In 1855, another appeal reached Emmitsburg, this time from Bishop Amat of Monterey (Los Angeles) who knew the great good that could be done in his diocese and who was anxious to have the sisters assist him in caring for and instructing the children.
Emmitsburg responded to this appeal and named Sisters Scholastica Logsden and Ann Gillen for Los Angeles. Bishop Amat had already recruited three young women in Spain who became Daughters of Charity and were also named for Los Angeles. They were Angelita Mombrado, Clara de Cisneros and Francesca Fernandez.
These five sisters (accompanied by Bishop Amat) boarded a steamer and sailed from New York to Panama on October 20, 1855. They arrived on the Atlantic side and crossed the Isthmus in rail cars. When they reached the Pacific side, they boarded another steamer and sailed on to San Francisco where they arrived 25 days after their departure from New York. They were received by their sisters who had preceded them to California. After several weeks in San Francisco, these five sisters (and Sister Corsina McKay from San Francisco) continued their journey to Los Angeles. They boarded a smaller steamer and sailed on to San Pedro where they arrived on January 6, 1856.
Sister Scholastica Logsden was the leader of this colony of sisters in Los Angeles. Here, they established an orphanage and school and then an infirmary.
Journey to “The City of the Angeles,” Los Angeles
The landscape that welcomed the first courageous Daughters of Charity was vast and limitless. As their stage coach rumbled toward the tiny pueblo that would become Los Angeles, it left only wagon wheels ruts in its wake. The Daughters, however, were to leave a much greater mark. Since 1856, each succeeding generation in Los Angeles has witnessed the inexhaustible kindness, compassion, inventiveness and love of the Daughters of Charity.
1996, The Pioneering Spirit, St. Vincent Medical Center Historical Conservancy
The date was January 6, 1856. A heavy Banning Stagecoach, trailed by a pack of snapping, barking dogs, was completing a six hour journey from the shores of San Pedro. Inside, thrown about by an extremely rough ride, six blue-clad Sisters from Emmitsburg, Maryland, held on for dear life.
Having left Emmitsburg on a crowded vessel, the Sisters endured a stormy passage to Panama, with some small relief from their seasickness offered by a kindly fellow passenger’s “old brandy.” After crossing the Isthmus of Panama by burro, they reboarded a ship and were greatly relieved to arrive in San Francisco in November 1855. After a short rest, the Daughters boarded a steamer to San Pedro.
As the dust swirled, the boom of the town’s cannon heralded the arrival of the supply stagecoach at El Pueblo de la Senora la Reina de Los Angeles, along with the settlement’s first Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul.
These courageous pioneers, striking a great presence with their expansive cornettes, would etch their names and deeds in the history of Los Angeles. Undaunted by the rigors of a long journey and the hardships they faced, the Daughters trekked through the muddy streets on the final leg of their mission of mercy.
News of their arrival brought a committee of citizens who showed them several sites for their prospective residence and orphanage. Once their resourceful pioneer superior Sister Mary Scholastica Logsdon, D.C., selected a site, she had the Sisters sewing large bags. These they stuffed with wood shavings from a carpenter’s shop to make beds. As one Sister later said, “Only God knows what we went through.”
The pueblo’s dwellings were made of mud, with roofs of tar from the pits of La Brea. The dusty roads were besieged by packs of mongrel dogs that infested the entire settlement with fleas. The original adobe building leaked so much that on rainy days, the Sisters cooked in the kitchen with umbrellas.
As community needs arose, the Daughters managed to handle these through imagination and initiative. Within a few months of their 1856 arrival, citizens approached Sister Scholastica and requested that she open a hospital. Soon, a Vincentian priest brought the Daughters their first patient.
By 1858, a property at Alameda and Macy Streets became the base for the good works of the Daughters, with the County paying $1 per day to the Sisters for indigent patient care (reduced by the county to $.75 per day in 1871). Illustrative of their constant struggle with cash flow, the May 11, 1861 Los Angeles Star listed the Daughters of Charity property on the delinquent tax list, subject to auction to pay back taxes.
In the 1860s, care of the sick moved to a two story building at North Main and San Fernando opposite the railroad grounds. Under the direction of Sister Ann Gillen, D.C. (for whom Ann Street was subsequently names) this facility was incorporated as the Los Angeles Infirmary in 1869. The Daughters were the first women in Los Angeles to organize themselves in such a manner, demonstrating strong business acumen that afforded protection for their property and charitable efforts.
Water was brought from the river, and Indian women washed the linen on the riverbank. Sister Ann noted, “Milk was scarce, for the cows were not accustomed to being milked and the operation was a dangerous one.”
