The 1895 St. Vincent Hospital stands on Westover Road in Northwest Portland in about 1911. Many city dwellers called it “the castle on the hill.”   The old building had style, but “it was hard to practice modern medicine in a facility of that age,” said Nancy Roberts, current chief operating officer of St. Vincent. (Providence Health and Services archives)
The 1895 St. Vincent Hospital stands on Westover Road in Northwest Portland in about 1911. Many city dwellers called it “the castle on the hill.” The old building had style, but “it was hard to practice modern medicine in a facility of that age,” said Nancy Roberts, current chief operating officer of St. Vincent. (Providence Health and Services archives)

Fifty years ago, a stream of nuns, doctors, nurses and patients wound up Sylvan Hill from Northwest Portland to found a 400-bed hospital in what seemed like the distant woods.

But placement of the new St. Vincent Hospital on Barnes Road turned out to be prescient as the west suburbs of Portland grew as fast as any district in the nation.

Now, Providence St. Vincent Medical Center is a flagship of the region’s largest health provider. It just was named one of the nation’s 50 best hospitals.

On Jan. 24, 1971, retired Archbishop Edward Howard snipped a symbolic ribbon on the $20 million building that had 11 levels and stood alone surrounded by a field and fir trees. Archbishop Robert Dwyer praised the Sisters of Providence for their “foresight and courage” in constructing what he called a “magnificent building.”

Sister Barbara Ellen, provincial superior of the Sisters of Providence, gave an address, looking back to the first hospital in Portland in 1875. “In comparing the old and the new, there is one very obvious similarity, and that is the consistent, wholehearted cooperation of the people of Portland and surrounding areas in the 96 years we have been serving here,” she said.

Bruce Kelly and the New Oregon Singers sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” after Archbishop Dwyer blessed a U.S. flag, which was raised over the hospital. The flag once flew over the national capitol in Washington, D.C., and was brought to St. Vincent by U.S. Rep. Edith Green.

Much of the credit for the move went to Sister Rita (Mary Laureen) Ferschweiler, who was administrator of the new hospital. Sister Barbara Ellen lauded her “for the many personal sacrifices you have made to bring this new hospital from plans to the reality it is today.”

Flanked by Archbishop Robert Dwyer and Sr. Rita Ferschweiler, retired Archbishop Edward Howard snips the ceremonial ribbon at the new St. Vincent Hospital Jan. 24, 1971. (Sentinel archives)

About 20,000 people toured the new hospital that weekend. They saw a spacious lobby with a view of a sunken rock garden.

More than 2,000 people helped make the 4.5-mile uphill move, which included about 150 truckloads of gear. The transfer of 200 patients came on Jan. 31 and ran according to an intricate schedule. Each ambulance, borrowed from the Army, had six sets of triple-deck bunks.

Roland Hanson, coordinator for the project, called it the largest transfer in the Pacific Northwest.

“This is one of the most challenging assignments I have ever had,” Hanson told the Catholic Sentinel. “There are so many things to be considered ... insurance, traffic flow, patient care and handling, new bed assignments, construction progress ... it keeps you constantly on your toes.”

Today’s leaders of Providence chuckle at the hospital’s $20 million price tag. That’s about what it cost to renovate just the hospital’s critical care unit a year ago.

Nancy Roberts, chief operating officer and interim chief executive of Providence St. Vincent, said not everyone thought the 1971 move was a good idea.

“It was controversial,” said Roberts, who has worked for Providence for 37 years. “It was seen as too far from downtown. Some thought no one would want to travel there.”

Roberts now knows that Sister Rita, who died last year, was visionary in her placement. Providence now has east and west hospitals that are easily accessible from a large portion of the metro area.

The old brick building on Westover had style, but “it was hard to practice modern medicine in a facility of that age,” said Roberts.

Of course, since 1971 St. Vincent has been in constant expansion and renovation. The original main tower is still the core, but buildings rise around it like a city. In 2019, the concrete exterior was shored up and covered with aluminum and glass. There was a major seismic upgrade to prevent collapse.

The next big thing at St. Vincent? Roberts said leaders are imaging what the emergency room of the future will look like.

“Providence has been part of the community for a long time, and we will be here for a very long time to come,” she concluded. “Hospitals are personal things. People are born and die there. What a privilege and honor it is to be able to walk with people in those times in their lives.”

Another constant is the Providence religious mission and identity, said Holy Names Sister Lynda Thompson, who has the job of making sure the mission is integrated into everything that happens at St. Vincent.

The 1971 move was really a confirmation of how divine providence works, said Sister Lynda: “Providence supports us when we commit, when we make a move. Grace comes from the moment.”

Sister Rita embraced that, said Sister Lynda, who knew the older nun well. “She was a tiny woman of great stature who had a vision of what we talk about now as responding to the signs of the times. She knew the mission is not meant just to be maintained but is meant to develop and grow.”

Sister Rita was a strategic thinker and collaborator who could assemble teams that worked, Sister Lynda recalled. “She could ignite esprit de corps. She did it for the common good.”


A top-50 rating

Providence St. Vincent Medical Center is among 50 hospitals in the country and the only in Oregon to receive Healthgrades 2021 America’s 50 Best Hospitals Award. The ranking places Providence St. Vincent in the top 1% of the nation’s nearly 4,500 hospitals for clinical performance.

From 2017 through 2019, patients treated in hospitals achieving the Healthgrades America’s 50 Best Hospitals award had, on average, a 25.7% lower risk of dying than if they were treated in hospitals that did not receive the award.

“I’m so proud of our caregivers and the outstanding work they do each and every day,” said Dr. Ray Moreno, chief medical officer at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center. “This recognition is particularly meaningful after the challenging year we’ve just had with COVID-19. Quality and safety have never been more important — to both our patients and our caregivers.”