History of the St. John of God Insane Asylum

This history except comes from a finding aid created by the archivists at Providence Hospital for St. Joseph’s Hospital, located in Vancouver, Washington.

At the request of townspeople in Vancouver, Washington Territory, the Sisters of Providence opened St. Joseph Hospital, the first permanent hospital in the Pacific Northwest, on June 7, 1858. The sisters donated a small cabin and agreed to manage and staff the hospital, while residents, chiefly the Ladies of Charity of Vancouver, a group of Catholics and non-Catholics, agreed to support the effort through fund-raising, equipment, and supplies. Sister Joseph of the Sacred Heart and Sister Blandine of the Holy Angels shared the work at the hospital. After their arrival from Montreal on October 6, 1858, Sister John of God and Sister Mary Peter took charge of the hospital.

The care of the mentally ill was a distinct service performed by the Sisters of Providence from 1861 to 1866. In the spring of 1861, a mentally deranged woman was taken under the care of Sister Joseph. On June 5, 1861, the Right Rev. A.M.A. Blanchet, Bishop of Nesqually, blessed a lodging for the care of the mentally ill on the St. James Mission grounds and named it St. John of God Insane Asylum. In 1862 Mother Joseph obtained a three-year contract from the territorial government for the care of the mentally ill. Work grew from the small building to a larger one on the northwest corner of 8th and Reserve streets. Although the contract was discontinued in October 1865, it was not until July 1866 that the patients were moved from Vancouver to Monticello, now Longview. After the patients left in 1866, the building was renovated and became the new building for St. Joseph Hospital.

St. Joseph Hospital moved and expanded several times since taking over the site and building of the former asylum. When that house burned in 1878, the hospital reopened a larger facility soon after. In 1911, after two years of construction, St. Joseph moved to a modern brick hospital on 12th and Reserve streets, across the street from Providence Academy. The vacated site was converted by the religious community into a home for the aged, named Blanchet Home, administered separately from the hospital. St. Joseph Hospital School of Nursing was officially opened in 1911 by Superior/Administrator Sister Mary Conrad with the first class graduating in 1914.

The school closed in 1954 due to economic and educational trends affecting smaller nursing schools. Despite a new wing completed in 1948, it was evident again by 1962 that the hospital would need to be completely remodeled or a new facility constructed to accommodate modern medical technology. The sisters hired Community Counselling Service, Inc., a fund-raising and public relations firm to conducted a survey in the Vancouver area to determine the feasibility of a building campaign and the level of community support for a new hospital. The area representatives who worked on the survey, J. William Tobin and John P. Greeley, were later employed by the provincialate to run its Central Development Office.

After surveys done in 1961 and 1964 and in light of failures to receive federal matching funds in 1962 and 1965, it was determined that the sisters could not afford to build a new hospital or continue sponsorship of St. Joseph Hospital. In March 1966, Mother Mary Loretta, Provincial Superior, announced the intention to close the hospital or withdraw its sponsorship. An independent group of local citizens, the St. Joseph Community Hospital Association, organized to explore ways of saving the hospital and raising funds for a new building. At midnight on October 15, 1967, ownership of the hospital was transferred to St. Joseph Community Hospital Association, Inc., which continues to operate today as Southwest Washington Medical Center.