The long, beautiful tradition of Catholic hospitals

By Bill Federer

"Medieval Hospital" by Robert Alan Thom
“Medieval Hospital” by Robert Alan Thom

“It is not just about sterilization, abortifacients, and chemical contraception. … It’s about religious freedom, the sacred right, protected by our constitution. …” – Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, Oct. 29, 2012, responding to President Obama’s HHS healthcare mandates.

Cardinal Dolan, as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), 2010-2013, continued: “President Obama announced … the choking mandates from HHS would remain – a shock to me, since he had personally assured me that he would do nothing to impede the good work of the Church … that he considered the protection of conscience a sacred duty. … There was still no resolution about the handcuffs placed upon … Catholic charitable agencies … just because they will not refer victims of human trafficking, immigrants and refugees, and the hungry of the world, for abortions, sterilization, or contraception.”

The Catholic Church is the oldest institution in the Western World and the originator of “hospitals.” Though some ancient cultures had medical practices, often mixed with superstition, it was primarily for the royalty and wealthy.

Free healthcare for the poor traces its roots to Christianity. The Syrian Church pioneered medical care in the East, as did the Catholic Church in the West, putting into practice the words of Jesus: “I was sick and you visited me”; “Whatever you have done to the least of my brethren, you have done unto me”; and Jesus’ parable in Luke 10:25-37: “But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'”

In the 4th century, under the ministry of St. Jerome, a wealthy Christian widow named St. Fabiola gave money to build a hospital for the poor in Rome and cared for the sick herself.

Around the same time, St. Basil distributed food to the poor of Caesarea, then built a poorhouse, hospice, and hospital.

In 325 A.D., the Council of Nicea directed that every city having a cathedral should also have a hospital, as people traveling on pilgrimages would often arrive ill.

The word “hosp” is Latin for “traveler,” the root word of hospital, hospitality, host, hostel and hotel.

Hospitals were staffed by religious orders. In the sixth century, the Benedictine Order had every monastery establish an infirmary.

When Muslim warriors invaded Christian Syria in 634 A.D. and then conquered Byzantine Christian Jerusalem in 638 A.D., the hospitals needed to be defended, giving rise to the order of Knights Hospitaller.

The Benedictine Monastery in Salerno, Italy, founded the oldest and most famous medical university in Western Europe.

Most universities were started in monasteries and cathedrals. Charlemagne decreed that the hospitals which had fallen into disrepair should be restored.

In the 1300’s, the Bubonic Plague, or Black Death, ravaged Europe killing 75 million people. Crops were left standing in fields as there was no one to harvest them. With often no one to bury the dead, an order of Catholic men called “Alexian Brothers” collected the bodies and gave them a Christian burial. They also ministered to the dying who were banished from the cities.

One of the oldest hospitals in Europe was the Hôtel-Dieu in Paris, founded in 660 A.D. Beginning in 1217, the Hôtel-Dieu was staffed by Sisters following the Rule of St. Augustine. In 1633, the Sisters of Charity began helping at the Hotel-Dieu of Paris. They then established numerous hospitals and schools for the poor throughout France.

Other Catholic religious orders, such as the Trinitarians, collected alms and sailed to North Africa to ransom Europeans who had been kidnapped into Muslim slavery.

In that day, the wealthy had doctors visit them at their homes, but the poor were cared for at Catholic hospitals.

By 1789, there were 6,000 Sisters of Charity running 426 hospitals in France. They also ran hospitals in countries across Europe, such as Poland, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and Silesia.

A New Testament verse inspiring the sisters who provided healthcare was I Timothy 5:9-10: “… a widow be taken into the number … well reported of for good works … if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints’ feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work.”

During the atheistic French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, mobs broke into the mother house of the Sisters of Charity. The secular authorities demanded the nuns deny their faith and submit to the new secular government. When they chose to keep their faith, the secular government rounded them up and shot them in front of firing squads or beheaded them with the guillotine.

In 1793, France’s new anti-Christian government tried to disband the order. They survived, and in the 19th century they spread healthcare for the poor across the world, including: Portugal, Hungary, England, Scotland, Ireland, North and South America, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Persia, Abyssinia, China and Jerusalem.

