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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

St. Francis Hospital

These history excerpts are taken from: 50 Years of Caring: 1950 - 2000 by Virginia Fisher

This week's blog includes the history of St. Francis Hospital: how the hospital became a reality, the nuns, the Auxiliary, and several of our community's doctors who served Columbus. Please note: this is a highlight of the overall history of this community institution. It is not meant to be exhaustive - therefore, some people and events may not be included. Thank you in advance for understanding.

Two wartime developments set the stage for the development of a new hospital in Columbus: problems at City Hospital (the embezzling scandal from last week’s history spotlight) and planning efforts to shape postwar Columbus. The need had been identified as early as 1940. but with a war looming, the resources just weren’t available. In 1944, a forward-thinking group of citizens founded the Greater Columbus Committee, which organized the Columbus Planning Association. They believed one of the city’s most important needs was an improvement in health care services. The absence of quality services would not only reduce the quality of life in Columbus, but it would make the city less desirable to new businesses. Also, in 1944, the Rev. Herman J. Diemel, pastor of Holy Family had heard of Augusta’s successful drive to build a Catholic hospital. He began writing letters to religious orders, looking for nuns who might come to Columbus to build and staff a hospital. Included in the orders approached were the Sisters of St. Joseph in Augusta. Their correspondence developed to the point they considered the St. Elmo house as a nucleus around which to build a new hospital once the war ended. But the nuns withdrew their interest and Father Diemel pursued other orders from Michigan to Pennsylvania.

Father Diemel was likely encouraged by two parishioners, Dr. Arthur N. Berry and Dr. Edward Storey. They would help put together a group to make this happen. On a cold day in January 1946, a group of religiously diverse Columbus citizens got into their cars and drove to Savannah to petition the Catholic bishop. They knew of Bishop Gerald O’Hara’s critical role in the fundraising success of Augusta’s Catholic hospital. Several in the group had even been to see Bishop O’Hara in 1940, and he told them no. Needless to say, he was not enthusiastic this second time, but he didn’t take away all hope. He told them if they could raise $500,000, he would support the new hospital. This was a large sum considering post WW II monetary values and the Columbus economy had been severely drained by WW II mobilization efforts. Undaunted, the group made the promise they would raise the money if he would find an order of nursing nuns to staff the hospital. A committee would soon be put together. Dr. Berry, Dr. Bert Tillery, and Maurice Rothschild were named to appoint an advisory committee to map out a campaign. Mr. Jack Key was elected chairman of the committee. Those tapped in the fundraising function: J. Mark Mote, Edward Shorter, Howell Hollis, L.C. Kunze, John P. Illges, Sr., Judge T. Hicks Fort, Jack Passailaigue, B.H. Hardaway, Jr., Richard H. Fleming, Edwin D. Martin, Tracy Davis, Maurice D. Rothschild, and Dr. Arthur N. Berry.

Youngsters give their piggy bank savings to the Sisters' Hospital Fund drive. Left to right: Anne Glass, Ned Berry, Teddy Glass, Mrs. C.L. Foster, and Bill Berry.

In Columbus, the fundraising frenzy caught fire. Newspaper ads, door-to-door solicitations, business meetings, as well as presentations before every church and civic group in town, kept the energy high. A running tally appeared in the newspapers every morning and afternoon. The Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, based in Millvale, PA, were recruited to staff the new hospital. They had an established and successful record at St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh, and many knew them to provide a superior level of nursing care. This would be their first and only mission in the South.

The community was also introduced to Sister Laurentine Harrington. Most notably, Sister Laurentine was nationally recognized in a small and select group of professional hospital administrators. She crafted a program plan which the Chicago hospital architectural firm of Schmidt, Garden, and Erkison translated into architectural plans in 1948. Architect Raymond W. Gerbe took the lead for his firm and began what would become a 34-year association with the hospital. He signed on local architects James J.W. Biggers, Sr. and T. Firth Lockwood to coordinate the project.

The site was donated by James W. Woodruff, Sr., and thanks to local donations from 10 cents to $60,000, matching funds from the Sisters, and federal community hospital construction funds, a total of $1,565,000 was raised to build St. Francis Hospital. The groundbreaking took place on October 23, 1948. Despite the delays in building materials that plagued much of the country, thanks to the construction boom, a skeleton frame was in place by Valentine’s Day 1949.

