The birth of Catholic health care in South Carolina



October: To enhance a culture of life
The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae) John Paul II, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin

In this month of October of the Jubilee Year, we pray especially that there may be a greater respect for life. A necessary precondition for any genuine respect for life is a culture which is itself supportive of that respect. When we look at our history as a diocese we find there have been many efforts over the years to bear witness to our faith and respect for life not only through our words and political efforts, but especially by the example we set for others of promoting a culture of life. Perhaps the most organized, visible, and effective examples of Catholic witness to this respect for life which has been given over the years is found in the Catholic hospitals which have played an important part in our evangelization of culture. Despite the fact that Catholics have been numerically very small in South Carolina they have become well known for this witness. This is especially true of the many orders of women religious in the history of the diocese who have been at the forefront of these efforts.

The earliest organized attempt to promote this form of pro-life activity was undertaken by an order of women religious founded in 1829 by the first Bishop of Charleston, John England. This was only nine years after the establishment of the Diocese of Charleston, but Bishop England realized how important this witness could be when he founded the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy to teach, work with the poor, and care for the sick. Although the sisters did not establish a hospital in a formal sense during the time of Bishop England they did a great deal of good with limited resources to live fully the charism of their order. It soon became evident that their faithfulness to this charism and witness led to their prosperity. They soon had enough vocations that they were able to establish a daughter-house in Savannah to more effectively meet the needs of the poor. The first opportunity they had to engage in caring for the sick on a large scale came about soon after the outbreak of the War for Southern Independence in 1861.

The Catholics of the Carolinas were patriotic and did much to contribute to the war effort and the sisters were no exception. The Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy sent several of their number to the front lines in the Virginia countryside to aid in staffing a military hospital, while others remained in Charleston attempting to meet the increasing needs of the citizens of Charleston who were under nearly constant siege. The sisters sent to Virginia were accompanied by Father Lawrence O’Connell who served as their chaplain, receiving the rank of major in the Confederate Army. By the end of the war in 1865 the sisters had made a distinct impression on those who had been wounded and were often known as angels of mercy who restored life in the midst of death.

As the state of South Carolina and the city of Charleston recovered from the war and the era of reconstruction, the first Catholic hospital in the diocese opened. Under the direction of Msgr. Daniel Quigley, who served as administrator of the diocese following the death of Bishop Lynch in February 1882, St. Francis Xavier Infirmary of Charleston opened. It was formally dedicated and blessed on Oct. 1, 1882, growing and developing into one of the larger hospitals in the city of Charleston under the guidance of the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy. By 1912 a new wing was constructed, and two years later the sisters established the District Nursing and Social Services of St. Francis to care for those who otherwise could not afford medical care as well as meeting their needs in the community. Before long the nursing and social services were divided with nursing available at the infirmary and social services in what was known as Neighborhood House. Both were an immense success and continue to our own day, though it is the Sisters of Bon Secours who now own the hospital.

With the success and continued growth of St. Francis Hospital in Charleston, it became clear that there was a great need for other Catholic hospitals throughout the diocese. Only five years after his appointment as the sixth bishop of Charleston in 1927, Bishop Emmet Walsh asked the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis to come to the diocese to take over a hospital in Greenville formerly operated by the Salvation Army. The sisters accepted the bishop’s offer. It was the beginning of a spectacular explosion of Catholic hospitals in the diocese. Within 10 years five new hospitals sprang up. In July of 1932, Bishop Walsh blessed St. Francis Hospital in Greenville, the second Catholic hospital in the diocese. The third came only three years later at the request of the newly established Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Rock Hill. The Oratorian fathers had invited the Franciscan Sisters of Peoria, Ill., to come and establish St. Philip Neri Hospital. They too accepted, and the new hospital was blessed at its opening ceremonies on Sept. 8, 1935. Two years later and the bishop was back in the area to dedicate Divine Saviour Hospital in York which was also established by the Oratorians and under the leadership of the Franciscan Sisters from Rock Hill.

Perhaps the most impressive of the hospitals established in this period was Providence Hospital in Columbia which was blessed and opened on June 16, 1938, by Bishop Walsh. There has been talk of starting a Catholic hospital in Columbia for years, but finances were not in a state to make this a realistic possibility until a resident of Columbia had a rather interesting experience. It seems that James Younginer and his wife had to travel to California on a business trip. While there Mrs. Younginer fell ill and was taken to a Catholic hospital. She recovered, and the couple had been so impressed by the care she received that they made it their business to see that a Catholic hospital was established in Columbia. They contributed all of the necessary funds to begin the project and to carry it on to completion. The bishop made an appeal to the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine from Cleveland to come and operate the new hospital, and they accepted. Perhaps the most unusual part of the story is that neither Mr. nor Mrs. Younginer was Catholic.

Yet another hospital was established by Bishop Walsh in the small town of Dillon. On Nov. 16, 1943, it was dedicated and blessed under the patronage of St. Eugene and administered by the Sisters of St. Mary of the Third Order of St. Francis. The name was proposed by Pope Pius XII when the sisters told him they planned to name it St. Pius Hospital. Years before, when he was known as Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, they had promised to establish a new hospital in his name. He suggested that since the promise had been made when he was a cardinal rather than pope the name too should reflect that fact. The sisters agreed. They wore a full habit and tended to stand out in Dillon. The citizens of the town were somewhat apprehensive at first, but over the years they grew to recognize the Franciscan habit as a witness to the culture of life that the sisters so actively promoted in their work.

Over the years these Catholic hospitals proved to be invaluable not only to the Catholics of the diocese, but also to the communities they served. Through them the presence of the Catholics in South Carolina was more firmly and publicly established, and it was clear to all that the Catholic Church was committed to promoting a culture of life. That same witness continues today not only in the hospitals, but also in the multitude of other Catholic organizations and pro-life groups throughout the diocese in which Catholics actively participate in forming a culture of life.

Father Scott J.A. Buchanan is administrator of St. Ann Church in Holly Hill and moderator of St. Mary Church in Summerton.