and training sister nurses in various specialties.

Under his direction, the hospital pioneered the modern concept of asepsis which evolved in the late 19th century. Ignaz Semmelweis showed that washing the hands prior to the delivery of a baby reduced puerperal fever. After it was suggested by Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister introduced the use of carbolic acid as an antiseptic which reduced surgical infection rates. Lawson Tait went from antisepsis to asepsis, introducing principles and practices of cleanliness and germ prevention that are still valid.

Dr. Griffith directed the sisters on his surgical team to spray a fine mist of carbolic acid in the operating room to control infections. They suffered from weepy eyes and red hands due to the acid, but post-op infections and deaths steadily declined. The sisters were undoubtedly relieved when instrument sterilization came into common use. Dr. Griffith also established the first radiology department west of the Mississippi, at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

A brochure from 1899 shows a photo of Dr. J. N. Scott, the hospital’s first radiologist, standing beside the pioneering X-ray machine. As the long term effects of high doses of radiation were unknown at the time, patients, doctors and the sister nurses all received equal doses from the unshielded X-ray tube. Dr. Scott eventually died from over exposure to radiation.

At the turn of the century, 11 sisters volunteered to help out in Cuba, where there was a great need for nurses following the Cuban civil war. Their leaving underscored the need for a nurses training program. In September 1901, the sisters made the decision to open what became the St. Joseph Hospital School of Nursing. The first class graduated in 1903.

The old Quality Hill neighborhood was beginning to deteriorate as Kansas City expanded east and south. The sisters and physicians at St. Joseph’s Hospital began considering building a new facility. Then a cornfield at the intersection of Linwood Blvd and Prospect caught the attention of some sisters picnicking nearby in 1909. Hospital administrator Mother Mary Romano Cashion arranged to purchase 5 acres of the cornfield for $55,000, which was considered “a folly” by some, but by the time ground was broken in 1915 for the new hospital, the city was growing up around and past the field. The cornerstone was laid Dec. 19, 1915, and the new St. Joseph’s Hospital, fronting on Linwood Blvd., opened for patients in March 1917.

The 6-story, 250-bed hospital was considered state of the art, and its innovative X-shape made every room an outside room. Sun porches at the end of each X allowed patients to sit in fresh air if they wished. Each floor had a kitchen for patient food preparation. The new hospital even had a maternity ward, and over the next 50 years, 52,000 babies would be born there.

Other innovations at the new facility included Ernst von Bergmann’s autoclave, used to sterilize surgical instruments; radiology and other newer techniques were modernized; and service areas such as surgical rooms, labs and nurseries were introduced and continually updated.

The sisters at St. Teresa’s Academy were now firmly established at 5600 Main, and the academy was flourishing. By 1916, St. Teresa’s Academy had been reincorporated so that it could grant college degrees, beginning with associate degrees. The first St. Teresa’s College graduates received their junior college diplomas in 1918. The old Academy building on 11th and Washington had been torn down, and on the new campus the Music and Arts building served as classrooms for both the academy and the junior college, living quarters for the sisters and boarding students, auditorium, dining area and gymnasium. By 1939, Kansas City Bishop Edwin V. O’Hara announced that the junior college would be expanded to a full four-year college course and would be housed in its own building on the campus. Ground was broken in 1940 for Donnelly Hall, which opened for classes in 1941 and the first 4-year graduating class received their diplomas in 1942.

In 1928, the College of St. Teresa was accredited by the North Central Association of Secondary Schools and Colleges. In 1930, the St. Joseph Hospital School of Nursing became affiliated with the college. Since the latter 1920s, student nurses had been required to have graduated from high school. For some years the hospital school and the college had shared some classes, while all clinical coursework took place at the hospital.

A few years later, Sister Mary Caroline Clark, who had entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in 1866, and had served as a nurse through the yellow fever epidemic in Memphis before coming to St. Joseph Hospital in 1878, died in June 1934 at the age of 87. She had served at the first hospital facility in Quality Hill. When the hospital was relocated to Linwood and Prospect in 1917, Sister Caroline was relieved of active duty as a nurse, and spent the next 17 years visiting every patient in the hospital on a daily basis.

Sister Caroline and many other sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet were on staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital in the autumn of 1918 when the Spanish influenza pandemic struck. By the time it subsided, in early 1920, more than 675,000 Americans had died. In Kansas City, about 2,300 people died from the flu during those months, among them nurses and doctors at St. Joseph’s and at Kansas City’s other Catholic hospital, St. Mary’s.

