The Story of Sister Mary Joaquin Bitler, SC
When Sister Mary Joachim Bitler SC was sent by the Cincinnati Order of the Sisters of Charity to be Supervisor of Nursing at St. Vincent Hospital in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the young nurse was shocked at the backwardness of the institution. It was 1951, and Sister Mary Joachim had just finished four years as the Director of Nursing at Good Samaritan Hospital in Dayton, Ohio. “Good Sam,” as local residents affectionately called the Dayton hospital, enjoyed the latest in equipment and advanced medical procedures. In contrast, Santa Fe’s only hospital, built in 1910 and serving not only the city and county, but also much of the entire northern region of the state, was run, in the new nurse’s words, on “nerve and hope.”1
In 1951 St. Vincent Hospital was housed in the third hospital building constructed by the Sisters of Charity since their arrival in the wild west of New Mexico Territory in 1865. Once the Civil War ended, Jean-Baptiste Lamy, Bishop of Santa Fe, wrote Archbishop Purcell in Cincinnati, asking him to contact the Sisters of Charity—a Cincinnati Order of religious women dedicated to teaching, nursing, and service to the poor—and ask the sisters to send nurses to start a hospital in Santa Fe. Lamy, a transplant from France, had arrived in the territorial capital in 1851, not long after the United States had claimed New Mexico under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the Mexican-American War. At the time, New Mexico territory extended to what is now Arizona and southern parts of Colorado, Utah, and Nevada.
The French bishop was appalled at the poverty and ignorance in the area and the religious and racial prejudices—Anglos against Spanish and Indians, Spanish against Anglos and Indians, and Indians frequently attacking both. There were not yet any formal schools, no hospitals or orphanages or other institutions of civilization other than the Church—and the Church, prior to Lamy’s arrival, had suffered the decadence of isolation, both geographically and from the secular policies of the Mexican government.2 In addition to the bishop’s attempts to bring a strict order to the religious life of the remote area and stamp out what he felt was the questionable morality of some of the New Mexican priests, he also wanted to improve the health and educational conditions of the mostly Spanish-speaking population of his new diocese.
The Cincinnati sisters sent four women, two of whom had been nurses during the Civil War, none of whom spoke Spanish. Traveling by boat, train, and finally stagecoach, a three-week journey, the easterners found a Santa Fe composed mainly of small adobe houses with dirt floors, tiny windows, and covered with flat, dirt roofs. Bishop Lamy had acquired land and a few adobe hovels behind the parish church of St. Francis—later to be transformed into his French-style neo-Romanesque cathedral—with three thousand dollars, bequeathed to him by the French priest he had installed in the town of Mora. The priest had died of poison in the sacramental Communion wine, a fate purportedly intended for his associate, who had neglected to show up for Mass that day.
The first Santa Fe hospital was located in one of the bishop's hovels, an orphanage was located in another. Lamy gave up half of his mud-floored house to the sisters—the part in which the roof didn’t leak. When it rained, the good bishop ate his dinner with an umbrella over his head. The sisters named their hospital after St. Vincent de Paul, the early 17th century emissary to the poor and the patron saint of the Sisters of Charity. No one knows for certain who the first patients in the sisters’ new St. Vincent Hospital were, but they may have been the two priests shot by an intruder who had entered Lamy’s quarters demanding money. The thief was soon hauled off to jail, and with the sisters’ care, the two men survived. At the sisters' orphanage, their first orphan was a Navajo baby girl found abandoned on a battlefield. Every Saturday the poor would come to the hospital for food, and daily the sisters visited the homes of the sick.
The little hospital was enlarged with volunteer labor and contributed materials. The territorial legislature allocated a hundred dollars a month to help the project. Noting that the new hospital would perhaps be a refuge for the beggars who had been harassing the townspeople for alms, the law required the sheriff to present all mendicants found in the public streets to the hospital—to take them in if sick, to send them to work for a living if not.3 Other sources of funds came trickling in, some from the clergy, some from the soldiers stationed at Fort Marcy, some from grateful families of patients, and some gathered by the sisters from their begging trips. The sisters walked for miles around the region begging funds, especially from the mine owners in Cerrillos and Madrid, who on the whole were very generous. Supplies were donated from the Fort Marcy commissary. Nevertheless the little hospital was continuously in dire financial straits, as well as lacking space, since the sisters’ policy was to help everyone—Protestant, Catholic, Jew, atheist, Indian, Spanish or Anglo—regardless of his or her ability to pay, a policy that continues to this day.4 In 1876, Sister Blandina Segale addressed the lack of hospital space to accommodate the many charity cases in a novel and practical way: she moved the paying patients into private homes.
