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Holy Cross Hospital History


Early Holy Cross Hospital

In 1887 the frontier town of Calgary was in desperate need of a hospital. Bishop Vital Grandin requested help from several Religious Communities in the East. The Sisters of Charity, Montreal accepted the challenge and after two years of preparation four brave Sisters embarked on their journey West by train on January 21, 1891. Sister Agnes Carroll, Sister Olivia Beauchemin, Sister Elizabeth Valiquette, and a young Postulant Sister Madeline Beemer later called Sister Gertrude arrived in Calgary on January 30, 1891 at 2 am. They were accompanied by Father Leduc from St. Boniface but there was no transportation available so they walked to the Sacred Heart Convent which is located behind the present St. Mary's Cathedral from the CPR station on 9th Avenue and Centre Street SW. The F.C.J (Faithful Companions of Jesus) Sisters welcomed them and provided lodging. It is hard to imagine how they must have felt coming to this harsh, cold place to begin the task of building and equiping the new hospital with $73.75. Sr. Gertrude joined them later.

If walls could talk- Holy Cross Memories
Dr. Pat Pitsel (PhD) - Psychologist, Educator and Human Resource Professional speaking at the Nuns and Nightingales unveiling of the bronze statues.
Hospital opened 1892
First Hospital on present site -
It opened in 1892.

Work had already begun on a two storey 24 square foot structure just West of St. Mary's Cathedral. With long hours of work and help of many generous Calgarians they were able to open the Hospital on April 10, 1892. It was very primitive with one stove for heating, candlelit and no running water. Sister Gertrude described the first patient was "so poor all he had was Typhoid." The hospital started with four beds which increased to eight, and by the end of the year the Sisters had cared for 64 patients. It was obvious that a larger facility was needed and a site was chosen West of the Elbow Bow River where the Holy Cross Centre stands. The new building was three stories; fifty feet square with running water and could accommodate 35 patients. The Sisters continued their work to provide care for the ill and doing charity work throughout the City of Calgary. This building had several additions over a number of years and on Easter Sunday 1929 a new impressive wing was open with a bed capacity of 312, and would care for seven thousand patients annually.

The Sisters established the School of Nursing in 1907 with the first class of 6 graduates in 1910. The Holy Cross continued to make advances in medicine and treatment of patients along with educating young women who came from across the provinces to learn the principals of care and compassion which they carried on in their nursing careers. Many served in both Worlds Wars and continue working in many third world countries to improve the lives of those less fortunate and in need of care.

HCH 1948
Holy Cross Hospital 1948 - Waterloo Nurses Residence at left

In 1942 the only cancer clinic facility in the province opened in the basement of the hospital. Then in 1950 there were additions including new operating suites, obstetrical, nursery and pediatrics areas. The Sisters appointed a lay medical director in 1957 as the complexities of running a major hospital became more for the eighteen Sisters to carry on. Completion and opening of new nurse's residence in 1957 to house the students was an important event. It featured private rooms for all the students and a kitchen and lounge on each floor.

Dr. Miller
Dr. Miller

The first Cardiovascular surgery was performed by Dr. G. Miller and his team in 1958, the same year a new cardiac unit was opened. The donation of a heart-lung machine by the Calgary Associate Clinic paved the way for open heart surgery which was continued over the many years of the Holy Cross Hospital operation.

A new wing was completed in 1967 and part of the 1892 wing was demolished and in1969 the operation of the Hospital was taken over by Calgary Rural and Metro Hospital District. Due to lack of enrollment the Holy Cross School of Nursing closed in 1979, 2409 graduates were educated in the seventy-two year it was in operation.

The Sisters had laid the foundation and the hospital continued to prosper and was a landmark in the Mission are of the City. The Holy Cross Hospital evolved from a 24 square foot building to a major medical facility serving Calgarians until its closure in 1996.

