The Historic St. Mary’s Infirmary

 The Historic St. Mary’s Infirmary
St. Mary’s Infirmary and School of Nursing, early 1900s [image courtesy of Galveston and Texas History Center].

During the month of November, Rosenberg Library exhibited items related to the historic St. Mary’s Infirmary which operated in Galveston for nearly 130 years. Established in 1867, St. Mary’s was the first Catholic hospital in the State of Texas.

Just after the Civil War ended, three French nuns formed the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, a religious order dedicated to ministering to the sick and infirm. At the request of Bishop Claude Marie Dubuis, Sister Blandine, Sister Ange, and Sister Joseph travelled from Lyons, France to open a hospital in Galveston, Texas. The bishop had already purchased a block of land at Market and 8th Street, and construction of a two-story frame building to house Charity Hospital began.

Shortly after the infirmary opened, Galveston was faced with a yellow fever epidemic of devastating proportion. The summer of 1867 was marked by heavy rainfall, and that — coupled with the warm tropical climate — fostered an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes. Of an estimated 8,000 residents living on the island, more than 1,000 died as a result of contracting yellow fever from infected mosquitoes that year.

The three sisters who ran Charity Hospital worked tirelessly to treat the overwhelming number of patients who were admitted to the brand-new facility. Sister Blandine contracted yellow fever herself and died. Sister Ange became gravely ill but eventually recovered and returned to Lyons. Just 27 years old, Sister Joseph took charge of the hospital along with six newly recruited sisters from France. She eventually became Mother Superior of the Sisters of Charity in Galveston.

The 1867 epidemic left many local children without parents. This prompted the Sisters of Charity to operate an orphanage along with the hospital. Additional frame buildings were constructed on the hospital property to house the orphans as well as to accommodate more patients. (St. Mary’s Orphanage was later moved to the island’s West End in 1874.)

Despite this very trying beginning, the hospital continued to grow. In 1869, Charity Hospital was renamed St. Mary’s Infirmary. New sisters were recruited to assist the existing staff, and in 1875 a $50,000 wing was added to the original structure. Designed by Nicholas Clayton, this three-story brick building provided 27 private rooms with a total capacity of 150 beds. Over the years, a chapel and convent were added to the site, and another multi-story addition came in 1896. Initially used for patient rooms, it was later converted into a dormitory for nursing students.

With a staff of 50 and a growing number of patients, the future seemed bright for the infirmary. However, the Great Storm of September 8, 1900 brought flood waters into the lower level of the facility while high winds tore off roofs and shattered windows. Hospital staff, patients, and 1,500 refugees to shelter inside St. Mary’s during the event. Of these, only one life was lost. Thousands more across the island perished.

 The Historic St. Mary’s Infirmary
Image of the damaged St. Mary’s Infirmary building after the 1900 Storm [courtesy of Galveston and Texas History Center].

Just as they had after the 1867 yellow fever outbreak, the staff of St. Mary’s continued to move beyond this adversity. A convent was added to the site and in 1914, a new four-story wing was built at the northeastern edge of the property. In the late 1940s, a five-story modern hospital was under construction. Though it was not yet completed at the time of the SS Grandcamp explosion in Texas City, hundreds of critically injured patients were rushed to the facility for treatment. Hospital staff administered aid as best they could despite the lack of electricity, running water, and windows in the still unfinished building.

Over time, modern facilities replaced the historic buildings on the site. The original frame annex buildings had been destroyed in the 1900 Storm, but the last of the remaining brick structures designed by Clayton were razed in the 1960s. By the time St. Mary’s Infirmary celebrated its 100th Anniversary in 1966, a $5 million, 6-story nurses’ training college and residence had also been opened. The name was changed from St. Mary’s Infirmary to St. Mary’s Hospital.

During the 1980s and 1990s, St. Mary’s faced financial hardships including a declining demand for services and a steady decrease in patient revenues. Additionally, the Sisters of Charity’s mission had evolved. Rather than operate a private hospital facility, the organization wished to open a smaller-scale community clinic to focus on basic healthcare for the poor.

After 130 years of service to the Galveston community, St. Mary’s Hospital closed its doors in 1996 when it was purchased by the Sealy-Smith Foundation for $14,750,000. At that time, the large campus — which was situated between Postoffice and Market from 6th to 8th Street — included the 1947 hospital, the 1966 addition, and a convent building. The Foundation donated the entire property to the University of Texas Medical Branch and the facility was renamed the Rebecca Sealy Building.

Past Treasures