Depression-era Kansas City rivaled New York and Chicago for both its jazz and its illegal booze. Both the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and the Sisters of Mary, who had established St Mary’s Hospital in 1909, worked to keep their hospitals up to date and well-staffed during those years.

At St. Joseph’s, administrator Sister Mary Pascaline Gandalfo updated the hospital by installing a bronchioscopic room, current orthopedic and X-ray services, and made pediatric care, metabolic testing and electrocardiography available to patients. She also remodeled the hospital.

In 1938, St. Joseph Hospital became the first hospital in Kansas City to join the new Blue Cross and Blue Shield health insurance plan. Even so hospital rates were low, so low that often people checked into the hospital for a rest, with or without doctor’s orders. Even without insurance, private rooms cost about $5 a day, and quad rooms (4-beds) cost even less.

Despite the Depression, the elegance of its private rooms in part made St. Joseph’s the hospital for Kansas City’s wealthy in the 1930s. With fine linens and furniture loaned or donated by well-to-do families, the hospital’s private rooms could boast Oriental carpets, chandeliers, ornately carved furnishings, and steaks cooked to order and served on fine china.

At St. Teresa’s Academy, teachers and students mourned the death of Mother Evelyn O’Neill in December 1938. She had been in charge of the academy until 1915, and then returned to teaching, both at St. Teresa’s and in St. Louis. Her last years were dedicated to pursuing a doctorate in philosophy from Catholic University of America, but failing health kept her from completing it. She had retired to Nazareth convent, now the infirmary at the motherhouse in Carondelet.

At the start of World War II, graduates from both St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s nursing schools volunteered to serve with the military in the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps. More than 130 St. Joseph’s nurses served in North Africa, Sicily and other parts of Europe. St. Mary’s Nursing School accelerated their program to 24 months so to make nurses available to the military as quickly as possible. The U.S. government subsidized nurses’ training and gave them stipends and uniforms, if they agreed to serve with the military after graduation. Student nurses flocked to St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s nursing schools for training.

The end of the war brought good things and bad to St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s hospitals. The new emphasis on academics and college training for nurses saw the end of St. Joseph’s hospital nursing school in 1948. That year, the College of St. Teresa, soon to be renamed Avila College, established a department of nursing, offering both a three-year diploma and a four-year bachelor of nursing degree, with student field work done at St. Joseph Hospital. Then the 1952 polio epidemic struck Kansas City, increasing patient loads for the nurses and staff. Two hectic years passed before the advent of a new polio vaccine, introduced by Jonas Salk. A smaller flu epidemic also ravaged Kansas City before it was gotten under control, but the Sisters of St. Joseph survived the combined stresses of the early 1950s.

Nursing shortages were beginning to affect both hospitals, as young women who might have gone into nursing careers in earlier days were beginning to seek shorter hours and better pay in education and other fields by the end of the 1950s. Religious orders were also experiencing changes. Fewer young women were choosing to join religious orders.

In May 1961, Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet Mary Daniel Tammany, president of the College of St. Teresa, announced that 49 acres of land at 119th and Wornall Road had been purchased as the site of the new college campus. Sister Mary Daniel had been diagnosed with acute leukemia, and died later that year. In her place Sister Olive Louise Dallavis, the young Dean of Students and music teacher, oversaw the move to south Kansas City and was officially named president of the college in 1962. At the ground breaking for the first of the new college buildings, it was announced that the College of St. Teresa would be renamed Avila College, a distinct identity from St. Teresa’s Academy. Avila opened its doors to male students in 1969, and in 1978, it began offering graduate programs in business, education and psychology.

In 1965, priests and religious sisters from Kansas City joined marchers from St. Louis, Chicago and other Midwestern cities in Selma, Alabama, to show support for civil rights marchers, including Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Rosemary Flanagan and Barbara Moore.

In April 1968 within hours after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., racial unrest exploded all over the country. Kansas City was no exception. Shots were fired and rocks thrown at windows of homes and businesses, including St. Joseph’s Hospital at Linwood and Prospect. Several people were killed.

Although the hospital survived, it was time to move.

The Sisters of St. Joseph and their lay administrators and board of directors identified three potential sites for a new hospital: one near Bannister Mall, one at 119 and Antioch in Johnson County, Kan., and one at I-435 and State Line Road, which was the most attractive as Avila College was close by and the hospital’s nursing program was still there. And the close proximity to the interstate was worth its weight in gold in free advertising.

