What Motivated the Sisters to Build Hospitals in Colorado?

Honoring the People Who Created What We've Inherited

In the early days on the Colorado frontier, neighbors took care of neighbors because accepting that "we're all in this together" was the only realistic survival strategy — on the high plains, along the Front Range, in the mountain towns, and on the Western Slope.

Then beginning in the 1870s, Catholic Sisters, Reform and Orthodox Jews, Swedish and German Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Reformed, Adventists, Mennonites, and local communities began establishing hospitals and other healthcare institutions in Colorado. Many of them considered it their duty to serve everyone who came to them, without regard for social status, place of employment, or ability to pay.

How Did the Sisters Build and Sustain Those Hospitals?

These healthcare pioneers — a significant number of whom were first-generation immigrants from Europe — accomplished what they did because grateful local Colorado communities strongly supported their unselfish private-sector initiatives.

Insurance money, government money, and foundation grants were unknown in those days — as were the competitive forces that would eventually make the Sisters' hospitals end their mission to the indigent and underserved — so they depended on community support. The Sisters frequently got financial assistance from their own motherhouse back east; sometimes the Sisters at the motherhouse would even borrow against their own property so their Sisters in Colorado could build or expand a hospital.

The Sisters were creative about fundraising, and they sometimes had fundraising help from some of the most prominent women in Denver and other towns, but they often simply had to beg.

Some people seem to find this amusing, but the Sisters did not enjoy begging — often euphemistically called "collecting" — but they did it because their personal commitment to caring for people who needed their help was much stronger than their embarrassment.

Creative fundraising strategies that included begging of one kind or another were the story well into the 20th century at Denver hospitals including Lutheran, Mercy, National Jewish, St. Anthony's, St. Joseph's, St. Luke's, Presbyterian, and Swedish. Other faith-based and community hospitals around the state did the same thing — they did whatever it took to see that every sick or injured person who came to them got healthcare.

Many of these healthcare providers — the Franciscan Sisters, Sisters of Charity, Sisters of Mercy, for example — were always genuinely concerned about people who were poor or who had no one to take care of them. They created Colorado's humanitarian healthcare tradition.

Intelligent, Creative, Compassionate, Fearless Women

Nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century hospital Sisters had to negotiate loans and contracts, consult with physicians, bankers, attorneys, clerics, and contractors, keep an eye on the construction process, and then staff and administer the hospitals themselves. The Sisters' leaders proved time and again that they understood considerably more about gender dynamics than the men they were dealing with.

They had to deal with anti-Catholicism, with expectations based on stereotypes about nuns, with discrimination based on gender, class, and ethnicity, and with frequent interference from bishops and priests. The Sisters were intelligent, creative, compassionate, fearless women who listened to what bishops and priests had to say, reflected on their own mission, and then did what they knew was best for the people they served.

The Sisters endured because they were relatively well educated, they had a strong sense of mission, and they focused on serving those who needed them. Once people got to know them and their work, they were widely admired.

The Sisters and our other healthcare pioneers embraced Colorado's frontier tradition of neighborliness, determined where their professional skills were most needed, and then did whatever it took to provide healthcare to everyone who came to them. They never let obstacles, skeptics, bigots, or the powerful hold them back, and the word "impossible" wasn't in their vocabulary.

The Sisters' Mission

The nineteen communities of Sisters who came to Colorado to provide healthcare never considered limiting their services to Catholics. The Sisters' healthcare mission was much broader than that — they came to nurse and heal people who needed them. They were particularly concerned about the poor and those who had no one else to take care of them.

Some of the Sisters founded orphanages for children who — in the days before social services and foster parents' programs — had few other options. The Sisters provided a home, an education, and both physical and mental healthcare to children who were on their own for a wide variety of reasons during the late 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries.

In the early days families and neighbors took care of their own, as we've pointed out, but many of the miners, steel workers, and railroad workers in 19th and early 20th century Colorado were single men who were concentrated in towns where there were so many of them doing such dangerous work that they could easily overwhelm local resources when they got sick or injured.

So the Sisters of Charity, Sisters of Mercy, and Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet built hospitals in towns like Cripple Creek, Durango, Georgetown, Leadville, Manitou, Ouray, Pueblo, and Trinidad.

The Sisters of St. Francis came to Colorado Springs and Denver to run railroad company hospitals for that same reason — many railroad workers had no one to take care of them when they got hurt, so the railroads asked the Sisters to do it.

But the Franciscan Sisters subsequently opened their own hospitals — St. Francis Hospital in Colorado Springs and St. Anthony Hospital in Denver — so that they could continue to nurse and heal railroad workers, but take care of the poor as well.

With special concern for the poor, all these Sisters took care of the sick and injured, but they also fed the hungry and visited people in jail. This was all part of what the Sisters did, and they didn't care who you were or what you did for a living because they knew that being judgmental would compromise their mission.

Sisters Who Specialized

Throughout Colorado's healthcare history, some of the Catholic Sisters specialized in getting hospitals financed and built, and others specialized in administering them. Sometimes after a new hospital or addition was completed, the Sister who planned and supervised the construction was followed almost immediately by a Sister whose talents were as an administrator.

There were even some gifted, experienced Sisters who specialized in analyzing and dealing with difficult situations — they would come in, take care of a situation, and then move on to a new challenge.

All these Sister-specialists collaborated with the local Sisters and physicians, and when needed, they consulted with experienced Sisters who ran hospitals back east. This was one of the advantages that came with belonging to an organization of collaborative professional women.

This section is about the Sisters. But many other Colorado healthcare pioneers were similarly motivated, and together they established a humanitarian healthcare tradition in Colorado that we need to reclaim and adapt to the conditions we find ourselves in today.

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