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The Charity Hospital, founded in 1888, evolved into today’s St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center of Little Rock (Pulaski County). The Charity Hospital was Arkansas’s first Catholic hospital, and St. Vincent remains the state’s oldest continuously operating hospital. What became known as CHI St. Vincent Health System, an affiliate of Catholic Health Initiatives, continues to emphasize the healing mission of the Catholic Church through its focus on the values of reverence, integrity, compassion, and excellence.
The 1882 will of Alexander Hager, a wealthy Little Rock resident, promised to provide funding for hospital service in Little Rock if God spared the city from the yellow fever outbreak that was tearing through the South. When the outbreak passed over Little Rock, Hager’s will provided Bishop Edward M. Fitzgerald with $75,000 to found the Charity Hospital.
In 1888, five Sisters of Charity of Nazareth under the guidance of Mother General Cleophas left Kentucky and arrived in Little Rock to serve the hospital. It was the first hospital the sisters operated outside of Kentucky. The Charity Hospital opened in an antebellum mansion, the Alexander George house, on East 2nd and McClean streets. Little Rock residents were actively involved in supporting the Charity Hospital. The Hagers, financier Edward Parker, and others provided fiscal support. Seven area physicians contributed to the planning of the hospital, and residents donated food, clothes, and furniture. The Charity Hospital initially provided ten patient beds.
In 1889, Fitzgerald changed the name of Charity Hospital to the Little Rock Infirmary. By 1890, the hospital was named St. Vincent Infirmary in honor of St. Vincent de Paul, a French priest who cared for the sick. The infirmary moved to its third location, at 10th and High streets, in 1900. Here, the Sisters of Charity provided medical care to patients in a three-story granite facility with fifty beds.
Throughout the twentieth century, St. Vincent Infirmary increased its number of medical services. The St. Vincent Infirmary School of Nursing, Arkansas’s first nursing school, opened in 1906. Until 1909, when the first class of nurses graduated, the Sisters of Charity were the infirmary’s only nurses.
In 1920, the hospital’s sixteen physicians organized the St. Vincent Medical Staff according to American College of Surgeons guidelines. The same year, St. Vincent formed the Department of Roentgenology and was one of the first hospitals in the nation to install X-ray technologies. In 1920, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals (now the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations) certified St. Vincent, the first hospital in Arkansas to receive this honor.
Monsignor John J. Healey, director of the Diocese of Little Rock’s hospitals, ensured the growth of St. Vincent in the 1940s and 1950s through diocesan support. In 1951, he was elected president of the North American Catholic Hospital Association. He helped organize and create the Arkansas Conference of Catholic Hospitals in 1955.
St. Vincent moved to its current location in 1954 after Bishop Albert L. Fletcher authorized the purchase of forty acres at Hayes and Markham streets. The old hospital at 10th and High streets became a nursing home, Our Lady of Nazareth. The Diocese of Little Rock had owned St. Vincent since its early days, but, in 1954, the Sisters of Charity were granted ownership of the “new” hospital. The 140–member staff provided care to patients in a nine-story facility with 312 beds.
In 1959, the full integration of St. Vincent Infirmary occurred under the administration of Sister Margaret Vincent Blandford, SCN. Sister Margaret Vincent was named the Arkansas Democrat’s “Woman of the Year” in 1960 for her efforts in eliminating racial barriers.
In the 1970s, a lay board controlled St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center. A third of the board continued to be staffed by Sisters of Charity. The sisters remained a defining presence for the hospital and its future. Sister Blandford’s administration was responsible for the tremendous growth of St. Vincent Infirmary. The Parkview Medical Office Building was constructed in 1975, Blandford Physicians Center in 1984, and the Guesthouse in 1986.
On May 24, 1988, St. Vincent Infirmary celebrated its 100th anniversary. A Mass of Thanksgiving at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Little Rock was followed by a dedication on the infirmary’s campus. More than 3,000 people attended this dedication, and thousands watched on television from home.
Since 1997, CHI St. Vincent has been owned by the national, nonprofit Catholic Health Initiatives of Denver, Colorado. In 2002, the hospital had 865 medical staff members. St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center has 365 beds. St. Vincent’s Centers of Excellence include the Heart Center, the Orthopedic Center, the Senior Health Center, the Spine Center, the Stroke Center, the Center for Women and Children, and Doctors Hospital. St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center is part of the St. Vincent Health System serving Arkansas in Little Rock, Sherwood (Pulaski County), and Morrilton (Conway County). In March 1996, St. Vincent acquired the Visiting Nurse Association, the state’s largest home health agency.
In November 2011, CHI St. Vincent opened the first phase of St. Vincent West, a health center located in western Little Rock. Phase one includes a $6 million, 45,000-square-foot urgent care facility, as well as a family clinic. The second phase of the project will consist of a satellite office for The Longevity Center and the development of a sleep center.
CHI St. Vincent announced in August 2015 that it signed a five-year management agreement with Conway Regional Health System in Conway (Faulkner County). Each health system plans to keep its name and boards of directors. The two companies also announced the formation of a new organization, Arkansas Health Alliance, with Jim Lambert, president and CEO of Conway Regional, as president.
For additional information:CHI St. Vincent Health System. http://www.chistvincent.com/ (accessed August 19, 2015).
Woods, James M. Mission and Memory: A History of the Catholic Church in Arkansas. Little Rock: August House, 1992.
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Last Updated 11/5/2015
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