Serving the Sick

Posted by Kelly McDaniels

June 2, 2020

SCN archivist Kathy Hertel-Baker shares the following on the history of SCN and VSC service to African Americans through healthcare:

Healing the Sick
Well before the establishment of any official healthcare missions the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth were committed to caring for the sick, visiting ill neighbors and providing comfort to those in need. By the 1870s they were operating three hospitals and by the 1950s had charge of thirteen different facilities. Their formal ministry to African American patients began in 1877 in the African American wing of St. Joseph Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. St. Joseph’s was the only hospital treating African Americans in that city. It was often difficult to find African American doctors to serve in hospitals in the South, as most qualified physicians moved north to take advantage of better opportunities and escape segregation. Along with the Sister nurses and administrators, white doctors worked in the segregated wards, often putting their own private practices at risk by treating African American patients. 

African American ward, St. Joseph Hospital, Lexington, KY, c1887

In 1941, the SCNs began ministry at Holy Family Clinic, providing medical services to African Americans in Ensley, Alabama. Other SCN hospitals did not begin opening to African American patients until the late 1940s. On November 24, 1947, Mother Ann Sebastian sent a letter to the directors of St. Joseph Infirmary and Sts. Mary and Elizabeth Hospital, both in Louisville. She wrote: 

The question of accepting colored patients in our hospitals has been agitated much of late that I feel we must come to some decision about it. I have talked over the matter with a priest, and his advice to me was that, in Christ-like charity, we should try to do all in our power for this poor race. In fact, Father made me understand that we have an obligation in the matter which we cannot dodge. I shall be grateful if you talk the matter over with the Sisters first, then with the doctors and see what plans can be made to take care of colored patients. I know the reaction of the Sisters will be Christ-like and charitable, and I am hoping the doctors will see their way to help break down the barrier. When we can discuss the matter together…surely we can reach something definite and we must.  

Sisters working at St. Joseph’s in Lexington had been discussing their desire to see the hospital integrated for many years. Sister Thomas Miriam Cruise, who was missioned in the maternity ward at St. Joseph Hospital from 1939-1946, recalled later that it was not rare to have a mother in labor on the African American wing and others on the white wing at the same time. She and other nurses had to go back and forth from one wing to the other, checking on their patients, so they could get them to the delivery room in ample time. As the day, or night, wore on, they often asked themselves and one another when “this nonsense of separation” would end and all could live and be cared for together. 

Sister Elizabeth Eugene Hancock with mother and newborn child at St. Joseph Hospital, Lexington, KY, c1965

By the early 1950s all three SCN hospitals in Louisville and Lexington, as well as their affiliated nursing schools, were integrated. In 1952, Oretta Spencer graduated from the Medical Technology Training program at St. Joseph’s in Lexington. She was the first African American graduate medical technologist in the United States.  

Holy Family Clinic and Hospital, Ensley, Alabama, 1941-1970
In 1938the Passionists established a mission in the predominantly African American community of Ensley near Birmingham, Alabama. After several invitations from Rev. Michael Caswell, CP, to join the mission, the Sisters finally had enough resources to accept. In 1941, they assumed responsibility for a small health clinic. The clinic was the only place to obtain health care for most residents as it was practically unheard of for African Americans to gain admittance to the hospitals in Birmingham. When they did they were they were usually treated in the basement to avoid mixing with the white patients. Local doctors, both black and white, provided services along with SCN and lay nurses and volunteer interns.  In addition to providing much needed health services, the SCNs also desired to provide African American doctors the opportunity to use their knowledge and skills to serve their community.   

Holy Family Hospital, Ensley, AL, c1945. Three houses were moved to this site and connected by porches and hallways to create the hospital

The clinic was soon overcrowded and in need of expansion. Options were few and building materials were scarce due to the outbreak of World War II. The Sisters, with the help of a local construction expert, devised a plan to move and join together three small houses to create a larger facility. The new structure provided a twelve bed ward, chapel, dispensary, offices, and a kitchen. The clinic also assumed a new name: ‘Holy Family Hospital.’ The demand for maternity services was so great that Sisters eventually limited the hospital to those services. Between 1946 and 1950 there were over 1500 deliveries, mostly attended by African American doctors.  

Nursery at Holy Family Hospital, Ensley, AL, 1954

After the end of World War II, the Sisters began raising funds for a new hospital. The response from both the citizens of Birmingham and other SCN institutions was impressive, with over $250,000 raised. An additional $600,000 came from the United States government through the Hill-Burton Act, which was passed in 1946 to provide grants and loans to improve the health and health care of all Americans. The new, sixty bed hospital opened in 1954. By 1963, the staff included nineteen African American doctors, seven SCNs, and 116 additional support staff.  

Doctors on staff at Holy Family Hospital, Ensley, AL, in 1958

With integration becoming more common and the passage of the Civil Rights act in 1964, the need for an African American hospital waned. In 1970, the SCNs transferred ownership of Holy Family Hospital to a local non-profit organization. However, the SCNs did not leave Ensley but continued their service to the community at Holy Family High School.  

St. Jude Hospital, Montgomery, Alabama, 1950-1977
Founded in 1902 near Pittsburgh, PA, the Vincentian Sisters of Charity engaged in numerous missions serving African American communities. Their largest mission was in Montgomery, Alabama, where they administered St. Jude Hospital, part of the City of St. Jude.  

City of St. Jude mobile dispensary truck, Montgomery, AL, 1942

The City of St. Jude was established by Father Harold Purcell in 1936 to provide medical, educational, and spiritual assistance to African Americans in central AlabamaThe City of St. Jude was the first Catholic institution in the state of Alabama dedicated exclusively to ministering to African Americans and played an important support role during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  

The St. Jude mission began with a church and shortly thereafter a school was established. In 1949, construction began on a $1.5 million hospital. The Vincentian Sisters of Charity, who had been working with Father Purcell at missions in Marbury and Phenix City since 1940, were invited to administer the hospital and were in charge when the 165 bed facility opened to patients in 1951.  

Entrance to City of St. Jude showing new hospital building, Montgomery Alabama, 1951

St. Jude Hospital was the first fully integrated hospital in the southeast and the only hospital in the region that admitted patients regardless of race or creed. The Vincentian Sisters of Charity continued to serve the African American community at St. Jude Hospital until 1977.  


(Featured image at the top of the story shows Sister Mary Edwin Spisak, VSC, working with nursing students at St. Jude Hospital, Montgomery, AL, c1965.)


  1. Sister Luke

    Thank you Kathy and Kelly for refocusing us on our past and how we responded in connection to what is happening today.
    Great job!


  2. Ann Palatty

    It is an interesting history of SCNs, but it leaves me with a sense of sadness to acknowledge how even the Church was facing questions of segregation on the basis of colour and race. I am happy and proud to understand that SCNs were in the forefront to confront these issues in those times. Today also SCNs stand with humanity as one, not on the basis of caste, colour, region or religion. Catherine would be proud of us.


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