HISTORY OF ST. BERNARDS MEDICAL CENTER
Like many contemporary health care institutions, St. Bernards Medical Center was established in response to a crisis – a malaria fever epidemic that raged throughout northeast Arkansas in 1899.
The Benedictine Sisters from Convent Maria Stein in the Swiss Alps came to Arkansas in 1887 because of requests from an early missionary, Rev. Eugene Weible, for teachers for children of immigrants who were settling in the area. Initially, they settled in Pocahontas, but relocated their Convent (headquarters) to Jonesboro in 1898. By the following year, malaria fever spread throughout northeast Arkansas, and the Sisters were asked to help care for the sick.
In response to appeals from the community for a hospital, Weibel raised $500 by raffling a gold watch. That became the first donation to a fund for establishing a hospital. To raise additional money, Dr. C.M. Lutterloh and Dr. J.L. Burns assisted Weible in collecting money by going from house to house, requesting donations. A local merchant, Edward Wheeler, spent days canvassing Jonesboro and surrounding areas to secure subscriptions, and the Sisters helped raise money by selling embroidery work.
Trained as teachers, the Sisters at first were reluctant to open a hospital, but Weibel persuaded them to do so. From the beginning, their mission was to provide Christ-like care to those in need, regardless of their ability to pay. As the 19th Century drew to a close, half of the $5,000 needed had been accumulated, and Bishop Fitzgerald approved the founding of a hospital by the Sisters in Jonesboro.
At that time, J.F. Mason, a community leader who later became the first Advisory Board chairman, contributed $100 to the hospital fund, and he also let the Sisters use his name as security when the building was purchased. The original hospital structure was part of an estate and faced Matthews on land adjacent to the Convent. Upon securing the house, the Sisters scrubbed and transformed it into a hospital, preparing six rooms, each with a cot, a chair and a covered orange crate to serve as a table or washstand. St. Bernards Hospital opened on July 5, 1900, and according to Craighead County Historian Harry Lee Williams, its first patient was D. Parson from Deckerville.
To help finance operations, the Sisters made solicitation tours, riding the trains on payday to nearby logging camps to sell “Hospital Tickets.” In exchange for $9, a workman would receive a ticket that ensured admission and care for an entire year. By the following year, the Sisters purchased a second frame building and moved it close to the first, joining the two with a hallway.
By 1905, a 40-bed brick hospital and chapel were erected, connecting the Convent with the original hospital building. Financial challenges continued throughout the years, but St. Bernards continued to grow, adding both buildings and services. The hospital survived the floods that affected northeast Arkansas in 1927 and 1936 and tornadoes that wreaked destruction in 1968 and 1973, and provided care for the sick and injured.
By the dawn of the 21st Century, St. Bernards had added a Cancer Treatment Center, a state-of-the-art Heartcare Center and numerous other specialty services and boasted a medical staff of more than 250. The 438-bed not-for-profit acute care medical center has experienced steady growth and is the leading health care provider for residents in more than 20 counties in northeast Arkansas and southeast Missouri. Its mission remains the same as when the Sisters opened the doors at St. Bernards more than a century ago – “To provide Christ-like healing to the community through education, treatment and health services.”