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Pioneering health care in Juneau and Douglas

Posted: October 2, 2011 - 12:06am

It was a typically wet, rainy night on Sept. 11, 1886, when Sr. Mary Zenon, Sr. Mary Bonsecours and Sr. Mary Victor, disembarked from the side-wheeler Ancon at the steamship dock in Juneau after a voyage of 900 miles from Victoria, British Columbia. Standing there in the rain to meet the Sisters of St. Ann were Fr. John Altoff, who had arrived in the newly established mining settlement just a year before, and two of his parishioners, Marion Murphy and her brother Augustus. That first night the sisters slept on the floor of the Catholic church.

Early the next morning the three sisters took possession of the makeshift building on the corner of 5th Street and Harris that became Juneau’s first hospital. Later in the day porters delivered trunks filled with the medical equipment and other supplies needed to care for patients. They named the hospital after the patroness of their religious order, St. Ann, the Mother of the Virgin Mary and with the help of local physicians and volunteer assistants, began to treat patients.

Later in the fall, the St. Ann’s Hospital Society was established. The object of Hospital Society was, according to the by-laws “mutual relief and gratuitous charity.” Miners and other members of the society were required to contribute $1.00 a month to qualify for free admission to the hospital and free medicine and treatment while in the hospital. For a fee of $2.50 a day the hospital would provide patients with a private room and special attention. Patients without means to pay were treated for free. And anyone in good health was eligible to belong to the society regardless of age, sex, religious affiliation or ethnicity.

In addition to providing medical care, the Sisters of St. Ann quickly established a school in Juneau. A sister from Victoria was sent to Juneau to teach English, French and piano in a day school next to the hospital. Soon after, a boarding school for girls was also established. In ten years the enrollment increased from fifteen day students, six boarders and six piano students to 156 students.

Ten years later, in 1896, a Catholic church and a school were established in Douglas for the miners and their families working at the Treadwell mine. Within a few months of the opening of the chapel and school, Sr. Zenon contracted with the mining company to build a 2½ story, 50 bed hospital, which, like its counterpart in Juneau, was named after St. Ann. Transporting injured miners across Gastineau channel to the hospital in Juneau without a bridge proved to cause unnecessary pain to patients as well as threatened them with complications. Two Sisters of St. Ann and a male nurse were assigned to care for the male patients of the Douglas hospital. (Only in 1913 was a ward created for women in that hospital.)

In 1898 Sr. Mary Zenon attempted to dedicate a wing of St. Ann’s Hospital in Juneau for the care of Alaskans suffering from mental illnesses. Unfortunately, government policy at the time was to send the mentally ill out of Alaska for treatment. Consequently, public funds were not available to support caring for the mentally ill within the territory. Sr. Zenon’s advocacy for local care of the mentally ill led to conflicts within the community which resulted in her transfer from Juneau.

When she finally returned to Juneau in 1909, Sr. Zenon purchased a lot on Starr Hill, close to our Cathedral, which was put to use first as a chicken yard to provide eggs and meat for the hospital and later on became a playground for neighborhood children. This is commemorated today by a sculptor of a sister of St. Ann feeding chickens at the entrance of Chicken Yard Park at 6th & Kennedy St.

In 1920, following the cave-in of the Treadwell mine, St. Ann’s hospital in Douglas was closed and the sisters serving there returned to the order’s Motherhouse in Victoria, B.C. However, St. Ann’s Hospital in Juneau continued to serve the people of Juneau and Douglas. (“Our Lady of the Mines” a painting from the Douglas hospital chapel of the same name, eventually came into the possession of the Catholic diocese and can now be found in the entryway of St. Ann’s Parish Hall in downtown Juneau.)

St. Ann’s hospital in Juneau continued to grow. In 1916, 1933 and 1954 new wings were added to the hospital. From a frontier hospital, St. Ann’s grew over six decades into a modern medical facility with a growing staff of skilled physicians and nurses.

Beginning in 1965 the Sisters of St. Ann began the transition of health care in Juneau. A hospital board was established, chaired by Sr. Mary Angelus, the hospital administrator. A smooth transition was assured as the nursing sisters worked with the community in the establishment of a new facility, which was to be called Bartlett Memorial Hospital. With the departure of the nursing sisters in 1968 the sisters who taught at the parish school also left Juneau.

This past Sept. 11 was the 125th anniversary of the founding of St. Ann’s Hospital in Juneau by the Sisters of St. Ann.

• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.

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