Geoffrey Blainey wrote in “A Short History of Christianity” (Penguin Viking; 2011, p. 214-215): “(The Catholic Church) conducted hospitals for the old and orphanages for the young; hospices for the sick of all ages; places for the lepers; and hostels or inns where pilgrims could buy a cheap bed and meal. It supplied food to the population during famine and distributed food to the poor.”

More Catholic religious orders were formed to care for the sick, nurse the ill, change bed pans, and start leper colonies, such as:

  • Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul (founded 1633)
  • Sisters of St. Joseph (founded 1650)
  • Sisters of Mercy (founded 1827)
  • Little Sisters of the Poor (founded 1839)
  • Sisters of Providence (founded 1843)
  • Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine (founded 1851)
  • Fr. Damien’s colony for lepers in Hawaii (founded 1864)
  • Sisters of St. Mary (founded 1872)
  • Sisters of the Little Company of Mary (founded 1877)
  • Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother (founded 1883)

In an era when most women had family obligations and could only volunteer temporarily as battlefield nurses, the sisters were systematically trained in nursing skills and serve sacrificially their entire lives.

Nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale, who cared for the British troops during the Crimean War, 1853-1856, once said: “What training is there to compare with that of a Catholic nun.”

The nuns’ habit developed into the nurses’ outfit with its distinctive cap.

Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, hospitals were also founded by Protestant Christian denominations, most notably Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians.

Whereas Catholic healthcare began with the focus of preparing a person’s soul for death and meeting God in “the hereafter,” Protestant healthcare focused more on “the here and now,” being motivated to clean up the slums in crowded cities and send medical missionaries to undeveloped countries.

America’s first hospital was Pennsylvania Hospital founded in 1751 by Dr. Thomas Bond and Benjamin Franklin “to care for the sick-poor and insane who were wandering the streets of Philadelphia.”

The Hospital cornerstone recorded text composed by Franklin: “In the year of Christ, 1755 … This building, by the bounty of the Government and of many private persons, was piously founded, for the relief of the sick and miserable. May the God of mercies bless the undertaking!”

In “Some Account of the Pennsylvania Hospital from its first rise (in 1751), to the beginning of the fifth month, called May 1754,” Benjamin Franklin stated: “It would be a neglect of that justice which is due to the physicians and surgeons of this hospital, not to acknowledge that their care and skill, and their punctual and regular attendance, under the Divine Blessing, has been a principal means of advancing this charity to the flourishing state in which we have now the pleasure to view it. Relying on the continuance of the Favour of Heaven, upon the future endeavors of all who may be concerned in the management of the institution, for its further advancement, we close this account with the abstract of a sermon, preached before the governors.”

The second-oldest hospital in America was New York-Presbyterian Hospital founded in 1771, founded by Samuel Bard, who was a personal physician to George Washington.

The third-oldest hospital in America, Massachusetts General Hospital, was founded in 1811, being significantly financed by Jewish residents Moses Michael Hays, a neighbor of Paul Revere, and Abraham and Judah Touro.

In 1809, Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton brought the Sisters of Charity to the United States. Beginning in 1829, Sisters who immigrated largely from France and Ireland founded 299 hospitals in America in the 19th century, including:

  • Mayo Clinic
  • St. Vincent’s
  • Baltimore Infirmary
  • hospitals for the working classes in Buffalo, Philadelphia and Boston

In 1830, Sisters of Charity established the first hospital west of the Mississippi River in St. Louis, Missouri. When St. Louis suffered devastating cholera epidemics in 1832 and 1849, which killed thousands, the sisters risked death caring for diseased patients, as described by Bishop Rosati: “Patients were visited by us day and night with the greatest alacrity and without any fear of death.”

Four Daughters of Charity died.

At the request of President Lincoln, over 200 Sisters of Charity served during the Civil War on battlefields and in military hospitals.

