Written by St. Vincent de Paul, the rules that guided the Sisters of Providence gave guidance for care of the poor, sick and orphans, all central to Providence’s work in the Northwest. (Catholic News Service)
Written by St. Vincent de Paul, the rules that guided the Sisters of Providence gave guidance for care of the poor, sick and orphans, all central to Providence’s work in the Northwest. (Catholic News Service)
Catholic-based hospitals are ubiquitous in the United States, providing more than 15% of the nation’s hospital beds, according to government sources. In Oregon, as in several other states, it’s more than 30%. Many are part of vast systems that are among the nation’s largest health care providers.

Catholic hospitals in the U.S. and the Northwest have deep roots in a past era. Historians date the origins of Catholic health care in Europe to the 4th century, and Catholic priests and nuns brought Catholic-based health care to the United States in the early days of European settlement.

The birth story of Catholic hospitals and health care in Europe are complex. Historians attribute the strong Catholic presence in health care there partly to the church’s mission of service to the poor. But it was the church’s hierarchical structure and diverse ministries that allowed health care services to survive and thrive in monasteries and convents through many centuries of economic and public health turmoil.

Catholic religious orders and missionaries carried their health care expertise to North America in unison with the large migration of Europeans and others to the continent. In the Northwest, those European roots of Catholic health care are close to home: Mother Joseph and her Sisters of Providence migrated to the Northwest in 1856, founding the Northwest ‘s first hospital in Vancouver, Washington. The rules that guided the Sisters of Providence’s lives and ministries were copied from the Daughters of Charity of France. Written by St. Vincent de Paul, the rules provided guidance for care of the poor, sick and orphans, all central to Providence’s work in the Northwest.

By the time of her death in 1902 Mother Joseph had founded more than 28 hospitals, schools and orphanages across the Northwest. Those hospitals included St. Joseph in Vancouver in 1858 and St. Vincent in Portland in 1875.



First Catholic hospital in Rome

In the 4th century, a wealthy Christian widow named St. Fabiola gave money to build a hospital for the poor in Rome. Her donation financed what historians call the first Catholic hospital.

The legalization of Catholicism in Rome during the time of Constantine, emperor of Rome from 306 to 337, opened the way for the Nicene Council. The council ordered a hospital to be constructed in every cathedral town to care for the sick, the poor, widows and strangers. In the 6th century, the Benedictine order established an infirmary to provide care for their community. By the late 8th century, Emperor Charlemagne ordered that a hospital should be attached to all cathedrals and monasteries.

By the end of the Middle Ages, the church had established a foundation of health care all across Europe, with hundreds of hospitals. Religious orders also formed to provide health care for sick and ill, with charitable Catholic hospitals expanding worldwide. At the time of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s and early 1800s, a majority of hospitals worldwide had their roots in the long-standing Catholic tradition of caring for the sick.

Catholic hospitals have grown and changed with the times, and some have joined together through mergers and acquisitions. Four of the 10 largest health systems in the country are Catholic. By 2020 they owned or controlled 394 short-term acute care hospitals, a 50% increase since 2001, according to Community Catalyst, a non-profit consumer advocacy organization.

Those hospitals have become full-fledged not-for-profit businesses. Providence St. Joseph Health, based in Renton, Wash. now operates 52 hospitals in five western states, including eight hospitals in Oregon. PeaceHealth, a Catholic health care system based in Vancouver, Wash., operates four hospitals in Oregon.

The church, as well as Europeans who lived long ago, deserve thanks for this gift of Catholic health care.