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The Birth of Borgess

Private rooms at Borgess Hospital, ca. 1910, made patients feel right at home.
Historian Larry Massie tells us how Kalamazoo’s first hospital came to be

My right leg is broken, my hip out of joint,
My trousers are torn with the splintered bone’s point,
My ankle is broken, I’m done up, I fear.
Oh carry me, carry me, where shall they carry me?
There is no hospital here.

-“No Hospital,” 1889

So wrote Kalamazoo’s eccentric poet Joseph Bert Smiley, whose sarcastic verse sometimes threatened to put him in need of hospital care.

He was right. Kalamazoo didn’t have a hospital. Other Michigan communities boasted of hospitals. Detroit’s St. Mary’s Hospital, the first in the state, opened in 1845. Ann Arbor’s university-affiliated hospital dates back to 1869. Hospitals in Grand Rapids and Port Huron opened their doors in the 1870s. Even the remote Upper Peninsula witnessed the founding of hospitals in Calumet, Ishpeming and Menominee by 1886. Wealthy Kalamazoo sufferers could board the Michigan Central Railroad to travel to the Battle Creek Sanitarium, where Dr. John Harvey Kellogg operated a quasi-hospital and health spa.

But when those of the working class became ill, in an era when factory employees considered themselves lucky to earn $1.50 for a 10-hour workday and health insurance was unheard of, they had recourse to little but nursing by untrained family members. The indigent faced the county poorhouse, which served as a last resort for the elderly, blind, mentally disturbed or orphaned, or, worse yet, they faced the city or county jails, which doubled as lodging for emergency cases.

Kalamazoo in the 1880s was a bustling community of approximately 17,000 citizens and a vibrant industrial mecca from which entrepreneurs sent trainloads of windmills, carriages, railroad velocipedes, paper and sleds across the nation. Its lack of what many Michiganders had come to consider an essential element of urban life was due largely to penny-pinching fiscal policies. It was a different era, decades before the emergence of the noblesse oblige of families such as the Upjohns, Gilmores, Parfets and Strykers. Even in the Gilded Age, it seems, the conservative spending attitudes that won Kalamazoo the title of “Debt-Free City” during the Great Depression of the 1930s were firmly in place.

The initial attempt to improve Kalamazoo’s medical situation came in the winter of 1881-82, when fears of a smallpox epidemic motivated the village council to invest in two large tents to be erected, as needed, in an isolated setting. Fortunately, the epidemic did not materialize, and the primitive tent hospitals were “carefully stored in readiness for future use.”

It would take a concerted and hard-fought campaign for the city to get a genuine and much-needed hospital. And the person who would lead that effort, Father Francis A. O’Brien, arrived in town in 1883.

O’Brien was born in Monroe in 1851. His deeply religious Irish immigrant parents inspired in the boy a love of the Catholic Church, and O’Brien received his formal education at a school operated by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Monroe. When his father died in 1855, the 15-year-old dropped out of school to take a job to help support his mother. During the following four years he worked at various jobs, including a short stint as a Detroit Free Press reporter. But his real love, the church, beckoned. Through the assistance of Bishop Caspar Borgess of Detroit, who had befriended him, O’Brien began to prepare for the priesthood.

He was ordained as a priest in 1877 and served as a pastor in Monroe and Detroit before Borgess assigned him to Kalamazoo in 1883. Here O’Brien found a parish deeply in debt, with a rundown church. Undaunted, he embraced his new challenges. His strong personality, diplomacy and sense of humor soon won his acceptance in the community. “Father Frank” began by placing the parish schools on a firm footing, then launched a campaign to restore the crumbling St. Augustine Church.

In 1885 came an unfortunate event that ultimately led to the birth of Kalamazoo’s first hospital. The Michigan State Fair, held annually at various sites across the state at the time, came to Kalamazoo that September. Among the “carnies” and fairgoers who thronged the city were many who quenched their thirst at the several dozen saloons that lined downtown streets. The city marshal and his force of burly patrolmen kept busy that week escorting over-imbibers to lockup.

In their enthusiasm, they nabbed a young stranger found stumbling along the wooden sidewalk and threw him in with the other drunks. Several hours later, the turnkey realized the boy was more than intoxicated. He sent for a physician who diagnosed the boy as deathly ill. The boy’s pockets held no identification, only a rosary. The authorities summoned O’Brien, and there, amid the stench, offal and drunken curses of the inmates, he administered the last rites to the dying youth.

Later, the priest learned that the boy had come from respectable parents who had been mortified to learn that their promising son had died in jail. The experience left an indelible imprint on O’Brien, and he determined that Kalamazoo would have a hospital to prevent the recurrence of a similar tragedy.