Just as Clara Barton volunteered and cared for troops during the Civil War, there were eight different orders of Catholic nuns, numbering over 600 and comprising over a fifth of all female nurses. A monument was erected in Washington, D.C., to the “Nursing Nuns of the Battlefield,” with the inscription: “They comforted the dying, nursed the wounded, carried hope to the imprisoned, gave in His Name a drink of water to the thirsty. To the memory and in honor of the various orders of sisters who gave their services as nurses on battlefields and in hospitals during the Civil War. Erected by the ladies Auxiliary to the Ancient Order of Hibernians of America. A.D. 1924. By Authority of the Congress of the United States.”

During the Civil War, U.S. Surgeon General Hammond reported to President Lincoln that volunteer nurses “cannot compare in efficiency and faithfulness with the Sisters of Charity.”

Over 250 Sisters of Charity served during the Spanish-American War of 1898, where diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid fever and malaria killed more soldiers than combat.

Beth Israel Hospitals were founded for growing Jewish immigrant populations in:

  • New York’s Lower East Side, 1890
  • Newark, 1901
  • Boston, 1916

Wealthy individuals donated and provided in their wills to continue these religious ministries of charity. Catholics, Protestants and Jews pioneered free healthcare for the poor “uninsurable” because they were motivated by Judeo-Christian religious convictions.

The New York Times wrote, Aug. 20, 2011, that Catholic nuns were trained to “see Jesus in the face of every patient.”

Mother Teresa reaffirmed this with the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity being dedicated to: “Wholehearted and Free service to the poorest of the poor.”

They began by gathering the sick from the gutters in India, and bathing them, clothing them, and ministering to their needs. Mother Teresa stated: “I see Jesus in every human being. I say to myself, this is hungry Jesus, I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene; I must wash him and tend to him. I serve because I love Jesus.”

It is ironic that in the recent government takeover of healthcare in America that the government would force religiously motivated providers to abandon the very spiritual convictions which created healthcare in the first place.

The Judeo-Christian religious convictions which motivated people of faith to selflessly provide free healthcare for the poor for over a thousand years are now considered insignificant by utilitarian central planners.

President Trump declared Jan. 22, 2018, as National Sanctity of Human Life Day, stating: “Reverence for every human life, one of the values for which our Founding Fathers fought, defines the character of our Nation. Today, it moves us to promote the health of pregnant mothers and their unborn children. … Medical advances give us an even greater appreciation for the humanity of the unborn. Today, citizens throughout our great country are working for the cause of life and fighting for the unborn, driven by love and supported by both science and philosophy. These compassionate Americans are volunteers who assist women through difficult pregnancies, facilitate adoptions, and offer hope to those considering or recovering from abortions. They are medical providers who, often at the risk of their livelihood, conscientiously refuse to participate in abortions. … Thankfully, the number of abortions, which has been in steady decline since 1980, is now at a historic low.”

At the time of the Revolutionary War, the United States had a population of 3 million, which was:

  • 98 percent Protestant
  • 1 percent Catholic
  • 1/10th of 1 percent Jewish

After the Great Irish Potato Famine, 1845-1849, immigration raised the Catholic population in America to over 20 percent.

Today, the Catholic Church has the largest membership, and it is the nation’s largest medical care provider with 624 hospitals and 499 long-term health care facilities. Ten of the 25 largest health-care networks in the U.S.are Catholic affiliated, including:

  • Catholic Health Initiatives – 78 hospitals
  • Ascension Health – 67 hospitals-Daughters of Charity, Congregation of St. Joseph, Sisters of St. Joseph
  • Trinity Health – 44 hospitals, 379 Clinics, Catholic Health Ministries
  • Catholic Healthcare West – 41 hospitals, Sisters of Mercy
  • Catholic Health East – 34 hospitals, 9 religious congregations & Hope Ministries
  • Catholic Healthcare Partners – 33 hospitals, Sisters of Mercy, Daughters of Charity
  • Providence Health & Services – 26 hospitals, Sisters of Providence, Sisters of the Little Company of Mary
  • Marian Health System – 25 hospitals, Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother

