Northwest hospitals have European roots

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Catholic hospitals are ubiquitous in the United States, providing more than 15% of the country’s hospital beds, according to government sources. In Oregon, as in several other states, it is more than 30%. Many are part of large systems that are among the largest healthcare providers in the country.

Catholic hospitals in the United States and the Northwest have deep roots in a bygone era. Historians date the origins of Catholic health care in Europe to the 4th century, and Catholic priests and nuns brought Catholic health care to the United States at the start of European colonization.

The history of the birth of Catholic hospitals and health care in Europe is complex. Historians attribute the strong Catholic presence in health care there in part to the Church’s mission to serve the poor. But it was the hierarchical structure and the various ministries of the Church that allowed health services to survive and thrive in monasteries and convents through several centuries of economic and public health turmoil.

Catholic religious orders and missionaries brought their healthcare expertise to North America in unison with the great migration of Europeans and others to the continent. In the Northwest, these European roots of Catholic health care are close to home: Mother Joseph and her Sisters of Providence migrated to the Northwest in 1856, founding the first hospital in the Northwest in Vancouver, Washington . The rules that guided the life and ministries of the Sisters of Providence were modeled on those of the Daughters of Charity of France. Written by Saint Vincent de Paul, the rules provided guidance for the care of the poor, sick, and orphans, all central to the work of Providence in the North West.

By the time of her death in 1902, Mother Joseph had founded more than 28 hospitals, schools, and orphanages in the Northwest. These hospitals included St. Joseph in Vancouver in 1858 and St. Vincent in Portland in 1875.


First Catholic hospital in Rome

In the 4th century, a wealthy Christian widow named Saint Fabiola donated money to build a hospital for the poor in Rome. His donation funded what historians call the first Catholic hospital.

The legalization of Catholicism in Rome at the time of Constantine, Emperor of Rome from 306 to 337, paved the way for the Council of Nicaea. The council ordered the construction of a hospital in each cathedral city to care for the sick, the poor, widows and foreigners. In the 6th century, the Benedictine order established an infirmary to provide care for their community. At the end of the 8th century, Emperor Charlemagne ordered that a hospital be attached to all cathedrals and monasteries.

By the end of the Middle Ages, the Church had established a health care foundation throughout Europe, with hundreds of hospitals. Religious orders also formed to provide health care to the sick and sick, with charitable Catholic hospitals sprouting up around the world. By the time of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the majority of hospitals around the world had their roots in the long Catholic tradition of caring for the sick.

Catholic hospitals have grown and changed over time, and some have come together through mergers and acquisitions. Four of the country’s 10 largest health systems are Catholic. In 2020, they owned or controlled 394 acute care hospitals, a 50% increase since 2001, according to Community Catalyst, a consumer advocacy nonprofit.

These hospitals became full-fledged not-for-profit enterprises. Providence St. Joseph Health, based in Renton, Wash., now operates 52 hospitals in five western states, including eight hospitals in Oregon. PeaceHealth, a Catholic health care system based in Vancouver, Washington, operates four hospitals in Oregon.

The church, as well as Europeans who lived long ago, deserve thanks for this gift of Catholic health care.


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