The booming population in Los Angeles caused the county to launch a hospital in 1878 with about 30 of the Sisters’ patients. That year, the Infirmary had cared to 501 patients. Still needing space, five years later the Sisters purchased six and one-half acres of land for $10,000 at Sunset and Beaudry and moved there in 1884. In 1895, as oil derricks sprouted throughout the town, the Sisters leased rights to oil on their property for a royalty.
At St. Vincent’s Hospital, the Daughters and doctors worked diligently and faithfully to respond to the needs of the swelling populace. For patients in need of “the remedy” during Prohibition, doctors could write prescriptions for alcohol. In 1922, St. Vincent’s medical internship program was approved to train new physicians to answer the growing community’s needs.
In January 1927, fire swept the upper floors of the wooden structure at Sunset and Beaudry due to crossed wires on the sixth floor, according to The Tidings. Some 125 patients – including 28 mothers and newborns – were evacuated to safety without incident. Fortunately, construction was nearly complete at the new location – the corner of Third and Alvarado Streets.
In 1932, St. Vincent’s struggled to pay off building debts left from the construction of the new hospital. Sister Fidelis Klein, D.C., a financial wizard, soon had the hospital rebounding as the place to be if one were ill.
An anesthesiologist who began his career at St. Vincent’s in 1939 wrote, “In the late 30s, we were flying by the seat of our pants! We had a blood pressure cuff on, kept a finger on the pulse, and that’s about the only monitoring we had! Frequently we didn’t get the patients awake right after surgery, either. Not like we do now. We didn’t have muscle relaxants, so to bring about relaxation, we had to keep the patients deep [under anesthesia]. We had nothing with which to reverse anesthetic agents. We didn’t have a recovery room. The patients went from the operating room to the floor where the nurses would keep an eye on them while passing meds and answering the phone. How they all survived, I don’t know!”
Following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ declaration of war, St. Vincent’s School of Nursing admitted cadet nurses, in cooperation with the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corp. Scores of the Nursing School’s graduates served their country during the war.
In 1942, the Daughters went to court to fight the mayor, who was determined to treat hospitals “like profit organizations.” The Sisters’ attorney, after “eloquent and forceful words explaining their work and their treatment of war casualties ‘to which the city had not contributed,’” suddenly collapsed and died.
During the late 1940s, the Estelle Doheny Eye Foundation, the first eye research bank in California, was established at St. Vincent’s. It was made possible by benefactor Countess Carrie Estelle Doheny, who was afflicted with glaucoma. Ultimately, it outgrew its quarters and moved to the USC campus.
In 1947, the Department of Electroencephalography was established, along with the Tumor Clinic. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Howard House started the Los Angeles Foundation of Otology, later named the House Ear Institute (HEI). The stunning accomplishments – new surgical techniques that restored hearing such as the cochlear implant and later, the auditory brainstem implant, and advances that brought wound to the totally deaf – have had a dramatic impact on many thousands of lives. Since the 40s, these otologists’ focus on research and education has inspired and spawned esteemed otologic academicians and clinicians throughout the world.
In the 1950s, St. Vincent’s unveiled its new, expanded School of Nursing, Department of Electromyography (that pioneered conduction velocities), Department of Isotopic Medicine, and Department of Nuclear Medicine – the first of its kind in Los Angeles. A gift from Countess Doheny paved the way for the Estelle Doheny obstetrics wing. At its peak, 150 to 200 babies were delivered each month, and with the unit’s closing, the former delivery rooms became otologic and neurosurgery operating suites. Eventually, St. Vincent’s also closed its emergency room as it began focusing its pioneering efforts on emerging specialty areas.
Presaging its brilliance as one of the country’s foremost cardiac care and surgery centers, the West Coast’s first successful open heart surgery took place at St. Vincent’s in 1957. These then high-risk surgeries – initially all on children with heart defects – took 10 hours or more and used 10 units of blood. One new heart surgery begun in the 60s became the most frequently performed: coronary artery bypass – a surgery that has extended countless lives. Since pioneering this area, St. Vincent has ranked among the state’s top cardiac centers. Its highly respected adult and pediatric cardiac services include interventional cardiology, electrophysiology and all types of open heart surgery. The heart team is known for its high rate of success with the most difficult cases.
In 1984, in the spirit of the Daughter’s mission, a charitable cardiac care program began that saved the lives of hundreds of children throughout the world. In 1988, surgeons performed the first heart transplantation at St. Vincent. In 1990, the highly sophisticated McAlister Infant Cardiac Surgery Unit was dedicated.