Sister Blandina recorded a now almost legendary event in her memoir, At the End of the Santa Fe Trail. The sister was called to treat one of Billy-the-Kid’s accomplices who had been wounded in a gun battle. She did so, and the young outlaw survived. Later, when Sister Blandina learned that Billy's gang was proposing to scalp four physicians whom Billy felt had refused them aid, she talked them out of it. Later, when Billy’s gang was poised to attack a stagecoach on the road from Trinidad to Santa Fe, Billy realized that one of the passengers was Sister Blandina. On recognizing her, Billy tipped his hat to her and called off his men. From then on, any stage carrying a Sister of Charity—clearly recognizable by the cap and long black habit—was off limits to the gang.5
By the late1870s, the little hospital was overflowing with miners hurt in mining accidents and railroad workers suffering from smashed limbs. Additionally, the mild, healthful climate of Santa Fe was becoming famous as a place of possible cure for a U.S. population suffering from malaria, as well as tuberculosis, pneumonia, and other respiratory diseases. At a time when most doctors in the West gained their knowledge either from reading a do-it-yourself book or by working with other doctors who had gained their knowledge from working with yet other doctors, the St. Vincent Hospital physician, Dr. Robert Longwill, had actually graduated from Philadelphia’s Jefferson Medical College. Although Dr. Longwill’s medical competence was acknowledged, he was also one of the leaders of the Santa Fe Ring—a group of nefarious Anglo lawyers and certain Spanish land-owning ricos intent on separating the extensive lands granted the people by the previous Spanish and Mexican governments from their unsuspecting owners. Hence Longwill’s reputation was not conducive to confidence among many in need of his help. To his credit, however, he was instrumental in convincing the legislature to pass a bill regulating the practice of medicine in the territory.6
In 1880 a three-story building was erected under the supervision of Sister Blandina. The building had been intended for a school, but with the coming of the railroad, the more immediate need was to use it as a hospital. In 1883 the Sisters opened a new sanatorium, and a few years later, a new orphanage. But fire destroyed the sanatorium in 1896, the patients being quickly rescued, some moved to the orphanage, some to the hospital that had escaped the fire, and some to the private homes of concerned Santa Fe residents.
One of the many stories about the sisters' hospital recounts that Territorial Governor Miguel Otero and two companions, inebriated and with pockets flush with poker winnings from a night on the town the town, knocked on the hospital door in the early morning hours. Sister Victoria graciously took them in. Otero offered her $50 for her good services to the hospital. One of his companions insisted Otero double the amount, and the third man insisted he double that. The governor and his friends departed the next day, but returned to add another $50, bring the total to the hospital for the night's debauchery at $250.7
It wasn’t until 1910 that a seventy-five-bed, $75,000 modern hospital was built, opening to great public fanfare and acclaim—a military band, a bazaar, and free dinners for the townspeople. Facing onto Palace Avenue, the new hospital contained electric lights, hot and cold running water, steam heat, an X-ray unit, a large operating room on the third floor, and an elevator that sometimes worked. When it didn’t, the hospital staff had to carry their patients, strapped into chairs, up and down the three floors. When extra beds were available, the sisters took in visitors, and the hospital, said to have the best dining room in town, soon became a community center. Parties were thrown in the billiards room off the main lobby, and when the legislature was in session, poker games went on through the night8 A great sport for the children was to slide down the stair banisters. Years later, one Santa Fean remembered she and her friends making so much noise in the lobby that the Sisters sent them all to play in the old sanitarium, where there were only two occupants at the time, both of whom were deaf.
One of the more notorious operations at the Santa Fe hospital was performed by Sister Mary de Sales, who later became the first woman MD in New Mexico Territory. Using a penknife and forceps, Sister Mary removed a stone from a miner’s eye. The stone now rests in a glass case in the Sisters of Charity's Motherhouse in Cincinnati.9
This was the hospital to which, in 1951, Sister Mary Joachim was sent to serve as Superintendent of Nurses.