by Tom Castaldi
The first hospital to be established in Fort Wayne was St. Joseph Hospital. Organized in 1868 by sisters of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, it was under the leadership of Mother Katherine Kasper, the Superior of the order. Mary Catherine Kasper was a remarkable woman, born in 1820 in Dernbach, Germany, who overcame her lack of formal education and dedicated herself to prayer. She founded a society with four other women and took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and then founded the Congregation of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ on August 15, 1851. The community grew teaching, caring for the poor, boarding factory girls, and encouraging Christian values eventually expanding to nine countries.
After Bishop Luers convinced Mother Kasper to send eight sisters to Fort Wayne, their first home was the old Rockhill Hotel which the order had purchased earlier that year and which still marks the center of the modern hospital. Located on the outskirts of town at Broadway and West Main Streets, the sisters refurbished the old canal hotel converting it into a mother house to operate as St. Joseph Hospital.
Acquiring the old hotel did not come easily. Bishop John Luers, the first bishop of Fort Wayne, tried unsuccessfully to get the Allen County Commissioners and city council of Fort Wayne to share the burden of purchasing and repairing the building. Undiscouraged, Bishop Luers organized group of citizens in the formation of the St. Joseph Benevolent Association, and with his personal funds and those raised by the Association, bought the hotel and made it ready for the sisters who arrived in May, 1869. They were still scrubbing the facility when the first patient entered. Dr. Isaac Rosenthal, a German immigrant who had arrived in 1847, performed the first operation in the hospital in 1869 and became the first chief of staff for medical services.
Nurses and beds were at a premium. In the first year, Sister Mary Henrica, having prepared the meals one day, went on second shift keeping watch all that night at the home of a sick person. When she returned the next day for some much needed rest, she found her bed had been given to a patient the night before.
The sisters began a regular program of caring for the poor so that those with severe medical problems would not simply be placed in the “poor farm.” The hospital grew steadily over the next several decades, and with additions in 1879, 1912, and 1929, included an isolation ward. By 1918, a nursing school had been established; in 1946, the hospital opened a technicians’ school. In the last half of the twentieth century, the hospital changed its name to the Saint Joseph Medical Center. A new facility replaced all the older structures; a major area of specialty for the Medical Center is its Regional Burn Center. Once again the name Saint Joseph Hospital identifies the facility and is part of the Lutheran Health Network.
Originally published in Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi”
June 2009 No 55
Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast at 6:35 a.m., 8:35 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on WLYV-1450 AM and WRRO 89.9 FM. Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog, “Our Stories,” at history centerfw.blogspot.com.