St. Joseph's Angels

St. Joseph Hospital in Orange traces its history through the daring of Catholic sisters.


St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, the picture of a modern hospital, has a history unknown to most stretching back to 17th-century Catholic women who weren’t afraid to bend the rules. Sister Mary Therese Sweeney, one of the Sisters of St. Joseph, is the resident expert on the history of the congregation. She started digging into the group’s past in the 1980s, unearthing documents she’s used to write a book on the sisters’ journey. The Sisters of Saint Joseph’s story begins in 1600s France. Sitting in a cozy room in the congregation’s Mother House in Orange, Sweeney recounted the tale:

Founded in 1650, the Sisters of Saint Joseph were one of the first to leave the confines of the convent to care for their neighbors. Along with other groups, such as the Daughters of Charity, the sisters began early health care work in city-owned buildings. At the time, the term “hospital” was used as a catch-all referring to the care of the sick, orphans, prostitutes and the homeless. The sisters lived among their patients, attending to those in need while also providing for their spiritual welfare. The women would serve broth, made what medicine they could from herbs, bind wounds and ensure that patients got the rest they needed. The work done in these days set the groundwork for modern-day nursing.

Eventually, the Sisters of St. Joseph took their mission of service to the New World, arriving in the United States in 1836. By 1848, they had set up their first hospital in Philadelphia.

During the Civil War, they provided care to wounded soldiers on both sides of the fighting.

Sweeney said this was a particularly stunning moment in the congregation’s history, going against the church’s more traditional teachings.

Sisters had very strict rules: They were generally forbidden interaction with men, to the point that eye contact was forbidden when passing a man on the street. The women now found themselves on the battlefield, dressed in full habits, getting their hands dirty to save wounded men.

Once the war was over, the women headed west. Sister-run hospitals appeared on the nation’s frontier, particularly near railroads, lumber camps and mines where workers often had no nearby family to care for them.

As they moved west, the Sisters had a novel idea: Workers could pay a few dollars a year to guarantee they’d get the medical coverage they needed – so long as their injuries weren’t the result of gunfights or drunken brawls, exclusions that were considered the patient’s own fault.

By 1912, the Sisters of St. Joseph had reached Eureka. With less than $100 dollars between them, the congregation began to establish itself by teaching at schools throughout the state, including at St. Joseph Elementary School in Santa Ana.

An 1918 flu pandemic gave the Sisters their first big chance to apply their centuries of health care practice in California. Shortly after, they purchased a hospital in Eureka. The building proved a very profitable venture for the Sisters.

In 1922, the Sacramento bishop, a close friend and supporter of the Sisters, died. While the late bishop had encouraged the group’s outward community efforts, his replacement wasn’t so free-thinking.

Not about to give up their freedom or their engagement with the community, the sisters did something rather unexpected: They escaped.

“I’m pretty astounded they did it,” Sweeney said. Between the time the new bishop was appointed and when he assumed power, the Sisters took out a loan and moved their headquarters to Orange in March 1922.

In June 1927, the congregation elected a new leader: Mother Larette. She had a very clear vision for the group’s local activity – a new kind of hospital. Within two weeks of being elected, she had hired an architect to build what is today St. Joseph Hospital in Orange.

Opened in 1929, St. Joseph’s was called the area’s “first modern hospital,” with the excitingly rare capability of taking X-rays. At the time, all of the hospital’s employees were Sisters. Today, the Sisters of St. Joseph are still a big part of the hospital, but most now fill administrative positions. The hospital has grown to have 3,800 employees, 1,000 of which are medical staff.

Over hundreds of years and across the seas from France to Orange, Sweeney said the Sisters have held fast to the group’s original “mission” to care for their fellow man.

“I don’t think it was a focus on adventure; it was a focus on mission,” Sweeney said. “If you had to be daring to accomplish mission, you’d do it.”

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