O’Brien’s first attempt was to create a public hospital funded by taxpayers. In 1887, the Kalamazoo City Council approved the project, and the city charter was so amended. Committees were appointed and a site chosen. But the necessary funding for the hospital, estimated by one council member at $30,000 to $40,000, proved more difficult to obtain.

But O’Brien persevered and proposed to the city council that he could establish a hospital for the bargain prince of $5,000. Then prejudice against the Catholic Church reared its ugly head. A letter to the editor published in the Kalamazoo Telegraph, for example, denounced O’Brien’s offer by saying, “Not one cent of public money, not one cent of Protestant money, should go to swell Rome’s wealth and power.”

O’Brien came to realize that his vision of opening Kalamazoo’s first hospital could only come about through alternative funding. He told his close friend and mentor Bishop Borgess of Detroit about his experience with the youth dying in jail, and it deeply moved the bishop. Then, almost miraculously, a few days before Christmas of 1888, came a letter from Borgess containing a check for $5,000, which the bishop had inherited from his mother’s estate.

O’Brien announced the joyful news from the pulpit on Christmas morning, and he soon proceeded to make his long-cherished dream a reality. The $5,000 went toward a down payment on an Italian Revival mansion situated on a full block of land stretching from Portage to Lovell streets (which were not connected then as they are now.) The ceremonial laying of the cornerstone of an addition to the structure was held on June 30, 1889. Fittingly, the hospital was named Borgess.

In the meantime, O’Brien had begun another hard-fought campaign to convince a group of nuns to provide nursing staff for the planned hospital. He specially sought out members of the Sisters of St. Joseph because of their labors in numerous fields in the service of humanity. He traveled to the Sisters’ original American mission, Carondelet, near St. Louis, and appealed to various dioceses in the East and Canada, but none had Sisters they could spare. He then learned of a mission at Watertown, N.Y., that might have available Sisters, and, after considerable negotiation, their bishop agreed to spare 11 Sisters for Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo.

Clad in stiff and stifling black and white habits, the 11 Sisters arrived at the newly constructed Michigan Central depot on July 6, 1889. With a flourish, they set about remodeling the old mansion on Portage Street into a 20-bed hospital. They converted a little cottage on the grounds into a dormitory for themselves and tackled the laborious task of cleaning and painting the rundown house.

The pioneer Sisters of St. Joseph who would singlehandedly manage the facility had received no training in nursing. Yet, as one remembered, “we were ready to go to the battlefield if required.” The Sisters simply made up in dedication and enthusiasm what they lacked in experience.

In October, a medical staff composed of eight local physicians conducted a thorough inspection of the hospital. It met with their unanimous approval. On Nov. 30, eight days before Borgess Hospital was to officially open, the Sisters admitted their first patient, a 15-year-old girl who the city marshal had discovered sick and starving in a dingy hotel room. Rather than deliver her to the usual facility, the city jail, he took her to the Sisters, who nursed her back to health.

The second patient arrived on the official opening day, Dec. 8, 1889. But Borgess Hospital faced an uphill battle to win community acceptance. The year 1890 brought only 59 patients, and during the hospital’s first five full years of operation a mere 397 patients checked in, many of them charity cases. Father O’Brien’s own sister, Sister Mary Raphael O’Brien, M.D., joined her brother in 1893 and headed up the newly formed St. Camillus School of Nursing.

Borgess survived the tough decade of the 1890s with the assistance of various donations and fundraising bazaars, lawn socials and raffles. By 1900, the hospital managed to make a small profit, which was applied toward its $8,000 indebtedness. The following year, Borgess broke ground for a major four-story addition fronting Portage Street. Additional improvements followed in 1903 and 1907. The mansion that had served as the first hospital, which was by this time hidden from view by the additions, was converted into an “Old People’s Home,” a tradition of care for the elderly that the Sisters continue to this day.

Despite the various additions that brought the number of beds to 100, overcrowding and obsolescence at Borgess Hospital had reached serious proportions by World War I. Work began on a “new” Borgess Hospital on a tract of land on Gull Road in 1916, and on Sept. 19, 1917, the first patient arrived at the four-story red-brick structure.

The original hospital on Portage Avenue, referred to as Old Borgess, remained in use as an emergency hospital until it closed its doors in 1929. It lay vacant until 1933, when the Upjohn Co. purchased and razed it. Fittingly, the original site of Kalamazoo’s first hospital now houses the new Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine.

Monsignor Francis O’Brien would be proud.

Larry Massie

Larry B. Massie, who has written more than 100 articles for Encore under three editorial regimes, contributed this month’s article “The Birth of Borgess,” based, in part, on his 22nd Michigan history book, Health Care Anew: The First 125 years of Borgess Health, to be published soon. He and his partner, culinary historian Priscilla Massie (pictured with him), reside in the Allegan Forest amidst their private library of 45,000 volumes. In 2011 the Historical Society of Michigan awarded Larry Massie its first Lifetime Achievement Award.

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