Left to right: Andrew Prather, Jack Key, Sister Laurentine, James W. Woodruff, Sr.,

Clifford Swift, and John P. Illges, Jr.

A little more than a year later, on March 13, 1950, a five-story, red brick building was dedicated. Governor Herman Talmadge, the Auxiliary Bishop of Savannah-Atlanta, the Sisters of St. Francis, and more than 1,000 others turned out to christen the new hospital named for the Sisters’ patron saint – St. Francis of Assisi, who devoted himself to care for the sick and the poor. St. Francis Hospital was in business. Sister Laurentine had-picked five highly qualified sisters from two Pennsylvania hospitals operated by her order to help her and she relied on the hospital’s newly appointed Advisory Board. The first Advisory Board included: Howell Hollis, Board Chairman, and a 16 member group; Jack Key (Vice Chairman); Sister M. Evelyn (Secretary); Sister M. Laurentine (Treasurer); Rev. Gerald P. O’Hara (Honorary Chairman); John P. Illges, Sr.; Andrew Prather; Clifford J. Swift, Sr.; James W. Woodruff, Sr.; Charlie Frank Williams; B.H. Hardaway, Jr.; G. Gunby Jordan II; Mark Mote; Maurice Rothschild; Rev. Herman J. Deimel; Mother Superior M. Corinne of Pittsburgh as head of the Sisters of St. Francis; and Sister M. Dolorosa.

On April 17, 1950, Dr. Clarence C. Butler and Dr. Luther Wolff admitted St. Francis’ first patients. Despite the fact that most citizens had participated in the fundraising effort, many in Columbus were waiting to see how the Sisters would treat non-Catholics. Over the next year, reticence about patronizing a Catholic institution dissipated as word spread of the nuns’ superior nursing care, the complete lack of proselytizing, and the excellent medical standards they created.

The St. Francis Auxiliary was formed in 1958. This group of hard-working volunteers immediately set out to establish a fundraising event to benefit the School of Nursing and decided on a Mardis Gras Ball. The following year, the crowning of the Mardis Gras King and Queen amid great mystery was the most elegant ball ever presented in Columbus. This event raised significant funds for the hospital for 55 years. The Auxiliary and its 279 members also helped provide volunteer workers at the hospital with candy stripers and staffing of the St. Francis Auxiliary gift shop.

The 1970s saw the extension of services to more people. They doubled their bed space, became a regional referral institution, and expanded to include a proper facility for cardiovascular surgery thanks to Dr. Philip Brewer. Dr. Butler, the hospital's long-time Medical Director, announced in 1977 that 150 open heart surgeries would be done that year.

The 1980s were filled with calls for reform and retrenchment. By the early 1990s, healthcare reform was a major political issue. Within this context, the Board of St. Francis recognized the need to align the hospital with a broader health care system. They watched carefully as hospitals across the country consolidated horizontally, within hospital networks, and vertically, with cradle to grave services. For those reasons, the Board in 1993 elected not to renew its management contract with the Millvale Sisters of St. Francis.

New programs and new alliances were the order of the day during the last years of the 20th Century at St. Francis, as well as into the 21st. Now a 376-bed, two-campus regional health system, St. Francis has earned a national reputation for outstanding quality of care. To further expand care, in January 2016 St. Francis Hospital became part of LifePoint Health. In 2020, St. Francis joined a newly formed venture formed by LifePoint Health and Emory Healthcare. Our community is grateful to all of the men and women who not only made St. Francis a possibility, but also continued to enhance the care of all our citizens throughout its 71 year history. Thank you!


If you think Historic Columbus is just putting a pretty face on an old building, think again. Thanks to the support of HCF members in 2020, over $450,000 was invested in preservation projects, preservation grants, façade loans, education programming, and museum projects. This year, you will see revitalization in action in High Uptown, City Village, and The Mill District. There will also be a third round of the Public Participation Grant (up to $100,000) this year thanks to the donors of HCF's 50th Anniversary Capital Campaign. If you are not a member, we hope you will consider joining! Your support makes preservation possible!

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