Mrs. Sarah Peter, a convert to Catholicism, brought the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis from Germany to Cincinnati , Ohio in 1858 to establish a hospital for the poor in that city. The result was the organization of St. Mary’s Hospital.
In the meantime, another convert to Catholicism, Mrs. Henrietta Cleveland, established a society in the neighboring City of Covington to aid the poor. The society, however, was quickly overwhelmed by the task. Mrs. Cleveland approached Bishop George A. Carrell to establish a hospital in Covington . Bishop Carrell requested the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis to establish such a hospital. On November 3, 1860 , three sisters (Sister Antonia Goeb, Sister Laurentia Reinartz and Sister Stylita Joergens) arrived in Covington to begin this important work.
A three-story brick grocery store on 7th Street in Covington was acquired in 1860 to serve as the first St. Elizabeth Hospital. In order to purchase and remodel the building, the sisters and their friends conducted a fair to raise the necessary funds. This two-week long affair raised $2,215.12. Bishop Carrell dedicated the new hospital building on February 2, 1860 . The first patient was received on January 23, 1861 . The hospital was dedicated to taking care of the sick in the Northern Kentucky area, especially the sick-poor.
During the Civil War years, St. Elizabeth Hospital cared for the needs of injured Confederate and Union soldiers. Before the close of hostilities, the sisters cared for 27 military personnel. The sisters also acquired a second building during the war years to serve as an orphanage. As many as 60 children at a time were housed at St. Elizabeth. Throughout this period, the sisters kept the hospital and orphanage open by seeking donations from area residents.
In 1867, the City Council of Covington announced plans to construct a market house on the hospital’s 7th Street site. The sisters immediately began looking for a new location. At that time, the old Western Baptist Theological Institute building on 11th Street was for sale. The sisters purchased the four-story brick building for $50,000. Before the building could be used for hospital purposes, some improvements were necessary. A new heating system and new water and sewage systems were installed. These improvements cost an additional $15,000. Area residents assisted the sisters in purchasing the building by making donations and by organizing fundraisers. Bishop Carrell dedicated the new 110 bed facility on May 24, 1868 . Mother Frances Schervier, the foundress of the sisters, was visiting the mission in the United States at that time and was able to attend the dedication. Mother Frances Schervier was beatified by Pope Paul VI in 1974. At the time of the dedication, 12 Sisters of St. Francis were stationed at St. Elizabeth Hospital .
Plagues of contagious diseases periodically swept across the United States during these early days. In 1868, a small pox epidemic spread throughout Northern Kentucky . The City of Covington constructed a small pest house to accommodate the sufferers, however, they could find no nurses to tend to the sick. City officials turned to the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis for assistance. The Sisters agreed to the service. During subsequent outbreaks of small pox in 1872, 1875, 1881, 1882 and 1901, the sisters again took charge of the pest house.
An article in the Covington Journal in April 1872 illustrated the growth the hospital had experienced in its first ten years. At that time, the hospital was caring for 70 patients and 24 orphaned children. Nineteen Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis comprised the staff. The sisters financed the hospital through donations and by begging for alms in the local community. Very few of the early patients were capable of paying anything for their stay in the hospital. A newspaper article from the Ticket in 1877 detailed an interesting story about one of the hospital’s early patrons:
“One day a Sister passing along the street, with an empty market basket in her hand, saw a gentleman digging potatoes in his garden. She intimated that a present of a few of them would be very acceptable to the hospital. I have nothing to give to Catholics was his abrupt reply. The Sister, in her gentle way, reminded him that in the hospital no distinction was made between Catholic and Protestant; all are treated alike. He gave a few. Not long afterwards this gentleman went out gunning, and by premature discharge of the gun, was seriously wounded. His family was away, and he was carried to the hospital in an unconsciousness condition. On returning to consciousness the first object that met his gaze was the Sister who had begged the potatoes. He commenced to apologize, but she promptly checked him. He is now a liberal contributor and fast friend of the hospital.”
St. Elizabeth Hospital not only served the sick and orphans, but also the elderly. In 1884, a report indicated that the hospital was housing 196 patients. Of these 196, 22 were orphans and 65 were elderly residents “who had nowhere else to go.”
By the turn of the century, St. Elizabeth Hospital had grown by leaps and bounds. The once roomy hospital on 11th Street was now overcrowded. In May 1909, the sisters purchased a large parcel of property on Eastern Avenue in Covington ’s Austinburg neighborhood as a site for a new hospital. Ground was broken for the new building in June 1911. Covington Judge Frank Tracy organized a fund raising drive for the hospital. These efforts resulted in the accumulation of over $105,000. In 1912, the Circle of Mercy was established to assist the sisters in their new endeavor.
The cornerstone of the new St. Elizabeth Hospital was set in place by Father James L. Gorey on June 14, 1912 . The completed four-story, 270-bed brick building was open for public inspection on August 2, 1914 . The total cost of construction reached the sum of $500,000.
