Late in the spring of 1890, two Roman Catholic nuns, Sister M. Michael Cummings and Sister M. Alphonsus Fitzpatrick, arrived in San Diego to build a hospital. They were accompanied by the bishop of the diocese, the Right Reverend Francis Mora, and together the three met with Father Ubach, who had established the first Catholic church in New San Diego. The priest had been trying for some time to bring the Sisters of Mercy to town.
“Father Ubach, exultant to have secured Sisters of Mercy at long last, conducted the search for suitable property” the “Sisters of Mercy in San Diego” records. “A sheltered place on University Heights was recommended by the clergymen, but neither they nor the Sisters had the means available to purchase the property. The good bishop gave Mother Michael the following autograph endorsement to certify her status:
- San Diego
- June 5, 1890
- We confirm the appointment of Sister M. Michael as Mother Superior of the community of Sisters of Mercy in this city, and give permission to said community to build a hospital with their own means in or near said city.
- Francis Mora
- Bishop of Monterey and Los Angeles
“To understand the challenge of the task which faced Mother Michael,” the “Sisters of Mercy in San Diego” continues, “it is useful to know that San Diego in the early 90s was in the throes of a serious depression following the great Southern California land boom of the 80s. The city’s population had plummeted from 40,000 in 1886 to 17,900 in 1890.
"The upper floors of business houses on the main streets were nailed up. Merchants had little or no business and the hotels were without guests. Few people were on the streets, and hopes were the only stimulating influence.
“This condition probably made it easier to obtain the rental of the upper stories of the Grand Central Block, a solid three story brick structure situated in the heart of the business district at the comer of Sixth and H Streets. Here on July 9, 1890, St. Joseph’s Dispensary...was opened.”
“[A] small notice in the weekly San Diego Union newspaper,” writes Michael Grant in San Diego Tapestry, “took note of a new infirmary on the second floor above a men’s clothing store at what is now Sixth and Market streets.
“ We have come to remain,’ Sister Mary Michael Cummings said, ‘and shall expect to build, in time.’ ”
“The original St. Joseph’s was a five-bed facility....,” the MercyShield Centennial Edition states. “The dispensary was not well-marked but it was strategically located to serve the surrounding community. Equidistant between the business district and wharf, on a street so well-traveled it later became ‘Market’ Street, the dispensary soon served dozens of patients a week. The Sisters of Mercy welcomed all in need, regardless of color, creed or financial circumstance. In time, this selfless ‘Spirit of Mercy’ earned for the hospital a broad base of support throughout the community....
“No one welcomed the community’s first hospital as earnestly as the town’s small cadre of physicians.”
In 1890, there were virtually no hospitals in San Diego. William Smythe, in History of San Diego, states, “The first county hospital was the old cobblestone jail...at Old Town. It was used for a short time.... Buildings at Columbia and F Streets [were) used by Drs. Stockton and Remondino as a sanitarium for several years.”
Between 1872 and 1882, according to a fall 1971 Journal of San Diego History article, the County Hospital “was in houses of various private persons possessing contracts” with the County Board of Supervisors to “board and care for the indigent sick.”
“In 1880,” writes Elizabeth MacPhail in The Story of New San Diego and of Its Founder Alonzo E. Horton, “the county acquired a farm in Mission Valley, near the foot of Sixth Street, and established a County Farm where the needy could live and work. It became known as the Poor Farm and a road leading down the hill was Poor Farm Road. The first County Hospital was built on this site, later moving to the top of the hill in Hillcrest, in 1903.”
The Reverend Bonaventure Hammer, in his pamphlet “Saint Joseph’s Sanitarium,” published in 1903, discusses the nuns’ dispensary: “The newly founded community soon found work in abundance. Those nursed back to health by the Sisters’ watchful solicitude sounded the praises of their kind and competent nurses far and near. The writer of these lines had been in San Diego but a few days, when he was introduced to a gentleman who, on hearing St. Joseph’s Sanitarium mentioned, said, ‘I have the distinction of being the first patient admitted to that institution. And I am proud to say that the Sisters’ gentle and unremitting care nursed me back to health when I was given up by the doctors.
True, it took what seemed to me a long time — two months. During this period I had ample opportunity to admire those Sisters. I entered their hospital when every other place was closed to me, not without some misgivings. But I was soon disabused of my prejudices. I saw them minister to the unfortunate consumed with fever, soothe the hopeless consumptive, and wipe the perspiration from the cold and clammy brow of the dying. Never will I hear the Sisters of Mercy of St. Joseph’s Sanitarium, San Diego, mentioned, without giving testimony to their pure, unselfish purpose and truly compassionate nature.’ ”
Later the same year, the MercyShield Centennial Edition records,“Dr. R. B. Hurbert performed in St. Joseph’s the first Caesarean section ever recorded on the Pacific Coast.”
On July 31, 1890, the San Diego Union reported that “the second floor front of St. Joseph’s Hospital, at Sixth and H, is being converted into a chapel, the sisters expecting to have an altar up next week. They are being assisted by two young women from the country, who have a disposition for the work. The patients at this new institution include a little girl and two women. One of the latter arrived last week from San Francisco for a change of climate, being in a very much reduced condition.