On May 21, 2012, the Archdiocese of New York filed a historic federal lawsuit against the HHS mandate: “In order to protect our religious liberties from unwarranted and unprecedented government intrusion, the Archdiocese of New York has filed suit in federal court today seeking to block the recent Health and Human Services mandate that unconstitutionally attempts to define the nature of the Church’s religious ministry and would force religious employers to violate their consciences.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stated Oct. 12, 2012, regarding a supposed “exemption” to the HHS mandate: “Last night, the … statement was made during the Vice Presidential debate regarding the decision of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to force virtually all employers to include sterilization and contraception, including drugs that may cause abortion, in the health insurance coverage they provide their employees. … That exemption … does not extend to ‘Catholic social services, Georgetown Hospital’ … or any other religious charity.”

Georgetown Hospital was founded in 1898 as part of Georgetown University. Georgetown University was named for George Washington. Georgetown University was founded Jan. 23, 1789, by John Carroll, America’s first Catholic Bishop.

Regarding freedom of conscience, Bishop John Carroll sent a report to Rome in 1790: “In 1776, American Independence was declared, and a revolution effected, not only in political affairs, but also in those relating to Religion. For while the thirteen provinces of North America rejected the yoke of England, they proclaimed, at the same time, freedom of conscience, and the right of worshiping the Almighty, according to the spirit of the religion to which each one should belong. …”

Bishop Carroll continued: “Before this great event, the Catholic faith had penetrated two provinces only, Maryland and Pennsylvania. In all the others the laws against Catholics were in force. Any priest coming from foreign parts, was subject to the penalty of death; all who professed the Catholic faith, were not merely excluded from offices of government, but hardly could be tolerated in a private capacity. … By the Declaration of Independence, every difficulty was removed: the Catholics were placed on a level with their fellow-Christians, and every political disqualification was done away.”

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Regarding religious freedom, Bishop John Carroll wrote in the National Gazette, 1789: “The establishment of the American empire was not the work of this or that religion, but arose from a generous exertion of all her citizens to redress their wrongs, to assert their rights, and lay its foundations on the soundest principles of justice and equal liberty. … An earnest regard to preserve inviolate forever, in our new empire, the great principle of religious freedom.”

John Carroll was the cousin of Charles Carroll, the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence, the longest living of the signers, and the wealthiest man in America. John’s brother, Daniel Carroll, was one of two Catholics to sign the U.S. Constitution, who provided the land where the Capitol is built and was elected a Congressman. John’s nephew, Robert Brent was the first mayor of Washington D.C., being reappointed by Jefferson and Madison.

John Carroll founded the nation’s first Catholic seminary, parochial school system, and persuaded Elizabeth Seton to start a girls school in Baltimore. In 1776, the Continental Congress had John Carroll accompany Ben Franklin to Canada in an attempt to persuade that country to join the Revolution. Esteem for Bishop John Carroll led several states to extend equality to Catholics.

Bishop Carroll wrote: “Freedom and independence, acquired by … the mingled blood of Protestant and Catholic fellow-citizens, should be equally enjoyed by all.”

Bishop Carroll wrote of Catholics who fought in the Revolution: “Their blood flowed as freely (in proportion to their numbers) to cement the fabric of independence as that of any of their fellow-citizens. They concurred with perhaps greater unanimity than any other body of men, in recommending and promoting that government, from whose influence America anticipates all the blessings of justice, peace, plenty, good order and civil and religious liberty.”

Assuring protection for freedom of conscience, President George Washington wrote to Bishop John Carroll, March 15, 1790: “America, under the smiles of a Divine Providence, the protection of a good government, and the cultivation of manners, morals, and piety, cannot fail of attaining an uncommon degree of eminence. …All those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protection of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality. …”

Washington continued: “And I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their government; or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed.”

Charles Carroll paid for the building of a large house for his son, which was later donated to be the main campus of Johns Hopkins University, with its world-renown Schools of Nursing and Medicine.

Dr. Ben Carson, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital from 1984 until his retirement in 2013.

George Washington ended his letter to Bishop John Carroll: “May the members of your society in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity.”

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