The size of the new building overwhelmed the sisters working on the staff. It became apparent very quickly that more staff would be acquired. To meet this need, the sisters established the St. Elizabeth School of Nursing in 1915 (school was reorganized in 1929 under the guidance of Sister Tarsicia). Three years later, the orphan home attached to the institution was discontinued. This allowed for the opening of Northern Kentucky ’s first Maternity Department in March 1920.
During the Great Depression, St. Elizabeth Hospital established a bread line for area residents who were out of work. At times, hundreds of people arrived each day to receive a hot meal. The sisters went into debt to keep this bread line in operation. St. Elizabeth Hospital again came to the rescue of the residents of the City of Covington during the 1937 flood. The sisters made the building’s auditorium available for the storage of furniture and other personal belongings. In addition, the hospital also provided shelter for many area residents who were forced to flee their homes. On Black Sunday (January 24), the 50-tons of sand holding back the water from the building failed. The water extinguished the furnace and cut off the gas supply and electricity. The sisters recorded in their annals that “they went to the Chapel to ask God for mercy.” The flood waters eventually subsided and things returned to normal at the hospital. The people of the community, however, would never forget the aid the hospital provided.
During the post-World War II era, St. Elizabeth Hospital made many advances. In 1945, a Physical Therapy Department was established. During the following year, the Rotarians of Northern Kentucky donated an orthopedic unit to the hospital. In 1948, the nursing school was accredited by the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. Two years later, Tarsicia Hall was constructed for $800,000 to house the nursing school. Tarsicia Hall provided classroom space and living quarters for 200 nursing students. Other developments during the 1950s included: An X-Ray Technician School (1950), a Neurological Department (1953), and surgery recovery facilities (1954). Improvements during the year 1958 included a new surgery pavilion, recovery rooms, X-Ray Department, the expansion of the Maternity Department and the construction of a central cafeteria.
In 1961, St. Elizabeth Hospital celebrated a century of service to the Northern Kentucky community. Sister Marie Theresa was the administrator of the hospital at that time. She was responsible for the budget of over $3 million and for 670 employees. Seventeen Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis were also on the staff.
The hospital underwent several dramatic changes in the 1960s. In 1962 a Lay-Advisory Board was established. This group complimented the hospital’s official Board of Directors (composed entirely of Sisters of St. Francis of the Poor). Membership on the board was extended to the laity in 1967. That same year, the sisters turned the sponsorship of the hospital over to the Catholic Diocese of Covington. The hospital had grow to such an extent that the sisters could no longer adequately staff the institution. In April 1968, Earl Gilreath was named the first lay administrator of St. Elizabeth Hospital . Despite the shift in sponsorship, a number of Sisters of St. Francis continued to serve on the staff.
The 1960s also witnessed several other developments. In 1964, the first Intensive Care Unit was created at the hospital. Changing educational requirements in the nursing field resulted in the closing of the St. Elizabeth School of Nursing. The last graduation ceremony was conducted in 1968.
Advances in the medical field made a great impact on the hospital during the 1970s. In 1973, the administration began allowing fathers to remain in the delivery room during the births of their children. A Cancer Treatment Unit was opened in 1973 as well as a home health agency and an Audiology and Speech Unit. The 1970s also witnessed the purchase of a 260 acre plot of land in the suburban City of Edgewood in Kenton County . The new St. Elizabeth Hospital (South Unit) was constructed on this parcel between 1975 and 1978. Bishop Richard Ackerman dedicated the new facility on September 6, 1978 . The South Unit contained 182-beds, a heliport, inpatient and outpatient services and an emergency unit. The South Unit was constructed to care for the ever-growing suburban population of the region.
Despite the opening of the South Unit, the North Unit in Covington continued to advance. In the mid-1970s, a modern parking garage was constructed on a closed portion of 20th Street . The main hospital building also underwent a major renovation project. In 1977, St. Elizabeth Hospital changed its name to St. Elizabeth Medical Center. The new name better reflected the comprehensive services being offered at both the North and South Units.
More recent advances have included: The first full body CT scanner in Northern Kentucky (North Unit mid-1980s), Cardiac Catheterization Lab (1981), Open-Heart Surgery Unit (1984) and the construction of a three-story medical office building at the South Unit (1985). In 1985, all pediatric and obstetric services were transferred from Covington to the South Unit. That same year, the Family Birth Place was officially established at the Edgewood facility.
St. Elizabeth Medical Center celebrated its 125th Anniversary in 1986. At that time, over 23,000 inpatients and 70,000 outpatients were being served each year. The staff had increased to more than 2,000 employees.
Demographic shifts in the population of Northern Kentucky resulted in the establishment of a third hospital facility in 1993. In April of that year, St. Elizabeth Medical Center purchased the Williamstown Hospital in Grant County . Following a complete renovation, the facility was opened to the public as St. Elizabeth Medical Center – Grant County .
The Franciscan Sisters of the Poor in Covington, One Hundred Years 1861-1961 (Published by the Hospital); Undated History of St. Elizabeth Hospital (KCPL Local History Files); One-Hundred-Twenty-Five, St. Elizabeth Medical Center 1861-1986 (Published by the Medical Center); Kentucky Post, April 10, 1993, p. 1-3k; Kentucky Enquirer, March 1, 1977; Covington Journal April 6, 1872, p. 3.