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Our Heritage of Healing

SSM Health is a Catholic not-for-profit integrated care delivery network serving the comprehensive needs of communities throughout the Midwest. Every day, more than 40,000 employees and providers work to deliver on our promise to reveal God’s healing presence across the system’s 24 hospitals, more than 300 physician offices and other outpatient care sites, 10 post-acute facilities, comprehensive home care and hospice services, pharmacy benefit company, insurance company and accountable care organization.

SSM Health's rich history began with five German nuns who set out from their homeland in search of religious freedom and to do God's work. They were, by almost any measure, a remarkable group of women. Led by Mother Mary Odilia Berger, the five sisters arrived in St. Louis on November 16, 1872. They had just $5 among them, but they carried the faith and compassion that ultimately would become SSM Health.

Battle-tested from caring for soldiers during the Franco-Prussian War, the sisters came to a city in urgent need of their help. That first winter, in the midst of a devastating smallpox epidemic in St. Louis, they took to the streets, begging for money, supplies, food and medicines – anything to ease the suffering. They became known as the "Smallpox Sisters," a name that would follow them through their earliest days in St. Louis. It was not until 1874 that they would receive their formal name: the Sisters of St. Mary (SSM), named for St. Mary of Victories Church, with whom their convent shared a common door.

Five years after their arrival, the sisters borrowed what was then an enormous sum of money, $16,000, to open their first hospital, St. Mary's Infirmary. Account books from that time identify almost 60 percent of its patients as unable to pay, or "ODL," a designation that stood for "Our Dear Lords." The following year, in 1878, Mother Odilia sent 13 of the congregation's sisters to Mississippi and Tennessee to care for the victims of a yellow fever epidemic. Five of them died, all under age 30. Mother Odilia herself would pass away at age 57 in St. Louis on October 17, 1880, only days after the Catholic Church officially recognized the congregation she founded.

In 1894, Sister Mary Augustine Giesen and six other sisters left the congregation and traveled to Maryville, Missouri, where they formed a separate religious congregation, the Sisters of St. Francis (OSF). While the Sisters of St. Mary worked largely in the St. Louis urban area, the Sisters of St. Francis worked in more rural areas. In 1898, they established St. Anthony Hospital, which was the first hospital in the Oklahoma territory. Meanwhile, eight Sisters of St. Mary traveled from St. Louis to Madison, Wisconsin, where they worked with several physicians, including Dr. Joseph Dean, founder of Dean Clinic, to open St. Mary’s Hospital in 1912. Nearly 90 years later, in 1987, the Sisters of St. Mary and the Sisters of St. Francis would reunite to form the Franciscan Sisters of Mary (FSM).

Prior to 1985, most of the health ministries that would become part of SSM Health were sponsored by the congregations that would become the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, but were not operated as an integrated health care system. That changed in 1986 with the creation of SSM Health as a system of hospitals, nursing homes and health related businesses. As the health system’s first president/CEO, Sister Mary Jean Ryan, FSM, created a strong organizational focus on continuous quality improvement, financial and operational stewardship, nonviolence as expressed through preservation of the Earth's resources and diversity.

As an integrated health care system, SSM Health continued expanding its ministry throughout the Midwest. On June 6, 1996, the FSMs, who operated what was then known as Good Samaritan Regional Health Center, and the Felician Sisters, who had operated St. Mary’s Hospital in Centralia, Illinois, since 1939, came together and assumed operation of both hospitals under a joint operating agreement which remains in place today. This was a natural partnership since the Felician Sisters, like the FSMs, have a strong Catholic Franciscan heritage and legacy of ministering to the impoverished, the abandoned and the marginalized. The Felician Sisters were founded in 1855 in Poland by Blessed Mary Angela. Carrying the mission of their founding sister to a new continent, five sisters arrived in North America in 1874 and began pioneering a legacy of compassionate service and care, primarily among immigrant populations. Today, the Felician Sisters’ ministry remains focused on Blessed Mary Angela’s call to service: “giving aid to all without exception” and serving all “with a joyful heart.”

In 2000, following a year-and-a-half-long process, SSM Health adopted its 13-word Mission statement for the system: "Through our exceptional health care services, we reveal the healing presence of God." Nearly 3,000 employees participated in the creation of the Mission statement, which remains at the heart of all we do today. In 2002, SSM Health became the first health care organization in the country to receive the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the nation's highest award for quality.

William P. Thompson succeeded Sister Mary Jean and became the system’s first lay president/CEO in 2011. In November 2013, sponsorship of SSM Health was transferred from the Franciscan Sisters of Mary to SSM Health Ministries, a newly-formed ministerial public juridic person that now serves as the Corporate Member for the health system. SSM Health is currently governed by a board of directors consisting of members of SSM Health Ministries and appointed laypersons.

In November 2014, SSM Health began centralizing many of its core functions (human resources, finance, strategy and planning, marketing and communications, and other services) and unifying all of its hospitals and health care services under the SSM Health name. This realignment reflects our commitment to operating as a single organization and providing an exceptional patient and customer experience that is consistent in every interaction, whether on the phone, online or in person.

In May 2017, Laura Kaiser was named president/CEO. Under her leadership, the organization has continued to grow and expand. On Jan. 1, 2018, the Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes (CSA) transferred sponsorship of its Wisconsin-based health care ministries, Agnesian HealthCare and Monroe Clinic, to SSM Health Ministries. This added four hospitals, eight post-acute facilities and dozens of outpatient care sites to SSM Health’s presence in the Wisconsin region. Founded in 1858 by Father Caspar Rehrl, the CSA began its health care ministry in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, under the leadership of Mother Mary Agnes, first canonical superior of the community. Carrying on the fearless, enterprising spirit of Father Rehrl and Mother Agnes, in recent decades the Sisters of St. Agnes have embraced peace and justice issues, women’s rights, ecumenism, and the call to a “preferential option for the poor.” Although their number of active sisters has declined, their hearts remain dedicated to answering the call of Christ wherever it may lead.

Our founding sisters have left an incredible legacy, and their sacred ministry has now been entrusted to the organization’s employees, physicians and volunteers. As we continue to grow and evolve to better meet the needs of the communities we serve, SSM Health remains committed to carrying on our 145+ year heritage of healing. We know that exceptional health care is more than medicine; it’s about presence, and how we choose to care for our patients and each other – taking time to listen, to understand, to answer questions, to hold a hand, or even to pray. These are the moments in which we reveal God’s healing presence in a powerful and lasting way. This is who we are, who we have always been, and it is what we do best.

Watch our Heritage of Healing video.

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