With the dawn of a new decade and President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” St. Vincent’s began offering hemodialysis to kidney failure patients, one of the first hospitals to do so. The demand was so great that doctors’ committees had to make difficult decisions of access. Sweeping social welfare programs, the Civil Rights Act and the establishment of Medicare were milestones that would drastically alter healthcare delivery. Many medical firsts occurred in the 60s, among them the first artificial and human heart transplant attempts.
The 70s was extraordinary decade. As hemodialysis became more widely available, St. Vincent’s offered another pioneering treatment – kidney transplants. By the Fall of 1970, the St. Vincent Transplant Program became the first center certified by the State of California. The lead surgeons on the transplant team also founded the Southern California Organ Procurement and Preservation Center, rated among the five (of 69) most efficient organ procurement agencies in the U.S.
In 1971, a groundbreaking ceremony signaled the beginnings of the fifth St. Vincent’s – a new 386-bed, $18 million hospital – in which every patient had a private room. This era also marked a time of innovation in the pharmaceutical industry with life-saving new medications being tested daily.
The hospital’s name was formally changed to St. Vincent Medical Center in 1974. The Los Angeles Heart Institute (LAHI) at St. Vincent was founded that same year, and soon after, instituted a Visiting Professor lecture series for professional education. The following year, the doors of the new medical center opened, with just the Doheny Building remaining of the old campus.
The Bancroft Heart Pavilion was dedicated, and by 1976, closed circuit patient TV was inaugurated, offering health education programs and chapel services. By this time, St. Vincent had become quite strong in a number of areas, including orthopedics, ophthalmology, neurosurgery, urology, plastic surgery, general surgery and other medical disciplines.
In mid-1977, a senior meals program was begun at Precious Blood Parish. Less than a year later, the Daughters’ Senior Citizen Nutrition Program began delivering meals to the homebound of Los Angeles. Today, St. Vincent Meals on Wheels prepares and delivers more than 2,000 nutritious meals each day, making this the largest such program in the city.
As life expectancy increased, so too did the incidence of diseases such as cancer. St. Vincent had grown as a cancer center since the late 40s and moved to the forefront. By the 70s, this area emerged as a particular strength. It included chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgical intervention, immunotherapy, bone marrow transplantation and participation in research and clinical trials.
For many years, cancer patients have had access to sophisticated yet compassionate care, including hospice services and a hospice volunteer training program. St. Vincent established a model of care for other cancer centers to emulate and helped in the founding of the Serra Project, an assisted living home for AIDS patients. Beginning in 1980, St. Vincent conducted several studies under the auspices of the National Cancer Institute. In the 80s, neurosurgeons at St. Vincent performed on of the first U.S. radioactive seed implants into a brain tumor, causing it to shrink. The medical center is home to the Los Angeles Oncologic Institute (1985), the St. Vincent Immunotherapy Laboratory (1984), the Michael Landon Cancer Prevention Center (1992) and the Community Mammography Program (1992), offering under-served women access to care in their neighborhoods. Another innovative cancer effort is the African American Men’s Health Project, a prostate cancer, diabetes and hypertension screening program.
In 1994, a new building was dedicated – the National Institute of Transplantation – marking the increasing use of transplantation to save lives. The success of drugs to overcome rejection made transplant an increasingly viable treatment option. This same year, liver transplantation began at St. Vincent.
In an increasingly complex society, St. Vincent Medical Center endeavors to follow in the footsteps of its founding pioneers. The humanitarian beliefs and spiritual values of those Daughters of Charity have become embedded into its infrastructure. Today, these values and pioneering approaches are needed more than ever, as more than 1.3 million people live within a five mile radius of St. Vincent. Poverty and homelessness are rising, and there are more low income populations with special needs than ever.
An awareness of these growing needs, guided by its founders; ideals, St. Vincent Medical Center has created innovative community outreach programs to serve the ethnically and economically diverse population in its own Los Angeles neighborhood.
In 1995, Casa de Amigos de San Vicente expanded youth and family programs into a community center, assisting local families with Neighborhood Watch, graffiti removal and esteem-building youth activities. Preventive health programs, such as “Shots for Tots,” contribute to our community’s health and well being.
Since the Daughters’ arrival, their mark – in health care, education, and numerous charitable works in the tradition of their founder, St. Vincent de Paul – has been ingrained in this city’s history. Their unwavering commitment to helping all in need set a precedent for the pioneering approaches that benefitted subsequent generations…medically, socially, culturally and spiritually.
In today’s challenging environment, St. Vincent remains true to the humanitarian beliefs and spiritual paths followed by its pioneering Daughters of Charity, whose daring uncharted journey left a legacy of caring and commitment.