St. Vincent Health System, Arkansas founded by the SIsters of Charity of Nazareth celebrates 125th anniversary

Then Little Rock health system began with six nuns, 10 beds, the first hospital in Little Rock.

Now with three hospitals the system has culminated its yearlong 125th anniversary observance Oct. 9.

As Sister Margaret Meisner, SCN, the last remaining resident member of the hospital’s founding order, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, put it, “After 125 years, we deserve to celebrate. I’m really proud.”
The observance began with Mass in the St. Vincent Infirmary Chapel, concelebrated by Msgr. Francis Malone, chaplains Father Francis Damoah, SVD, and Father George Sanders, and diocesan ethicist Father Jason Tyler, STL. Present were several dignitaries and guests, including Peter Banko, health system president and CEO, and 11 Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, several of whom had spent time on the Little Rock campus during their career.

In his homily, Msgr. Malone focused on the work that generations of Sisters of Charity of Nazareth invested to bring the hospital to this day. He said the steadfast example of their charism is on ready display, even as their physical presence has dissipated.

“Anyone today associated with this hospital stands on the shoulders of these women, who came to a state that was not very Catholic and anti-Catholic in some places,” he said. “They gave to us not only the gift of their lives but a lesson in how to be charitable.”

Presenting the gifts were Sister Emily Nabholz and Sister Susan Gatz, who is also a member of the order’s central leadership team.

“We’re delighted to have had the opportunity to come and celebrate,” Sister Susan said. “When we took a tour earlier today, it was wonderful to see the way the employees carry out the charism of charity. We talked to so many people and it was obvious that they really loved their mission. It makes us extremely proud.”

“There’s a spirit here that exists in the walls,” Banko said. “It’s the spirit of all those who came before us and who continue to inspire all of us.”

Later that evening, a reception and dinner was held at the Clinton Presidential Center, hosting 170 guests.

St. Vincent began with just 10 beds, attended by six Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, the first of that order’s hospitals to be located outside Kentucky. Initially named The Charity Hospital for its focus on the city’s poor populations, it was built as the fulfillment of a vow made by two affluent Little Rock residents. In 1878, with yellow fever decimating the South as far north as Memphis, Alexander Hager and his wife promised God if the city was spared they would establish the city’s first hospital. The outbreak never made it to Little Rock and the Hagers’ vow came to fruition.

Bishop Edward Fitzgerald renamed the hospital Little Rock Infirmary in 1889; it was renamed again after the turn of the century in fulfillment of Bishop Fitzgerald’s and the nun’s desire to name the facility after St. Vincent de Paul.

The original hospital was located downtown, near where the Clinton presidential library now sits, and it expanded its capacity with each new address. By 1906, the facility not only operated a three-story, 50-bed hospital (to be doubled in just four short years), but opened the state’s first hospital-based school of nursing. In 1938, the hospital’s first maternity ward was opened in recognition of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth’s 50 years in Little Rock.

By the mid-1950s, a tidal wave of change would sweep the institution to a rural 40 acres at what was then Hayes (today University Avenue) and Markham streets. It would also see ownership of the hospital deeded to the nuns who had lived their lives in service to its mission through smallpox, polio and natural disasters. The move to the nine-story, 312-bed facility occurred in December 1954.

The Little Rock campus has steadily expanded through the years, most recently in 2008.

Banko said that for all of the futuristic medical technology and recognition for cutting-edge treatment on display, the true ethos of St. Vincent lies in its link to the past.

“When we use the word ‘Catholic’, it stands for how we work and how we are here for the common good, caring for people,” he said. “But it’s also ‘catholic’ in that we are universal, we are here for everyone and that’s also core to who we are.”

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