St. Bernards Healthcare, based in Jonesboro (Craighead County), was founded by the Olivetan Benedictine sisters at Holy Angels Convent and is the largest employer in northeast Arkansas, with more than 2,200 employees. Its mission remains: “To provide Christ-like care to the community through education, treatment and health services.”
Like many contemporary healthcare institutions, St. Bernards was begun in response to a crisis—a malaria fever epidemic that raged throughout northeast Arkansas in 1899. Civic leaders realized that the events of the 1890s had highlighted the need for a hospital, and as the twentieth century dawned, the idea was gaining momentum. A first challenge, and one that would be ongoing throughout the century, was to raise money necessary for a hospital.
The Benedictine sisters from Convent Maria Rickenbach in the Swiss Alps had come to Arkansas in 1887 at the request of an early missionary, the Reverend Eugene Weibel, for teachers for children of immigrants settling in the area. Initially, they settled in Pocahontas (Randolph County) but relocated their convent 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 Weibel in collecting money by going from house to house to request 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 care to those in need, regardless of their ability to pay. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, half of the $5,000 needed had been accumulated, and Bishop Edward Fitzgerald approved the founding of the hospital. J. F. Mason, a community leader who later became the first advisory board chairman, contributed $100 to the hospital fund and helped the sisters by allowing them to use his name as security when the building was purchased.
The original hospital structure was part of an estate and faced Matthews Avenue on land adjacent to the convent. Upon securing the house, the sisters 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, the first patient admitted was D. Parson from Deckerville (Poinsett County).
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 nine dollars, 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.
The first African-American patients were admitted to the hospital in 1901 by Dr. Lutterloh. Following a fatal landslide at a local quarry, the physician determined he could save the lives of some victims by performing amputations. The operating room at the hospital was the only suitable place to care for those patients, so Lutterloh asked to use those facilities. The sisters agreed, and black patients were cared for at St. Bernards until their recovery. However, St. Bernards received letters threatening to burn down the hospital. Because of those threats, other physicians resigned, leaving Dr. Lutterloh as the only physician practicing at St. Bernards. Later, the other physicians returned, and the sisters opened a section of the hospital for black patients by 1902.
By 1905, a brick forty-bed hospital and chapel were erected connecting the convent with the original hospital building. Financial challenges continued throughout the years, but the hospital continued to grow, adding buildings and services. St. Bernards survived the floods that affected northeast Arkansas in 1927 and 1937 and tornadoes that wreaked destruction in 1968 and 1973, providing care for the sick and injured.
In the fall of 1974, after living next to the hospital since its founding, the sisters began the herculean task of moving their convent to a location north of the city limits. The hospital growth had paralleled the growth of Jonesboro itself, and in 1974, the name was changed to St. Bernards Regional Medical Center to reflect its role as a referral center for patients in twenty-three counties in northeast Arkansas and southeast Missouri.
Though the term “Regional” was dropped in 2004 to simplify the name, the hospital continues to be a referral center for patients. St. Bernards Healthcare, the corporate parent of the medical center, has developed a number of health-related entities, including St. Bernards Retirement Village, St. Bernards Outpatient Imaging Center, and various clinics around northeast Arkansas. Also in 2004, St. Bernards partnered with Arkansas State University (ASU) to build a facility to house a student health clinic, a sports medicine program, and a FirstCare Family Practice Clinic.
By the dawn of the twenty-first century, St. Bernards had added the Cancer Treatment Center, the state-of-the-art Heart Care Center, and numerous other specialty services. With a medical staff of more than 250, the 435-bed, not-for-profit acute care medical center has experienced steady growth and is the leading healthcare provider in the region. In 2006, St. Bernards gave back to more than 200,000 people in the communities it serves by providing free health screenings, education programs, charity care, and more—community benefits with a value of $28,705,521. In March 2019, St. Bernards announced that it was leasing Five Rivers Medical Center in Pocahontas, taking the organization back to its roots.
For additional information:
Hockle, Henrietta, OSB. A Century of Serving: A Centennial History of St. Bernards Regional Medical Center, 1900–2000. Jonesboro, AR: 2000.
St. Bernards Healthcare. https://www.stbernards.info/ (accessed March 14, 2019).
Henrietta Hockle, OSB
Holy Angels Convent