A 60-year-old time capsule was opened Wednesday at the new St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, revealing a wealth of historic documents, coins and figurines from the old hospital in Belleville.
The capsule was encased below the statue of Saint Elizabeth in front of the former facility sometime in 1958, though the exact date remains unclear. Crews carefully excavated the capsule in April 2017, and it was kept in storage until the opening presentation.
The copper box had been soldered shut, keeping its contents dry and in good condition, even 60 years later. St. Elizabeth’s CEO Peg Sebastian presented the box’s contents to a crowd of hospital employees.
Newspaper articles detailing the hospital’s dedication June 15, 1958, were included in the capsule. Reporters for the Belleville News-Democrat and The Messenger, the Catholic newspaper for the Diocese of Belleville, described the facility as a beacon of new hope in health care, with one reporter referring to the hospital as a “Towering Temple of Healing.” A program detailing events of the dedication was also included in the capsule along with postcards commemorating the newly completed facility.
An annual report from July 1, 1955, to June 30, 1956, in the capsule showed hospital staff saw 9,273 patients over the year. Staff tracked patients’ religion and race. There were 3,438 Catholic patients, 15 Jewish patients and 5,820 Protestant patients. The report includes an “other” category for religion, but none of the patients fell into this category.
The report also indicates 9,232 white patients and 41 black patients visited the hospital in that year, though the document uses the term “colored.” A total of 89 doctors attended to the patients. There were also 42 sisters stationed at the hospital during that time.
The CEO said she was amazed to see the list of sisters who served. There are no practicing sisters at the hospital now on an everyday basis.
The capsule also contained the names of board members, doctors and sisters from the era, along with small figurines of the Holy Family and a copper rosary. A quarter, penny and silver dollar from as early as 1939 were also included in the capsule.
It was wonderful to see.
Sister Helen Marie Plummer
Sister Helen Marie Plummer, 82, attended the opening. She was a nursing administrator at the hospital from 1965 to 1971.
“I knew all the people mentioned (in the documents),” Plummer said. “It was just 10 years difference from when I started ... It was wonderful to see.”
Plummer went on to serve on the hospital board from 1991 to 2004. She again joined the board three years ago and continues to serve on it.
The items from the capsule will be on display through May 2018 at the hospital’s Heritage Wall on the first floor behind outpatient registration.
The CEO said they are in the process of deciding on new items to include in the capsule before sealing it again. Hospital employees will be able to submit their ideas on what should be included, Sebastian said. In May, during National Hospital Week, the old items will be repackaged with the new items — possibly in the same copper box — and replaced at the Heritage Wall.
Hospital officials expect to complete the demolition of the old facility in Belleville by mid-2019.
The facility’s oldest section is the Lincoln Tower, where Sebastian said another capsule could possibly be buried. The tower was built in the 1920s, while the official groundbreaking for the completed hospital took place on May 24, 1951.
Hospital officials have asked their partnering demolition company to carefully disassemble the area where it could possibly be buried to “double check,” Sebastian said.
Saint Elizabeth, a princess of the kingdom of Hungary, now modern-day Slovakia, was a charitable 13th century Franciscan known for establishing a hospital and caring for the poor and sick until her death at the age of 24 after a period of declining health. A group of Franciscan Sisters opened a primitive one-story hospital that could accommodate six patients in Belleville in 1875.