Emory Saint Joseph's Hospital: Founded by Sisters of Mercy as Atlanta's first hospital

Woodruff Health Sciences Center | Feb. 13, 2015

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Before and just after the Civil War, hospitals were not common anywhere in the South. Those that did exist were perceived as places to die and mainly intended to isolate those with communicable diseases.

At that time, Atlanta did not have a hospital, but that would soon change with the bold vision of one man and the determination of four women who founded Atlanta Hospital (now Emory Saint Joseph’s). William Gross, the Catholic bishop of Savannah saw the need to create a hospital to serve the growing population of Atlanta, so at his request, four Sisters of Mercy traveled to the city in 1879.

Sisters Mary Cecilia Carroll, Mary Helena Sheehan, Mary Borgia Thomas and Mary Berchmans Young left their convent in Savannah with only 50 cents capital among them, but they also possessed the skills and experience to continue the mission of their Order, serving the poor and vulnerable with compassionate care.

Sister Mary Cecilia had been appointed by her superior in Savannah as the first administrator (CEO) of this new endeavor. She had many years of experience leading the former U.S. Marine Hospital (now Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Savannah) during a yellow-fever epidemic.

The Sisters found their first benefactor in Father James F. O’Brien, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church, who helped them purchase a large old house at the corner of Baker and Collins streets. The remodeled residence opened as the 10-bed Atlanta Hospital on April 21, 1880. (In later years, the hospital was renamed Saint Joseph’s Infirmary, and then Saint Joseph’s Hospital.)

In addition to the care given by the Sisters, Dr. F.H. O’Brien worked as the physician in charge of Atlanta Hospital during its first year, with a staff of eight other physicians.

These doctors and the Sisters treated some 50 patients each month for a variety of diseases and conditions. In addition to nursing care, laundry, cooking and other duties, the Sisters also operated an apothecary shop at the hospital, preparing and filling ordinary prescriptions.

The hospital was committed to serving any patient, regardless of religious affiliation. According to The Daily Constitution, “Whenever any accident occurs in the city and immediate relief is needed, the intelligence may be conveyed by telephone to the hospital and an ambulance will be dispatched at once to the spot…. The suffering is relieved. This is the purpose of the hospital, and this will be done whenever it is possible.”

Early record books reveal interesting facts about the costs involved in running the hospital that first year. For example, during September 1880, board paid by patients was $16.50; donations received, $27.50; wages paid, $11; medicine, $40; washing, $1; and groceries, $39.45.

The Sisters also took their healing mission outside the hospital walls, visiting the homes of Atlanta’s poor to see that they had food to eat and clothes to wear, and that their children were enrolled in and attending school.

This story is the second in a series celebrating the Sisters of Mercy and their influence on health care in Atlanta.