By Roger Paradiso

Why was St. Vincent’s Hospital closed on April 10, 2010? To understand the complicated and controversial decision, let’s go back to the beginning. 

“All hospitals before the 1920s had operated without much money. Physicians donated their time, and costs for nurses and staff tended to be low. For the first time, hospitals required significant funds, just as doctors and surgeons began getting paid and nursing and staffing were professionalized. Many urban public hospitals recast themselves appropriately as major and, sometimes, highly regarded institutions, often establishing affiliation with universities and medical schools. At the same time, they remained committed to the mission of treating all, and they became ever more vulnerable in the marketplace” (America’s Essential Hospitals).

The Sisters of Charity created St. Vincent’s Hospital to meet the demands of the poor and disadvantaged. They started in a 30-bed facility in a small brick townhouse on East 13th Street. One of the few charity hospitals in New York City, it opened on November 1, 1849 during a cholera epidemic.

After more than a Century of serving a growing community St. Vincent’s closed but the need for a hospital remains. Photo by Maggie Berkvist.

When the thyroid epidemic of 1852 began, the sisters filled the hospital to capacity. After outgrowing the original townhouse in 1856, they moved to a former orphanage at the corner of West 11th Street and Seventh Avenue. In 1870 the hospital introduced its first horse-drawn ambulance service. In October 1892 it launched its School of Nursing. 

St. Vincent’s also operated a soup kitchen. According to an 1892 New York Times article, St. Vincent’s was distinguished from other hospitals in the city by its feeding of “a large number of tramps and other destitute persons.” The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay got her middle name from the hospital, where her uncle’s life was saved in 1892.

The hospital served New York City and its beloved Greenwich Village residents for 161 years. It was the place to go when the survivors of the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory and the survivors of the Titanic needed care, and many of their lives were saved. If you remember the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, St. Vincent’s was a designated trauma center for the many injured in that vicious terrorist bombing. And on the dark day of September 11th, 2001, when the second World Trade Center attack took place, the Sisters of Charity and the amazing staff of nurses and doctors stood by to attend to the more than 800 injured.  

Years after the terrorist attack on 9/11, I talked to several families who had waited outside St. Vincent’s for news about their loved ones. They told me that from the street corner they could see the plume and then the haze of the Trade Center explosion. These families, holding onto every bit of hope, met there that day and for several days after, until it became obvious that their loved ones would not be coming home. Many nurses and doctors tended to the distraught families of those who had been trapped in the Trade Center tomb. Still hoping, these families left postcards and photos of their loved ones. They usually left a phone number to call if anyone knew anything about them. These notices remained for weeks, until a storm destroyed them. In their place, St. Vincent’s and people like Dusty Berke maintained them on a wall of tiles right across the street from the hospital. Each tile contained a message from the family of someone who died in the Trade Center. A memorial remembering the victims of the worst day in modern American History is held every year. You can read the tiles, which are kind of gravestones for the missing and dead souls, at the southeast corner of West 11th Street and Seventh Avenue. 

These tiles also exist as a remembrance for St. Vincent’s Hospital, that died on April 10, 2010. On that dark day the staff placed notices taped to the wall near the emergency room entrance—St. Vincent’s was closed.

I remember walking past the former St. Vincent’s when they were building an expensive condo building. Suddenly, an ambulance roared past what used to be the ER entrance ramp on Seventh Avenue. But there was no emergency room there now, and the ambulance flew by me on its way to another hospital (probably uptown on the East Side). I remember thinking—I hope it makes it in time. 

“Maybe the name of St. Vincent’s will fall into the background in another generation or so,” says current Sister of Charity Jane Iannucelli, “but for the men and women who were in this place, what seeds were sown in them and what they take into the future, you can’t take that away.”

“Almost every health care crisis that has existed in our city,” Sister Iannucelli says, “St. Vincent’s has responded to…I say St. Vincent’s not being here is a big loss to our city” (America, the Jesuit Review).

Stay tuned for part two of this series, which covers the AIDS crisis and the reasons behind the closing of St. Vincent’s Hospital. What do you think about the loss of St. Vincent’s? Write to George Capsis at WestView News.

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