In 1864, four young Catholic nuns began a long journey that not only took them from Montreal to the Pacific Coast … but also forever changed health care in the northwestern United States. Those nuns – all younger than 30 – traveled by boat to Panama, crossed by land to the Pacific Ocean and then continued by boat to Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River. There, they boarded a steamer and traveled upriver to Walla Walla. Then they rode on horseback 500 miles along the newly completed Mullan Road – first across the treeless Columbia Plateau and then through the dense forests of Coeur d’Alene country, where they crossed Coeur d’Alene Lake on a flatboat.
The final leg of their journey had the young nuns crossing the Bitterroot Mountains at what is now Lookout Pass and descending to the Clark Fork River. They arrived at the St. Ignatius Mission south of Flathead Lake just before winter set in, in October 1864, and became the first Sisters to reach the new Montana Territory.
The sisters knew little about their destination. But, their mission was clear: to serve the community’s unmet needs, particularly among the poor.
To support their humanitarian work, the Sisters organized “begging tours” to the scattered mining camps and communities of Oregon, Idaho and Montana. They raised enough to expand their original mission at St. Ignatius to include Sacred Heart Academy and St. Patrick Hospital – both in Missoula.
In April of 1873, Mother Caron, Superior General of the Sisters of Providence, along with Sister Mary Edward and Sister Mary Victor, traveled to Missoula to start both a hospital and a school with $500 raised from the begging tours.
The new hospital in Missoula had humble beginnings: a small frame building, simple and fragile. But, it offered professional health care and the warm concern of the Catholic nuns who ran it. In the following years, the original building underwent additions and remodels. In 1889, a new three-story hospital increased patient capacity from 40 to 90.
By 1923, however, more hospital space was needed to serve Missoula’s fast-growing community. The Sisters’ earlier “begging tours” technique wouldn’t work to raise the needed $45,000. Thankfully, pledges and donations made up the sum, and the five-story, 100-foot by 40-foot annex was built. St. Patrick Hospital was now a 150-bed facility.
In 1906, St. Patrick Hospital founded a school of nursing, which combined the teaching and health care ministries. By 1946, the school of nursing had a dedicated building and flourished. Nursing training shifted to universities in the 1970s. The St. Patrick School of Nursing closed in 1978 after training and graduating more than 1200 nurses.
The Sisters of Providence faced a great challenge. In order to move forward, they needed more space and increased funding. The facility they planned would cost $500,000 – a far cry from the initial $500 to establish the hospital in 1873. The new facility, the Broadway Building, opened March 17, 1952, to considerable public fanfare and praise. The following years were marked by expanded, specialized services as St. Patrick added sophisticated technology and a reputation as a leading regional cardiac and cancer center.
By 1980, shortage of space and the constant development of modern technology again required a building expansion. Efforts to raise $37.4 million for a 285,000 square-foot facility began. This facility, constructed in 1984, remains the hospital’s main headquarters today.
In 1990, Saint Joseph Hospital in Polson, Montana, was in a dire financial state. The Sisters of Providence assumed responsibility for the hospital on March 1, 1990. This allowed Saint Joseph Hospital to continue providing valuable health care to the community. The Sisters of Providence understood the importance of the hospital to the wellbeing of the community. The Saint Joseph Hospital Board of Directors, faced with an old building needing extensive upgrades to meet standards and maintain its operating license, reviewed options and concluded new construction was the solution.
The sponsors recognized the citizens needed health care to keep pace with changing lifestyles and technology. Physicians and patients needed modern diagnostic imaging equipment, outpatient surgery, physical therapy, cardiovascular rehabilitation, home health services and wellness programs. The resulting vision was one where the hospital and doctors worked together to provide primary health care services in a state-of-the-art facility, designed to meet the needs of the growing, diverse and aging community.
The plan included replacing the 60-year-old building with a new structure featuring a modern imaging suite, a new emergency room, a new surgical suite, patient rooms, medical office space and administrative offices. The cost of the project was estimated at $10 million.
Community contributions, combined with donations from foundations, raised $1.6 million. The balance of the funding came by way of a Providence Bond Issue. The old building was razed and a new one rose in its place. The new building, Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, takes full advantage of beautiful views of Flathead Lake. It’s filled with natural light, which combined with the care, competence and training of our staff, make it a special healing place.