Roman Catholic Sisters and Healthcare in Colorado

Honoring the People Who Created What We've Inherited

The monumental contribution of Catholic Sisters is only one part of Colorado's healthcare heritage — but the magnitude of the healthcare services that nineteen separate communities of Sisters brought to Colorado statewide must not be forgotten.

Let's begin with terminology:

. . . there were two canonically valid forms of religious women in the nineteenth-century Catholic church. First, there was the religious order. Women in these communities took solemn, lifelong vows, were committed to strict enclosure within their convents, and received the title of nun.

There was also a newer form of organization known as the congregation. Women in congregations took simple, less binding vows, worked outside the convent, and went by the title of sister.

In all but the most arcane of circumstances, "order" and "congregation," "nun" and "sister" were used interchangeably. (Mary Peckham Magray: The Transforming Power of the Nuns, pg. 138)
The Benedictine Sisters who came to Colorado were members of an order; the rest were members of congregations.

The Power of Networked Women

Already in the 19th century, the Sisters demonstrated the power of a group of networked women. There are dozens of stories about how the connections the hospital Sisters in Colorado had with their Sisters back east benefited the people of Colorado. We'll just mention four of those groups of women for now.

The Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth took the first step in 1873 by building what became St. Joseph's Hospital — the first private-sector hospital in Denver and in Colorado. Then more Sisters came from Leavenworth to build hospitals in Leadville (1879) and Grand Junction (1896) "for all the sick, wounded and destitute."

The Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati built St. Mary's Hospital in Pueblo in 1882. Then more Sisters from Cincinnati built Mount San Rafael Hospital in Trinidad (1889) and took over the Glockner Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Colorado Springs (1893) — because people needed their professional skills and their nonjudgmental compassion, which Billy the Kid himself experienced firsthand both in Trinidad and in Santa Fe.

The Sisters of Mercy came from St. Louis and built hospitals in Durango (1882), Ouray (1887), Cripple Creek (1894), and Denver (1900). Their mission was to serve sick and injured people in those wild west towns who needed experienced, compassionate nurses to take care of them. Local physicians welcomed the support the Sisters gave them and their patients.

The Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration from Lafayette, Indiana, built St. Francis Hospital in Colorado Springs (1887) and St. Anthony Hospital in Denver (1893) because they needed to be free to offer professional healthcare and other services to the poor, which was their whole reason for existence (they had initially run corporate hospitals for the railroads in both cities).

Those were only the first of 19 communities of Sisters who came to Colorado and helped build the humanitarian healthcare system that we inherited.

If there's no evidence that the Sisters came to convert people to Roman Catholicism, then what motivated the Sisters to build hospitals in Colorado?

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