OPINION: Sisters of St. Joseph built $1-million hospital with a $10,000 grant

St. Joseph’s Hospital as it appeared in February of 1954. Photo courtesy, Lambton County Archives, Sarnia Observer Negative Collection, 20773-03

Phil Egan

Central Collegiate no longer exists, but its memories linger among those who attended the school.

Today, only its track and football field remain. Both of these were luxuries if, like me, you attended the much smaller St. Patrick’s High School. In my day, St. Pat’s was a private school for Grades 11-13 on the southwest corner of Russell and Essex Street.

My wife, Laurie, went to Central. She tells me the school had a large cafeteria that served hot lunches in three shifts for the mass of students who attended. Our cafeteria had no such luxuries. It was a tiny former gymnasium where you brown-bagged a lunch of sandwiches and fruit.

If we wanted a hot meal at lunchtime, we used to break school rules and hike over to the cafeteria at St. Joseph’s Hospital on Russell Street. I don’t know whether the white-habited hospital Sisters of St. Joseph would have reported us for being there, but we avoided them as best we could just in case.

The Sisters of St. Joseph originated in France, where they were reorganized in Lyons after barely surviving the Revolution, during which five were guillotined and others imprisoned in the Bastille.

They came to Canada in 1851 after arriving in America, settling in Toronto. In 1868, five Sisters from Toronto arrived in London at the invitation of Bishop Walsh, to care for children, the sick and the aged. A large convent was established at Mount Hope, where many were cared for. In the later years of the 19th century, convent-schools were also established in Goderich, Ingersoll and St. Thomas.

Encouraged to become involved in hospital work, the Sisters opened St. Joseph’s Hospital in London in 1888, with ten beds and a staff of three Sisters and four doctors. Soon the Sisters had relocated to Mount St. Joseph in London, and opened another hospital in Chatham.

Between 1914 and 1939 their work continued to expand, as convents were opened across Southwestern Ontario and a nursing school established in London. By the 1940s, city council realized the municipally owned Sarnia General Hospital wasn’t keeping pace with the growing population and invited the Sisters to establish a new hospital here.

A lack of both skilled labour and building materials complicated the task, but by October of 1946 the new St. Joseph’s Hospital opened at the corner of London Road and Russell Street, offering 150 beds and 30 bassinets.

The $1-million project was financed entirely by the Sisters of St. Joseph. They received no government assistance and just a $10,000 grant from the city. A massive expansion followed in 1959.

Restructuring by the Ontario government merged St. Joseph’s with Sarnia General to create the modernized Bluewater Health, which today has nearly 2,500 staff and volunteers.