A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: Northern Kentucky’s health needs fed the growth of St. Elizabeth Hospital for 158 years

By Stephen Enzweiler
Special to NKyTribune

Part 2 of a 2-part series

Last week, we left you with Bishop Carrell’s approval in late 1860 of the establishment of a new hospital in Covington, proposed to him by Henrietta Cleveland. By Christmas, the city of Covington was all abuzz with the news that there would soon be a new hospital in its midst. The Covington Journal called it “one of the wants of our city.”

The first hospital on Seventh Street between Madison and Scott. It had just ten beds and was staffed by three nuns from the Sisters of Poor of St. Francis in Aachen, Germany. The building was in use until 1868, when the larger 11th Street hospital building was purchased. Courtesy of Paul A. Tenkotte.

A hospital was a great necessity indeed, because the Northern Kentucky region had no means of effectively addressing the prevalence of illness, poverty and homelessness as the region’s population continued to mushroom. Community services and sanitation were stretched beyond their limits and many suffered greatly on the streets of Covington, Newport and surrounding cities. Now a hospital would soon be a reality, and in the wintery weeks before that Christmas 1860, Henrietta Cleveland and the Ladies Society of Covington went straight to work.

She knew of the many problems and concerns that needed to be addressed before her new hospital could open its doors to the public. There was the question of the location, the building, and the logistics of acquiring beds, linens, pillows, lighting, equipment, furniture, medicines, and food and water.

There was also the question of sustainability: the business model worked out by the sisters depended entirely on donations, which allowed health care to be provided at no cost to the patient. It was an ambitious plan, but it worked for the many hospitals the sisters managed in Germany, and it worked for St. Mary’s Hospital in Cincinnati. Would it work in Northern Kentucky?

Henrietta Cleveland’s first task in raising the initial funds was to organize a street fair with exhibits and musical concerts. Street fairs were common then, and this one was held at Odd Fellows Hall at Fifth and Madison, chosen for its large reception hall and a spacious interior that could hold crowds. It ran from December 17, 1860 to January 2, 1861. The highlight of the fair was an exhibit featuring the “resurrection plant,” a wonder of nature that exhibited a dead, then living condition. The Catholic Telegraph and Advocate said seeing the plant alone was worth the price of a ticket. At the close of the fair, the sisters raised $2,215.12.

St. Elizabeth of Hungary, the namesake of the modern St. Elizabeth Healthcare. In this 1598 painting by Adam Elsheimer (1569-1609), she tends to patients in her hospital in Marburg.

The building selected for the first hospital in Northern Kentucky was a former grocery store, located on the south side of Seventh Street between Madison and Scott Streets. It was purchased for $2,272.05. Yet even at this price, the structure was badly in need of cleaning and repair. The wallpaper was infested with bedbugs, and the building had no source of heat; an open sewer lay beneath the kitchen at the back of the building. Whenever it rained, rancid black water drained from the coal yard next door into the grocery store’s basement. But the advantages were that the building was three stories tall, made of solid brick, had large porches, a fenced yard and additional structures on the lot. Best of all, it was centrally located near major businesses and was situated just two doors away from the streetcar system.

The newspapers referred to the project as “the charity hospital.” It was decided by the sisters that their new hospital would be named ‘St. Elizabeth Hospital’ after St. Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231). St. Elizabeth was the daughter of Hungary’s King Andrew II and later the wife of King Ludwig IV. She built a hospital at Marburg for the poor and the sick with the money from her dowry, personally ministered to the sick and continued to give money to the poor. After her death at age 24, numerous miracles of physical healing occurred at her grave in the church of the hospital she founded. She was canonized in 1235 and has been the namesake of hospitals throughout the world ever since.

After weeks of backbreaking work, the sisters had finally transformed the old grocery store on Seventh Street into a domicile suitable for patients. On January 23, 1861, Dr. Joseph Schwarz sent St. Elizabeth Hospital its first patient – a 35-year old laborer named Louis Meyer. Meyer was married, the father of three children, and he was dying. The records show he suffered from “rheumatism,” a term that covered a number of serious conditions of the day. In effect, he was an invalid and depended completely upon the sisters for his basic needs. As testament to the sisters’ commitment to help all those regardless of color, creed or religious background, their first patient was a Protestant. In every patient, the sisters saw only humanity in need, putting into daily practice the words of Jesus himself: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did it to me.”

The former Baptist Seminary, located on 11th Street, served as the second St. Elizabeth Hospital from 1868 until 1914. Source: Brian Hackett, Paul Tenkotte & Rebecca Bailey: For the Centuries: St. Elizabeth Healthcare and Northern Kentucky 1861-2011.

