The Sisters of Charity of Providence was a teaching and nursing order from Montreal, Canada. In 1864, the sisters of this order were the first Catholic nuns to come to the Jesuit Mission of St. Ignatius, south of Flathead Lake in Montana Territory. Their intention was to teach the young women of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes on the newly created Flathead Reservation. The Sisters' vocation and training had focused on education and nursing, both of which coupled nicely with the needs of the Native American mission.
From the St. Ignatius Mission, some of the Sisters went to Missoula where they founded Sacred Heart Academy and St. Patrick Hospital in 1873. The Sisters purchased a parcel of land from Washington J. McCormick, a Missoula attorney, located at the west end of town. It was the equivalent to two and a half city blocks. This same parcel of land continues to be used by St. Patrick Hospital as it changes, grows and evolves into the multi-faceted medical facility it is today.
By 1900, Missoula's population had grown to 13,964 citizens; the construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad was probably the most significant event in this development. The railroad created reliable transportation for Missoula's growing economy, based as it was on trade, timber and agriculture. Western economic success, along with U.S. government land grants and homesteading laws, attracted further railroad interest.
Around the turn of the century, Missoula was still a wild and woolly frontier town, where males outnumbered females two-to-one, where hospital admissions were frequently due to gunshot wounds and broken or frozen limbs. These injuries needed the care of trained professionals. Missoula not only had a shortage of females but also a shortage of trained nurses. Other communities dealt with the nursing shortage by opening their own training schools for nurses. In the eastern part of the United States, the first schools of nursing were founded in 1873. Soon thereafter they sprang up throughout the country, wherever hospitals were able to promote, establish and maintain them.
The first Training School for Nurses in Montana was opened at Columbus Hospital, also a Sisters of Providence ministry, in Great Falls in 1900. Other nursing schools followed: Montana Deaconess Hospital in Great Falls in 1902; St. John's Hospital in Helena in 1905; St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula and St. James Hospital in Butte in 1906; and St. Vincent Hospital in Billings in 1913.
Mary Julian, Mother General from Montreal, visited the St. Patrick Hospital Mission and expressed interest in opening the St. Patrick Hospital Training School for Nurses. Following her wishes, a small brick structure behind the hospital opened in 1906. The school offered a three-year nursing program for women ages 18-33, with an emphasis on clinical experiences. St. Patrick Hospital Training School for Nurses was fully accredited by the Montana State Board of Nursing in 1918.
A Missoulian newspaper article, published when the last class graduated on June 1, 1978, relayed that student nurses worked 12 hours per day with classes and lectures being held at night. Nursing students in those days learned by example. Afterward, they performed the just-observed procedure directly on the patient under the supervision of a physician or an experienced nurse. Not only did nurses provide patient care, they were also responsible for cleaning rooms, transporting patients and even arranging patients’ flowers. Student nurse wages were $12 per month, including room and board. After graduation, nurses earned $6 per day for a 12-hour shift.
By the 1940s, the nursing program had progressed to the point where it needed a new building. In 1946 the School of Nursing moved into a state-of-the-art facility, including a modern laboratory, a library, a dietetic laboratory classrooms and a modern residence hall. The dormitory featured a sunken living room for entertaining and double occupancy student rooms to accommodate128 live-in students. In 1959, the school became fully accredited by the National League for Nursing, a distinction it held until its closure in 1978.
Edine Dussault Loran, class of 1961, and long-time St. Pat's staff nurse, remembered that St. Patrick Hospital nursing students had distinctive uniforms for many years. Dresses were blue and white pinstriped, set off by white aprons, stiff-starch laundered by the hospital's laundry. Fresh uniforms were issued weekly to each student nurse. After an initial six-month probationary period, incoming freshman students were issued a nursing cap, presented during a formal "capping ceremony." The pure white, freshly-starched cap worn by the student-nurse distinguished her as a member of the nursing profession. Caps were an integral part of the uniform, and if a student was seen without a cap on a clinical unit, there were repercussions.
At the beginning of each academic year, senior students received a class pin to wear on their caps, which designated them as having senior status. Senior class members chose the design of the pin Caps, once the symbol of the nursing profession, began to lose their distinctiveness in the late 1970s when it became popular for all allied health personnel to purchase caps from local uniform shops and wear them with their uniforms.
Completing the student nurse uniform was a navy and red wool cape purchased by each student and required to be worn when "Formal Uniform" was required for ceremonies, processions and funeral honor guards. Capes also served as coats as students hurried back and forth between the Hospital and the Nursing Residence.
In 1961 the School of Nursing initiated the presentation of the Mother Gamelin Award honoring a graduating senior who had exemplified the virtues of Mother Gamelin throughout the student's nursing career.
In 1969, following the national trend, the School of Nursing affiliated with The University of Montana for physical, biological, social science and nutrition courses, basic to the nursing curriculum. The following year, the first male student was admitted to the program. In all, seven male students completed the program in the remaining eight years.
The School of Nursing closed on Saturday, June 3, 1978 with the graduating class of 1978. Since 1906, 1,243 nurses completed this program. The duties of student nurses had changed dramatically since the previous days of bathing patients and scrubbing floors. The complex and growing body of scientific knowledge necessary to practice professional nursing, the rigid requirements of maintaining qualified faculty and the financial cost to students and the hospital all contributed to the decision.
The School of Nursing Building was demolished in 1984 to make room for the new St. Patrick Hospital, which still serves as the acute care facility.