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SSM Health and Saint Louis University - together again

St. Louis witnessed the beginning of a new era in exceptional care on Sept. 1, 2015. The new partnership between SSM Health and Saint Louis University will provide the community with more coordinated and convenient access to a full continuum of exceptional health care services. It also makes SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital a part of SSM Health and brings full circle a relationship that began over a century ago.

Together, SSM Health and Saint Louis University have woven a tradition of mission-based care and education into the fabric of Catholic health care in St. Louis— one patient, one student at a time.

SSM Health’s founding congregation, the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, have a rich shared history with Saint Louis University.

St. Mary's Infirmary Clinic

This newest partnership is the latest convergence in a relationship that can be traced back to 1903, just after Saint Louis University reestablished a medical school with the acquisition of the Marian-Sims-Beaumont School of Medicine. In an effort to increase the number of available teaching wards for medical students, the School of Medicine formed affiliate agreements with a number of local hospitals in St. Louis, including St. Mary’s Infirmary — the first hospital founded by the Sisters of St. Mary (now known as the Franciscan Sisters of Mary).

When a new clinic affiliated with St. Mary’s Infirmary opened in 1912, the Sisters once again partnered with the University. The clinic, located on Chouteau Avenue in St. Louis, was staffed by faculty from SLU School of Medicine and focused on serving the “deserving poor.”

These early affiliations were the start of a relationship that would continue to flourish over decades to come. Soon Saint Louis University began to realize that affiliation agreements with multiple hospitals were not enough to provide a consistent environment to successfully prepare physicians. Father John Burke, S.J., the regent of the School of Medicine, began seeking partners to establish a university hospital.

In 1922, the University approached Reverend Mother Mary Concordia, superior general of the Sisters of St. Mary (now known as the Franciscan Sisters of Mary), to propose the use of St. Mary’s Infirmary as the teaching hospital for the SLU School of Medicine. The Sisters considered this an important opportunity and, following some deliberation, agreed to form a partnership. Their alliance created the Hospital Board of Saint Louis University, comprised of representatives from the University, its School of Medicine and the Sisters. Through an agreement signed in 1924, this new governing body was charged with the administration of the “St. Mary’s Group of Hospitals of Saint Louis University.” This group included St. Mary’s Infirmary as well as two other facilities operated by the Sisters: Mount St. Rose Hospital in South St. Louis and St. Mary’s Hospital on Clayton Road.

Archbishop Glennon laying the cornerstone at Firmin Desloge Hospital June 2, 1931Father A.M. Schwitalla, S.J., who would later serve as Dean of the School of Medicine, noted at the time that this agreement was believed to be one of the most far-reaching documents ever drafted in the history of medical education under Catholic auspices.

“The extensive charity service which had been conducted for years past by the Sisters of St. Mary thus began to serve a new and additional purpose, namely, that of medical education,” he said.

This partnership between Saint Louis University and the Sisters of St. Mary (now known as the Franciscan Sisters of Mary) soon expanded to include the nursing school. In 1928, the St. Mary’s Infirmary School of Nursing (founded in 1907) officially became the Saint Louis University School of Nursing. Under this new banner, sisters as well as lay persons could now receive the specialized nursing education they would need to serve as practitioners and teachers.

Even as the nursing school partnership was being celebrated, other significant events were already in motion. A grateful family, seeking to honor their patriarch’s memory, would soon make a gift that would reshape the health care landscape in St. Louis.

In 1930, the family of Missouri mining magnate Firmin Desloge made a $1 million donation to the Sisters and Saint Louis University. Their generosity was inspired by the loving care their father had received from the Sisters years earlier at St. Mary’s Ringling Hospital in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

This donation created new opportunities to expand not only the partnership, but also the scope of health care services in St. Louis through the construction of Firmin Desloge Hospital.Firmin Desloge Hospital chapel altar

Construction on a new hospital with a planned capacity for 238 patients began in the fall of 1930. By the next summer, the framework of a modified French Gothic tower rose nearly 250 feet above Grand Boulevard as Archbishop John Glennon presided over the ceremonial laying of the hospital’s cornerstone on June 22.

Firmin Desloge Hospital officially opened on Feb. 3, 1933, with 35 patients transferred from St. Mary’s Infirmary. The hospital’s opening created a new opportunity for the Sisters. Recognizing that health care services for the city’s African-American population were insufficient, Mother Mary Concordia could now champion a plan she began working on as early as 1930. St. Mary’s Infirmary was soon converted to the first Catholic hospital in the country dedicated to serving African-Americans.

On the 25th anniversary of Firmin Desloge Hospital in 1958, records showed that nearly 150,000 patients had been treated, with 70 percent of those receiving care free or through only partial payment. This serves as a testament to the continued legacy of both organizations’ commitment to care.

A year later, in 1959, the Sisters donated their share of Firmin Desloge Hospital to Saint Louis University. At that time, the facility was officially renamed Saint Louis University Hospital.

Firmin Desloge Hospital chapel exterior 1940s

Even though no formal shared ownership remained, the two organizations continued as partners for decades. Medical students and faculty continued to provide care and train in pediatrics at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital and in maternal-fetal medicine at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital.

In 1986, the creation of SSM Health brought all facilities sponsored by the Sisters of St. Mary (now known as the Franciscan Sisters of Mary) together as a unified system. This new health system would continue to grow into a strong network of 20 hospitals, numerous outpatient sites, physician offices, long-term care, home care and hospice services, a pharmacy benefit company, an insurance plan, telehealth and a technology company.

That same year, recognizing a growing patient demand and the need for more modern facilities and equipment, Saint Louis University began construction on a $39.1 million addition directly behind the original Firmin Desloge Hospital. The University’s new 350-bed hospital began serving patients on Jan. 30, 1988.

Saint Louis University Hospital 1989

Saint Louis University sold the hospital to Tenet Healthcare Corporation in 1998. The Dallas-based health system operated the hospital until September 2015 when an agreement between SSM Health and the University brought the Tenet era to a close and Saint Louis University Hospital became SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital.

With this renewed partnership, two St. Louis institutions have now come together to close a circle that began over a century ago. Today, through this partnership, SSM Health and Saint Louis University forge a new future together…again.