ST. PAUL -- The end of 2020 brings with it the end of Minnesota’s oldest hospital. Roman Catholic nuns founded St. Joseph’s in downtown St. Paul in 1853. But after 167 years, Fairview Health Services is shutting it down amid financial pressure. Plans call for the building to become a community wellness hub focused on social services and preventative care. Many who worked at St. Joseph’s say they’re sad to see it go.

Until last March, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced a halt to visitation, Sister Kathleen Holmberg had volunteered as a eucharistic minister at St. Joseph’s. Her religious order, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, founded the hospital during a much earlier pandemic that spread cholera around the globe.

A retired schoolteacher, Sister Kathleen also has a deep personal connection to the hospital; she was born there in 1931.

“Sister Una (Fahey) came to my mother’s bedroom and she said ‘And what is the baby’s name?’ And mother said, ‘we haven’t chosen one.’ And Sister Una said ‘well, today is the feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria, so Catherine is a good name.’ And Mother said ‘we have a Catherine.’ In her Irish brogue she says ‘then her name is Kathleen.’”

The maternity ward closed three years ago as mothers went elsewhere to give birth. Then last October, Fairview Health announced that St. Joseph’s would shut down entirely as a general hospital by year’s end in an effort to stem nine-figure losses across the system.

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Staff at St. Joseph's Hospital in St. Paul operate on a patient circa 1906. Photo courtesy Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Paul Province archives
Staff at St. Joseph's Hospital in St. Paul operate on a patient circa 1906. Photo courtesy Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Paul Province archives

Sister Kathleen said the closure is painful to see, but she hopes the promised community wellness hub at the building will provide much-needed preventative care and social services to people in downtown St. Paul.

“If the administrators do it right, then St. Joseph’s will still be serving people,” Sister Kathleen said.

Sister Dolore Rochon recalled how community service was a key part of the hospital’s mission. She worked there for around three decades, starting in 1957, and eventually became director of nursing.

With homelessness on the rise in the 1980s, Sister Dolore got a desperate call one frigid New Year’s Eve from a friend at the Dorothy Day shelter around the corner.

“She said ‘we’ve got to do something. The people are out in the cold.’”

Sister Dolore, now 84, said staff at St. Joseph’s opened up three floors of the old nursing school dormitory to people who were living on the streets.

“We took them in in less than a week. And we had them there all winter for several years. And the sisters stayed overnight to monitor things, as well as staff from Catholic Charities,” Sister Dolore remembered.

Catholic Charities would eventually take over the building, which still shelters people facing homelessness.

More than 100 people, many of whom had just finished their last day at the hospital, gathered around the statue of St. Joseph for a vigil Wednesday night, Dec. 30. Cardiac nurse Sandie Anderson has been in the profession for 40 years, with the last five at St. Joe’s.

“You never knew who you would be saying goodbye to or who wouldn’t be there anymore. So I think it was important as they shuttered the doors,” Anderson said, “that we had the opportunity here to come see people and say goodbye, and do a proper goodbye.”

Like many employees, Anderson is transferring to another hospital in the Fairview system. So is nurse anesthetist Keith Andersen who’s been at St. Joe’s since 1991.

“This location definitely serves the need of the community, and I feel like closing it, even though there’s a United and there’s a Regions close by, we served a niche and provided good care to our patients, and it’s just unfortunate.”

Dr. Will Nicholson, Fairview’s vice president of medical affairs, said the St. Joseph’s campus will transition to programs meant to keep people from needing a hospital. That includes housing, primary care and outpatient mental health support. Many people who show up in the emergency department come there as a last resort, he said.

“Every winter, we encounter patients who are in the [emergency department] not because they’re sick but because they have nowhere to stay. They’re unsheltered people,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson said Fairview is still working out the details of the community wellness hub. But the hospital will continue to care for COVID-19 patients as long as necessary. And he says the 105 inpatient mental beds will remain at St. Joseph’s for another year.