By 1957, Holy Cross had the personnel of 200 doctors, 180 graduate nurses, 12 orderlies, 165 students, 80 maintenance workers and 300 clerks and technicians. It had become the centre for cancer treatment in Southern Alberta, and had expanded beyond the Grey Nuns' capacity to administer it. The small community of 18 Sisters could no longer cope with the complexities of running a major hospital, and appointed Dr Irial Gogan as the hospital's first lay Medical Director.

The hospital made headlines in 1962 when Hazel Donlin, a 17-year-old visitor from California lost an arm in a freak accident at the Stampede midway. A team of skilled surgeons at Holy Cross replaced her severed arm, a first in Canada.

In 1965, construction of a new, $5 million dollar Holy Cross began. During the two years of building, the adjacent residence shook and rattled, and potted plants fell off their shelves. Somehow, everyone survived the noise and confusion of demolition and construction, and the hospital opened in 1967, Canada's Centennial Year. The 1950 wing now became the "Y" wing, in tribute to Mother d'Youville, foundress of the Grey Nuns. The new hospital boasted a conveyor system, wall suction and oxygen at every bed, and an intercom system linking patients with the nurses' station. Capacity was now 491 beds.

When the first Holy Cross was built, construction costs for a hospital were estimated at $400 a bed; in 1967, they were $15,000. Although the Grey Nuns retained ownership of Holy Cross, they required capital and operating funds from both the Federal and Provincial Governments.

New Hospital opened 1967
The New Holy Cross Hospital opened 1967

It had become impossible for the dwindling numbers of Grey Nuns to maintain all their hospitals across Canada and, in May 1969, Sister Ferdenande Dussault, vice-chairman of the Hospital's Board of Directors, announced their decision to give up operation of the Holy Cross.

Sister Coulombe
Sister Rita Coulombe

Sister Rita Coulombe, the first graduate of the Holy Cross School of Nursing to become the hospital's Director of Nursing Service, also became its last Sister Superior when she turned over its operation to Calgary Rural and Metro Hospital District #93 on December 16, 1969. Most of the Sisters left Calgary for work in other Grey Nuns institutions and a loving rule of seventy-eight years was over. But cherished memories of these dedicated women will continue to enrich the lives of all who knew them during their years at Holy Cross.

In the '70s, metric measurements were adopted throughout the system. In 1974, renovations to the 1929 wing provided 100 additional beds, emergency services, and a new mental health wing. This wing was named for Dr. D.S. Macnab, a remarkable surgeon who had serviced the hospital and its patients for over forty years.

Capping Ceremony in the Chapel
Capping Ceremony in the historic chapel 1958

Calgarians were incensed to learn that these renovations plans called for destruction of the historic chapel - to make room for a gymnasium and psychiatric treatment area in 1974. The fifteen-foot-high altar, carved from Carrara marble, was a gift of Calgarian C.J. Duggan, a devout Catholic and business associate of Pat Burns. Tons of marble, imported from Italy, was carved for the chapel by Italian craftsmen. Here in their tranquil retreat, with stained glass windows scattering fragments of rainbow light on the oak pews and marble altars, the nuns and students found strength to face a demanding life. Unfortunately, in spite of pleas and petitions, economics dictated that the chapel had to go. Marble altars and statuary went into storage as the gym and offices were constructed.

Due to declining enrolment, the Holy Cross School of Nursing closed in June 1979. In its 72 years, the School had educated 2,409 graduates, all proud to wear the gold cross pin earned in their three years at Holy Cross. The empty residence soon became offices for a variety of health care services, and has been renamed The Grey Nuns Building.

From its humble beginnings to the present, Holy Cross has grown in service and stature. One of the finest hospitals in Western Canada, now has facilities to care for 514 adults and 82 infants and offers many out-patient services as well. It is a non-denominational institution now, but one of the agreements of sale stipulated that the name, Holy Cross, would be perpetuated. The illuminated Celtic Cross high on its west wall will continue to glow in the skies of Calgary - symbolic of Mother d'Youville's love for all mankind.

Mother d'Youville
Mother d'Youville

Information obtained from Nuns and Nightingales 1982.

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