Q: I enjoyed your recent column about the fire at St. Peter’s Cathedral. In it, you mentioned a St. Vincent’s Hospital in Belleville. Throughout her life, my mother kept saying she had her tonsils removed at St. Vincent’s Hospital, and I’d always look at her and say, “What?!?” So this is the first time that I’ve ever found another reference to it. I’d be very interested in learning more about its history.
Judy Jacobs, of Millstadt
A: With St. Elizabeth’s now about to leave town, it’s curious to think that there was not one, but two hospitals on the same block in Belleville a century ago.
In 1875, three members of the Sisters of Charity took a 28-day journey from their motherhouse in Muenster, Germany, to start a hospital in an old schoolhouse in St. Peter’s parish. In just five years, they outgrew that primitive facility, so a new building was erected at 328 W. Lincoln. Able to accommodate 58 patients, it became known as St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, and the nuns who ran it changed their name to the Hospital Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis.
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Then, on Aug. 7, 1903, area residents opened their papers to find that St. Peter’s Cathedral had been granted a permit for a new Belleville hospital. To be built at 304 W. Lincoln, the 40-by-80-foot, three-story structure would cost $22,900 (roughly $600,000 in today’s money). It would be known as St. Vincent’s after St. Vincent de Paul, who, for much of the 17th century, spent his life serving the poor. It was a fitting name considering the hospital had grown out of a commitment by local Catholics to care for orphans.
In 1870, the congregation at St. Peter’s built what became known as St. Agnes’ orphan asylum, complete with dormitory and boys school. Then, in 1888 when Belleville became a bishopric, orphans from the entire diocese found a home here. To accommodate the rapidly growing numbers, a school was built at what is now West Lincoln and South Third so that all of St. Agnes’ could be used for housing.
“But in the course of time, even more room was needed,” the Belleville Daily Advocate reported. “Beautiful Glen Addie was for sale, and Bishop John Janssen bought that property to be used as a home for the orphans.”
When St. John’s Orphanage opened in 1901 on the Shiloh road, St. Agnes was left with only seven orphans from St. Peter’s parish, which meant the building was nearly empty. Janssen decided to continue to care for the remaining children there, but convert the rest into a combination hospital and old folks home. He renamed it St. Agnes Infirmary.
“The people took kindly to the new institution,” the Advocate reported. “Its beautiful furnishings and the courteous attention of the good sisters attracted many friends. When hardly a year had passed by, the institution already was crowded.”
So in 1903, St. Peter’s elected to build St. Vincent’s Hospital, which would be run by the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ.
“Besides the basement, it will contain 30 private rooms,” the Advocate reported. “The operating rooms, on the third story, will be furnished in up-to-date style, and nothing will be left undone to make the hospital a first-class institution.”
For more than 20 years, St. Vincent’s fulfilled its mission. In 1914, for example, it spent $1,400 to buy a new X-ray machine. In January 1918, a Dr. H. Roberts began offering free skin and cancer care to members of any family that had someone serving in World War I. There was even was the occasional oddity: On Feb. 1, 1926, 73-year-old William Sims was to be given a mental competency exam after wandering away from St. Vincent’s with $4,000 in radium needles stuck in his scalp to treat a cancer. He was found two days later, but the needles were missing. They finally were recovered some days later in a Freeburg mine engine room, where he apparently had removed the bandages.
Less than 10 months later, the two hospitals announced that they would merge. St. Vincent’s would continue operations exclusively as a home “for the aged and infirm” while St. Elizabeth’s would be enlarged and remodeled to accommodate more patients. For several years, those associated with the two health institutions had been discussing ways to provide better care. The plan had taken on new urgency in the spring of 1926 when Bishop Henry Althoff joined the talks.
“The Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ ... felt that on account of several large enterprises which they had undertaken in other cities, they could not extend their work in Belleville,” Althoff said in a statement. “The Sisters of St. Francis at St. Elizabeth’s, however, gave the assurance that with the help promised by the committee of doctors and citizens, they were ready to undertake the work of meeting the hospital needs of Belleville and vicinity by enlarging their present institution and providing a new hospital building if this were found necessary. A maternity department is being opened and additional accommodations and rooms are being provided by the rearrangement of the building.”
St. Vincent’s ceased accepting new patients in 1927 before being razed to make way for the current St. Elizabeth’s in the 1950s. Now residents are waiting to see how the final chapter plays out on the 136-year history of hospital care on West Lincoln Street.
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Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: And now, the Oscar for best sneeze in a comedy performance goes to — the envelope, please — Fred Ott! That’s what you might have heard at the Academy Awards had they existed in 1894. By early 1889, Thomas Edison had conceived the idea that it might be possible to film motion and play it back in real time. He turned the idea over to W.K.L. Dickson, who, by June 1891, had produced a series of successful motion pictures that were shown to visitors at Edison’s New Jersey lab. Then, on Jan. 9, 1894, Edison mechanic Fred Ott, known for his comic sneezes, took a pinch of snuff and sneezed while the camera rolled. The 5-second, 48-frame “Record of a Sneeze” became the first motion picture copyrighted in the United States. Last year, it was added to the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant. See it at “Fred Ott’s Sneeze” on Wikipedia.