When Mother Joseph and Sister Catherine arrived in Walla Walla, in late 1863, they found a small town of only 50 families. These Sisters of Providence had great vision, though. “That place promises to become important,” wrote Mother Joseph.
Edmund Barron, a local banker, donated two blocks of land for a hospital, academy and institutions. A year later, Mother Joseph opened St. Vincent Academy. There, the sisters taught school and took in women boarders – while visiting the sick and homebound. Eventually, they cared for the sick at the academy, as well.
As Walla Walla grew, so did the need for a dedicated hospital. In 1879, Sister Catherine received permission to build a hospital – separate from the school – from the Sisters of Providence General Council in Montreal, Canada. It would be a great undertaking, as the Walla Walla Statesman noted the sisters had “hardly a dollar of their own to purchase the first brick.”
But, the townspeople rallied. Merchants donated money. The ladies of the parish had a bazaar. And, the sisters made perilous trips to mountain camps to beg for money.
Barely a year later – on January 27, 1880 – St. Mary Hospital opened with seven patients. The hospital quickly outgrew the building. And, only three years later, a new hospital was built for $30,000. More than 30 patients, who’d been cared for at the nearby church during construction, moved into the beautiful new hospital – where the beds were uniform, white curtains framed the windows and chickens and vegetables were raised on the grounds.
But, construction had left the struggling hospital $23,000 in debt. The following year, help arrived in the form of a $2000 contract to care for the county’s poor. Next came a contract with the Northern Pacific Railroad to care for its sick employees for $1 per day. Somehow, they made do.
St. Mary was always an innovator. In 1884, it was among the first places in Walla Walla to install telephones. And, by 1886, it offered an early form of medical insurance. For $10 per year, a person could buy a ticket good for free board, medicine and care.
In 1907, St. Mary Hospital launched a school of nursing. New nurses were trained there until 1958.
Tragedy struck on January 27, 1915, when fire destroyed the hospital. Patients were evacuated to neighboring homes or St. Vincent Academy. Operating room doctors quickly finished a procedure, then passed the patient through a window to a waiting ambulance before evacuating to safety themselves. Chaplain Reverend Romuald Balducci had the presence of mind to grab the Blessed Sacrament before jumping from a window – breaking his foot in the process.
Firefighters battled the blaze for hours. But, the hospital building couldn’t be saved. The spirit of the hospital remained intact, however, and it reopened – 12 days later – in the old Fort Walla Walla hospital buildings.
St. Mary Hospital rose from the ashes, opening a new hospital building on October 8, 1916. The grand new building stood five stories tall and was built of brick and stone. And, while several disasters struck the building over the years – including a fire believed started by Three Fingered Jack – none succeeded in destroying the building. It stood solid until its planned demolition decades later.
A fund-raising drive aimed at building a new, modern hospital began in 1971. To reflect the community’s support and investment, the name was changed to St. Mary Community Hospital in 1973. A new building – the current St. Mary – opened on March 26, 1976. The $13 million facility was licensed for 142 beds and was renamed St. Mary Medical Center in 1984.
To meet the needs of the community we support, St. Mary’s facilities and technology have been improved and expanded many times. The Outpatient Procedure Center opened in 1988. St. Mary Regional Cancer Center in 1990. The Poplar Medical Complex in 1991. And, the Chase Medical Complex in 2001.
In 2003, St. Mary embarked on an ambitious $28 million expansion. An elegant new entrance and pharmacy, as well as admitting, emergency and imaging departments opened in 2004. In 2006, Providence St. Mary Medical Center completed construction on a new Providence St. Mary Regional Cancer Center and Outpatient Procedure Center.
Through our entire history, Providence St. Mary has held fast to the values of our founders, the Sisters of Providence. We honor the sacrifices, dedication and vision of those who came before. And, we look forward to a future of continuing to provide quality health care to the people of the region.