ELMIRA — Despite job offers elsewhere over the years, Bill Wallace favors the intangibles that have kept him rooted at St. Joseph’s Hospital for nearly half a century.
“It’s a friendly and welcoming atmosphere, and you don’t get that at all places,” said Wallace, who serves as director of the hospital’s department of medical imaging. “There’s more caring for the patient — ‘are you warm, are you comfortable?’ A lot of other places, it’s an assembly line. Here, it’s not an assembly line.”
What Wallace values so highly is exactly what St. Joseph’s founders sought to instill some 100 years ago by bringing Catholic health care to Elmira, as noted by a placard outside the hospital entrance at 555 E. Market St.:
“Here on June 24, 1908, Sister Rose Alice and Sister St. Ann first entered the Academy of Our Lady of Angels to convert it into a Catholic hospital. From this modest beginning there has developed this modern and extensive group of buildings of St. Joseph’s Hospital — a fitting monument to the enduring faith, confident hope and beneficent charity of the Sisters of St. Joseph.”
The sign refers to Sister Rose Alice Conway and Sister St. Ann Murphy, who with five other Sisters of St. Joseph began the process of establishing Elmira’s first Catholic hospital. They did so with a sense of caring that went beyond the physical aspects of health care — a priority that continues today at St. Joseph’s, one of only two Catholic hospitals in the Diocese of Rochester (the other is St. James Mercy in Hornell).
“We treat the full person — mind, body and spirit. It’s not a disease we’re treating, but a person,” emphasized Sister Marie Castagnaro, SSJ, who has served as St. Joseph’s president/CEO since 1988 and is only the sixth administrator in its history.
“It’s not just health care. It’s a ministry of the church,” Sister Castagnaro added, noting that prayer is conducted every day over the hospital’s public-address system. “That’s what has kept me here — the faithfulness, integrity, compassion and caring.”
St. Joseph’s is celebrating its centennial with a slate of special events throughout 2008, including a 100th-anniversary Mass to be celebrated by Bishop Matthew H. Clark. That liturgy will take place at Elmira’s Ss. Peter and Paul Church, across the street from the hospital, at 7 p.m. on Sept. 24 — 100 years to the day from when the founding sisters and several local physicians opened St. Joseph’s doors.
Those nuns were at first rejected locally, and often hung by a thread financially. But with Sister Conway leading the way, they gradually won over the support of Elmira doctors and business leaders. By 1931, St. Joseph’s had grown into a 245-bed facility.
The Chemung River flooded in 1946, causing $350,000 in damage to the hospital; the Hurricane Agnes flood in 1972 inflicted an additional $8 million in damage. Wallace clearly remembers the latter disaster, which forced patients to be evacuated by helicopter. Even so, “we were up and running the second day,” he said.
In the mid-1960s St. Joseph’s was the site of the first corneal transplant and open-heart surgery in the Elmira area. The hospital has undertaken numerous expansions and renovations: highlights from recent years include significant expansion of the skilled-nursing facility in 1999 that brought the hospital’s overall bed capacity to 295; a health-services building that opened the same year; and opening of the Kidney Center in 2004.
Other developments of note have been establishment in 1954 of the Women’s Auxiliary, which sponsors projects and services to benefit the hospital and its patients and the 1984 establishment of the St. Joseph’s Hospital Foundation, the organization’s chief means of fundraising.
Wallace and Sister Castagnaro said St. Joseph’s has done a solid job of keeping up with state-of-the-art medical equipment and technology while preserving its values.
“The challenge is trying to figure out how to grow, based on community need. St. Joseph’s has done a remarkable job over the years of filling the needs,” Sister Castagnaro said, citing, for instance, expansion of the hospital’s drug- and alcohol-rehabilitation services in recent decades.
However, it’s doubtful that the hospital will serve the community for very much longer as an independent entity.
“The way health care is going here and into the future, in all parts of the country, you can’t afford to have absolutely everything at every hospital,” Sister Castagnaro said.
St. Joseph’s has been trying since 2006 to gain state approval for a working relationship with Guthrie Healthcare System of Sayre, Pa. The pact — which would commit $54 million to St. Joseph’s while allowing the Elmira hospital to maintain its adherence to Catholic ethical and religious directives — also would bring a wider range of services for patients. Sister Castagnaro said St. Joseph’s and Guthrie hope to present its latest proposal to the state this summer.
Joining forces with Guthrie also would help St. Joseph’s erase a sizable debt that arose, in part, from its emphasis on providing care to uninsured and underinsured patients. Yet Sister Castagnaro said her hospital continues to welcome such people willingly, based on the principles that have guided St. Joseph’s for an entire century.
“We’re doing what we need to do,” she stated.