The Civil War years were years of trial and growth. St. Elizabeth Hospital cared for both Confederate and Federal soldiers, treating 27 men in all. When a small pox epidemic swept through the region, in addition to treating the sick at St. Elizabeth, the sisters volunteered to care for those at neighboring locations. In 1862, women began bringing abandoned children and infants to the hospital, prompting the first major expansion of St. Elizabeth. The result was the purchase of an adjoining lot and the opening of an orphanage to care for the needs of infants and young children. As with the hospital itself, the sisters kept both operations going with only donations from area residents.

By 1868, St. Elizabeth’s ten hospital beds were constantly occupied, and the community’s healthcare needs were beginning to overwhelm the sisters. They faced a heart-wrenching decision: continue their mission at the Seventh Street location and risk collapse under the weight of community need, or move to larger quarters and grow with the city. As the sisters searched for a new location, Sister Rosa remembered serving during the Civil War as a nurse during the small pox epidemic at a former Baptist Seminary located on 11th Street, which was now for sale. She brought it to the attention of her Mother Superior, Sister Emile Burkhard.

Burkhard liked what she saw. The building contained 54 large rooms and had an impressive capacity of 100 beds. The grounds were spacious, with gardens, an orchard, and had other buildings listed on the property. The entire property could be purchased for just $50,000! But lending institutions refused to loan the sisters any money for the purchase. Then several prominent men stepped forward and put up their own fortunes as collateral to guarantee the loan. Among them was noted religious artist, Johann Schmitt.

The sisters ultimately purchased the 11th Street property, and it opened amid great fanfare on May 24, 1868. At its dedication were a number of dignitaries, Henrietta Cleveland and Sarah Peter among them. But probably none was as prominent than Sister Francis Schervier, the foundress of the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis and their Mother Superior, who came from Aachen, Germany for the event. She was the one who sent three sisters and a postulant to America in 1860 to run the original Seventh Street hospital. At the time of the dedication, that number had grown to 12 sisters on staff at St. Elizabeth Hospital.

Noted Northern Kentucky painter Johann Schmitt was one of the men who put up his own fortune as collateral to guarantee the bank loan for the purchase of the former Baptist Seminary building on 11th Street. Kenton County Public Library.

The years that followed presented both struggles and opportunities. There were plagues and epidemics that periodically swept over Northern Kentucky. The same year the new 11th Street hospital opened, another small pox epidemic hit Northern Kentucky. The city of Covington constructed “pesthouses” to accommodate the stricken, but there was no one to care for them. So, city officials turned to the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis, who willingly stepped forward to care for the afflicted. During each subsequent outbreak of small pox (in 1872, 1875, 1881, 1882, and 1901), the sisters always were there to care for the sick.

From the beginning, change and community need became the food that nourished the hospital’s growth from its uncertain founding in 1861 to the modern day. By 1900, the community had outgrown the aging 11th Street building. In 1909, the sisters purchased a large parcel on Eastern Avenue in Covington’s Austinburg neighborhood, and in 1914, the third St. Elizabeth Hospital building was opened on what is now 21st Street in Covington. A nursing School was added in 1915 and five years later, Northern Kentucky’s first Maternity Department was opened.

Sarah Worthington King Peter, who had been instrumental in helping Henrietta Cleveland in establishing the first St. Elizabeth Hospital, lived long enough to see the success of the 11th Street hospital location. She died in Cincinnati on February 6, 1877 at age 77, bequeathing the bulk of her wealth to charitable institutions. Henrietta Cleveland lived to see her hospital grow into the next century with its new advances in medicine. By this time, she had become an invalid living at her home on Fourth Street in Covington. On May 12, 1907, she died peacefully of natural causes at age 90. Her funeral was held two days later at the new St. Mary’s Cathedral, and she was buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Fort Mitchell.

Today, St. Elizabeth Heath Care is almost unrecognizable as the same singular institution for the poor and sick founded by Henrietta Cleveland in 1861. One hundred fifty-eight years of medical innovation, technical improvements and responses to the needs of a growing community has driven its evolution from four nuns and ten beds in a former grocery store to a multi-facility, major medical center dominating the Northern Kentucky landscape. While there are no longer any Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis on staff, St. Elizabeth still follows Henrietta Cleveland’s vision and the heart and soul of the wishes of the Sisters of the Poor: “So that the new hospital may not only be an ornament for Covington, but a blessing for centuries.”

Stephen Enzweiler is a writer and journalist. He has been a columnist for the Kentucky Enquirer, the Oxford Citizen, and was a senior editor at Y’all Magazine. He is the author of “Oxford in the Civil War: Battle for a Vanquished Land (2010).

The third St. Elizabeth Hospital, located on 20th Street in Covington. The sheer size of the 270-bed facility overwhelmed the sisters, who realized they needed to dramatically increase staffing. Kenton County Public Library.

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