Early Social Service Was Women’s Work

A nun and children looking through the rubble after the 1935 Helena earthquake.

St. Joseph’s Home for Orphans fulfilled one of the missions of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. Earthquakes in 1935 left the children homeless and they spent nearly two years as the guests of wealthy U. S. Senator James E. Murray at Boulder Hot Springs. Photo courtesy Independent Record

Parochial institutions in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Montana, which were almost exclusively under the supervision of women, were the forerunners of our modern social services. Catholic nuns, Methodist deaconesses, and nondenominational Christian women offered comfort, sanctuary, and stability to the lost, the desperate, and the destitute. Their contributions were far-reaching and some of their pioneering services evolved and remain viable today.

Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth (Kansas) came to Helena in 1869 at the invitation of Jesuit priests who saw a dire need for feminine influence in the rough-and-tumble gold camp. The sisters’ mission was threefold—to teach youth, care for orphans, and minister to the sick—and it fit in with the real needs of the frontier community. St. Vincent’s Academy, the first boarding school for non-Indian girls, opened in 1870 and educated girls until 1935. Continue reading

Faith Inspired Early Health Care

Beginning with the arrival of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth in 1869, women religious played a vital role in providing health care for Montanans. Here Sister Camille (near instrument stand) and Sister St. Charles assist Doctors (left to right) Thomas H. Pleasants, Fred Attix, and Joseph Brice with a 1909 surgery at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lewistown. MHS Photo Archives 949-002

Beginning with the arrival of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth in 1869, women religious played a vital role in providing health care for Montanans. Here Sister Camille (near instrument stand) and Sister St. Charles assist Doctors (left to right) Thomas H. Pleasants, Fred Attix, and Joseph Brice with a 1909 surgery at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lewistown. MHS Photo Archives 949-002

Catholic sisters and Protestant deaconesses established and refined health care in Montana. These dedicated women brought better medical care to the sick and played important roles in the evolution of nursing in the state.

The first five Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kansas came by stagecoach to Helena in 1869. Within a year, they established St. John’s Hospital, the first Catholic hospital in the territory. These sisters were Montana’s first trained nurses.

The sisters began canvassing Montana’s remote camps on horseback, begging funds to establish a hospital in Deer Lodge. St. Joseph’s saw its first patients in 1873 and went on to serve Deer Lodge for ninety years. Among other acts of service, the sisters tended the wounded after the Battle of the Big Hole in 1877. They cared for casualties among both soldiers and Nez Perce at the battlefield before returning to Deer Lodge with their patients under terrible conditions; once at the hospital, the sisters found maggots infesting the combatants’ wounds.

Three more sisters traveled from Leavenworth in 1875 to Virginia City to open St. Mary’s Hospital. One of them, Sister Irene McGrath, was a young novice barely eighteen. By 1879, the mining camp had dwindled and patients were few. The sisters were never meant to be ornamental, and so they moved on.  Continue reading