Ground was broken in 1975, and the hospital moved its last patient into the new facility in 1977.

In 1997, St. Joseph Health System and St. Mary’s Hospital of Blue Springs merged to become Carondelet Health System. Today Carondelet Health System is a member of Ascension Health. Only a few sisters are still on the staff of St. Joseph’s Medical Center: Sister Margaret Vincent, Sister Gabrielle Smits, chaplain, and several sisters who now volunteer at the hospital including Sister Rosemary Flanagan. Sister Gabrielle said only one Franciscan Sister of Mary, the name now used by the Sisters of Mary, who founded St. Mary’s Hospital 102 years ago, serves actively on the Blue Springs medical center’s staff. The old St. Mary’s hospital in Midtown closed in 1988.

“Despite the small number of Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet active on staff or in volunteering for the health center, they are united in mission,” said Michael Sanderl, director of Mission Integration. Whether 30 sisters or three, they collaborate across departments. The values they held true then are still viable and visible: Communion with creation, the church, the dear neighbor and each other. It’s not accidental that those values have held true since 1874 and even before then, since 1866. “They may be articulated differently now than they were 145 years ago, but we are faithful to respond to the needs of our dear neighbor; that’s our heritage. It’s a cultural piece of who we are. We are all working together with the end goal of care of the patients. They are cared for and cared about,” he said.

Sister Gabrielle agreed. “Healthcare is still who we at St. Joseph’s Medical Center are,” she said. “Not just the women religious, it’s all of us here. Patients of all faiths or none are cared for, recognized, supported and respected,” she added.

In July 2002, Avila College became Avila University. The university will soon undertake $15 million in construction projects, building a new residence hall, renovating the dining hall and Whitfield Hall, additions to the Athletic Pavilion and infrastructure improvements. President Ron Slepitza said they are planning more building at one time than any time since the university was built back in the early 1960s.

St. Teresa’s Academy is also planning new construction. Groundbreaking for a new chapel, to be named in honor of St. Joseph was to take place on March 23. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet currently serve in more then 20 states and 67 cities in the United States, and Japan, Chile and Peru.

Members of the Province Leadership Team, elected to a six-year term in 2008, serve as liaisons to Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet sponsored institutions, including St. Joseph Medical Center and St. Mary’s Medical Center in Blue Springs, Avila University and St. Teresa’s Academy. Team member Sister Patty Clune’s office is at St. Teresa’s, where she graduated from high school. She commutes to St. Louis for meetings and Province business.

Prayer services commemorating the 175 years since the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet arrived in New Orleans from France, and 145 since their arrival in Kansas City to take charge of Father Donnelly’s school were planned for two days in March, one service at St. Joseph Medical Center and the second at St. Mary’s Hospital of Blue Springs. A social honoring the Sisters of St. Joseph is planned for March 31 at St. Joseph Medical Center’s Alex George Auditorium.

“I have treasured being a woman religious, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet,” Sister Gabrielle said, “and I always will.”


  1. April 6, 2011 at 5:31 am #

    My father was in a terrible house fire in 1980. He was burned (2nd and 3rd degree) over 45 percent of his body and was taken by ambulance to St. Joseph’s Hospital and spent a long time in ICU. One of his nurses was a sister but I don’t remember her name. He was a very difficult patient, but that could be forgiven considering the miserable condition he was in (however, he would have been difficult under any circumstances!). The staff dealt with him in the most kind and considerate way and we, his family, appreciated that. They also were extremely good to us. He survived his injuries and was able to go home eventually.
    I will always be thankful to the staff of St. Joseph’s for helping my family during a very difficult time.
    Diane Clark

  2. August 25, 2017 at 2:37 pm #

    I am doing research on and would like some help. I am looking for a record of the births at St Joseph Hospital in August 1952. Do these records exists????
    Thank you for any help you can give to point me in right direction.

  3. December 20, 2017 at 7:07 pm #

    Have a lot of history in this hospital. I was born there in 1956, then at 18 months I had to get my hand sewn up after cutting my hand with a rusty can top. I almost died at age 5 from a blood clot on my right side the size of a tennis ball, so they took my appendix out. Broke my arm when I was 6, had a 3rd degree burn on my leg and had to be rushed to the emergency room, and had to get 6 stitches in my left knee. Then I broke an elbow at 14. Those are just a few. When I used to work as a security guard in 1977 right before it got torn down, I had to patrol the hospital at night. It was kind of spooky, especially when going through the morgue with the tissue samples in jars still on the shelves.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

October 29, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph