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Our Rich History: St. Elizabeth Hospital founded as response to the plight of poor, sick, homeless

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By Stephen Enzweiler
Special to NKyTribune

Part 1 of a 2-part series

Anyone who has ever passed through the shiny, sliding-glass doors of St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Edgewood probably never imagined the humble and improbable beginnings from which the massive facility sprang. Established in 1861, only months before the Civil War began, it owes its existence to two local Catholic women, a German Mother Superior, and Covington’s first Bishop – the Most Rev. George Aloyisius Carrell.

St. Elizabeth would last the next 158 years. . .surviving a civil war, two world wars, a catastrophic flood, several epidemics, and more, always adapting and innovating, adding new services and staff, and growing bit by bit like a grapevine in the field, fed by community need and nurtured by the sunlight of progress.

Covington’s Market Square, 1856. Here George and Henrietta Scott Cleveland purchased from Henrietta’s father a drug store called the Black Mortar. Source: Brian Hackett, Paul Tenkotte & Rebecca Bailey, For the Centuries: St. Elizabeth Healthcare and Northern Kentucky 1861-2011.

Today, St Elizabeth Healthcare reaches across five Northern Kentucky counties with six major facilities, employing more than 7,300 associates, the largest employer in Northern Kentucky.

This remarkable story began in 1856 with a Cincinnati socialite named Sarah Worthington King Peter. Sarah Peter was among the many women of her time who devoted her life to the care and service of the poor. She was born in Chillicothe, Ohio in 1800, the daughter of Thomas Worthington, often called by historians “the father of Ohio statehood” for his role as Ohio’s first United States Senator and its sixth governor. Though his daughter Sarah was a child of prestigious birth, her social position did not guarantee a life of luxury without suffering. She endured two unhappy marriages, as well as the deaths of both husbands. Yet, Sarah converted to Catholicism in 1854 and dedicated the rest of her life to serving the poor.

Sarah Worthington King Peter (1800-1877), daughter of Thomas Worthington, the first United States Senator from Ohio and its sixth Governor. A convert to Catholicism, her founding in 1858 of St. Mary’s Hospital in Cincinnati paved the way for the establishment in Covington of St. Elizabeth Hospital in 1861 by Henrietta Cleveland. Source: Brian Hackett, Paul Tenkotte & Rebecca Bailey, For the Centuries: St. Elizabeth Healthcare and Northern Kentucky 1861-2011.

In 1856, Sarah Peter petitioned the Archbishop of Cincinnati, the Most Rev. John Baptist Purcell, to help her establish a hospital to “care for the destitute poor of German nationality.” This was a time when the area was experiencing a rapid population growth, mostly made up of working-class immigrants from Ireland and Germany. With overcrowding came disease, sickness, poverty and homelessness. The Archbishop agreed that such an institution was needed, and he granted Sarah permission to travel to Rome on his behalf to seek guidance from the Holy Father.

Sarah gained an audience with Pope Pius IX, who advised her to “find some willing German nuns” who might immigrate to America to help establish a hospital there. Peter found such a willing order of nuns in Aix-la-Chapelle (today Aachen, Germany). Called the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis, the order was famous across much of Europe for the hospitals it managed to care for the sick and poor. The order was led by Sister Francis Schervier, who agreed to send five nuns and a postulant to help Sarah Peter establish the new hospital in Cincinnati. In 1858, St. Mary’s Hospital opened to the public at Bett and Linn Streets.

Henrietta Esther Scott Cleveland (1818-1907). A convert to Catholicism, she envisioned a hospital for the poor and indigent of Covington. Along with Sarah Worthington King Peter, and with the help of Covington’s Bishop Carrell, St. Elizabeth Hospital opened its doors in January 1861. Source: Brian Hackett, Paul Tenkotte & Rebecca Bailey, For the Centuries: St. Elizabeth Healthcare and Northern Kentucky 1861-2011.

Across the river in Kentucky, Henrietta Esther Scott Cleveland had similar motives for some time. Like Peter, she was among the growing movement of prominent women who emerged in mid-nineteenth century America dedicated to improve conditions in their communities by establishing institutions of charity to care for the poor, the sick, and the homeless. Until mid-century, care for such people fell almost exclusively to family members. Communities were small then, and nearly everyone knew one another. So, when an individual became afflicted by some illness or infirmity, convention dictated that family members become their caretakers.

But the population of Northern Kentucky was continuing to grow as German and Irish immigrants flooded into the region. Local governments established poorhouses, forcing residents to live together in dormitory-style arrangements. Kenton County operated a poorhouse in Independence, and the City of Covington had a so-called pesthouse, operated by the city’s board of health. But after a time, such institutions became badly managed, dirty, and mixed women with men, young with old, the healthy with the sick. By the middle of the 19th century, the reputations of these institutions had deteriorated significantly.

The Venerable Mother Francis Schervier, foundress of the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis in Aachen, Germany. Without her religious order of sisters, St. Elizabeth Hospital would never have happened. Source: Brian Hackett, Paul Tenkotte & Rebecca Bailey, For the Centuries: St. Elizabeth Healthcare and Northern Kentucky 1861-2011.

It was out of such conditions that both Sarah Peter and Henrietta Cleveland emerged. Both women proved to be compelling forces of social change, especially in an era when being a woman in a man’s world was seen as a liability.

Henrietta Cleveland came from tough pioneer stock. Her maternal grandfather was Major Jacob Fowler, one of the first settlers of Northern Kentucky. He had been a surveyor, built the first log cabin in Newport, operated a ferry on the Licking River, and nearly died fighting Indians at St. Clair’s Defeat in Ohio country. He fought in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in the Northwest Indian Wars and in the War of 1812. Major Fowler’s daughter, Abigail, married Major Chasteen Scott, who had also served in the War of 1812 with Fowler. The Scotts were a distinguished family related to John Cleves Symmes and President William Henry Harrison. Thus, it was into this family that Henrietta Esther Scott was born on October 3, 1817.

Henrietta’s early life was, by any measure, comfortable. It was imbued with the standard Christian virtues of charity and duty to God and one’s fellow man. As a daughter in a prominent pioneer family, it was no surprise when, in 1834, she married George Putnam Cleveland, a well-to-do seventh-generation descendant of a distinguished old New England family. George’s father, the Rev. Charles Cleveland, had founded the Boston Society for the Moral and Religious Instruction of the Poor, which no doubt influenced Henrietta’s own interests in charitable work. But as with Sarah Peter, tragedy would color her life from then on and lead her deeper into the work for which she would become known.

In 1838, the couple’s first child, Charles Holmes Cleveland, died unexpectedly at age two. And only a year later, tragedy struck again, when her husband George died at the age of 31. Henrietta was barely one month pregnant at the time with her second son, also named George. When the boy was old enough, she enrolled him at St. Xavier College in Cincinnati (now Xavier University). Then on July 8, 1851, young George died suddenly at the age of 11. His death coincided with the arrival in Cincinnati of a Jesuit priest, the Reverend George Aloysius Carrell who became head of St. Xavier College on June 29th of that same year. There is little doubt that the confluence of the death of her son brought Henrietta and the future Bishop of Covington together for the first time.

St. Xavier College in about 1850. Henrietta Cleveland met Father George Carrell, president of the college, later to become the Bishop of Covington in 1853. He was instrumental in authorizing the establishment of St. Elizabeth Hospital under the direction of the Catholic Church. Source: Brian Hackett, Paul Tenkotte & Rebecca Bailey, For the Centuries: St. Elizabeth Healthcare and Northern Kentucky 1861-2011.

Henrietta seems to have taken her misfortunes and the growing friendship with Father Carrell as a call to action. She became active in the Catholic Church and even sewed some of the religious vestments for Father Carrell when he was installed as the First Bishop of Covington in 1853. The following year, she formally converted to Catholicism and never looked back. Like a freight train without its brakes, Henrietta propelled herself headlong into charity work. She became president of the Ladies Society of Covington, which sought to inspire women of the community with efforts to help the poor. When not leading the Ladies Society, she tirelessly visited the poor, the sick and the forgotten on her own time, trying in any way she could to make their lives more tolerable.

It was during these years that Henrietta Cleveland’s inner vision for her community matured substantially. As the numbers of poor continued to grow, she became acutely aware of the need for a hospital to meet the needs of the growing Northern Kentucky population, and she knew the best chance of getting a hospital would be through the Catholic Church, which was well known throughout the world for establishing such institutions. In 1859, she approached Bishop Carrell and proposed the idea, confident he would see its merit. But her conversation with the Bishop did not go as planned. The need was there, he admitted, but the resources were not: the Diocese had no funds to mount such an effort.

But Henrietta would not be put off. In a meeting with Sarah Peter, the two women put their heads together. Both knew of the Bishop’s great love for the poor and became convinced that if he only saw the unique approach used by the Sisters in operating St. Mary’s, he might change his mind.

The Most Reverend George Aloyisius Carrell, D.D., the first Bishop of the Diocese of Covington. Kenton County Public Library.

The Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis were founded in 1845 by the Venerable Mother Francis Schervier, who had established hospitals across Germany for the poorest of the poor. The order managed all their hospitals completely through donations; thus, the care they provided was free to those in need. St. Mary’s Hospital in Cincinnati operated with this same business model. Sarah Peter and Henrietta Cleveland knew that once Bishop Carrell was reassured of the feasibility of the venture at no cost to the Diocese of Covington, his normally kind nature and loving concern for the poor would compel him to approve the project.

The plan worked. After touring St. Mary’s Hospital, Bishop Carrell became an enthusiastic supporter for the establishment of a hospital in Covington. He decided it should be run by the same order of nuns that operated St. Mary’s, and in a letter to Sister Francis Schervier, Carrell asked for sisters to come to America to staff and manage the new hospital. In response, Sister Shervier sent Sisters Antonia, Stylita and Joachim, along with a postulant, Susana Oechner.

“We are about to have a hospital in our midst – to have one of the wants of our city supplied,” announced the Covington Journal on November 24, 1860. But a lot of hard work had to take place before the first patient could be admitted, not the least of which was finding a suitable location and securing sufficient funds for medicines, beds, linens and supplies for its operation.

(Next week: Part 2 of the Story of the founding of St. Elizabeth Hospital continues…)

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).

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