The Spirit of St. Joe: Legacy of St. Joseph Hospital in Fort Wayne

The Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ
The Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ(Gray)
Published: Nov. 12, 2021 at 7:24 PM EST
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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA) - St. Joseph Hospital was born out of the former Rockhill House Hotel in the mid 19th century, becoming the first hospital in Fort Wayne.

Construction began on the hotel in 1838 by William Rockhill, one of the leading pioneer settlers of Fort Wayne. It was built as a luxury hotel and took almost 20 years to construct before the doors opened in 1854. But the hotel wasn’t successful and didn’t last long before closing in 1867.

Bishop Luers saw a need for a hospital to serve those in need in the city, so he got a group of people together to donate items for an auction that people could buy tickets for and purchased the old hotel for St. Joseph Hospital in 1868.

“Somebody would donate a pig, somebody donated a watch, all these people together, and they had a big auction and that’s how they raised the initial funds,” said the Executive Director of the St. Joe Foundation, Meg Distler.

The Poor Handmaids

With the building secured, Bishop Luers needed people to run St. Joseph Hospital. He contacted Catherine Kasper, who founded The Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, a religious congregation of women, in Germany in 1851. She chose eight sisters to come to America. They arrived in the summer of 1868, and after crossing the ocean and taking a train from New York, they landed in Fort Wayne.

“The sisters, they were numbered, probably a little over 300 in Germany at that time, and almost all of the sisters volunteered to come to America,” said Sister Carole Langhauser.

Catherine Kasper was later canonized as Saint Katharina Kasper on Oct. 14, 2018, by Pope Francis.

“I think when Catherine Kasper founded our community, she wanted the people to serve the poor, the sick and the children. And so, whatever work came to the sisters, that was their driving force to take care of whatever needs arose,” said Sister Carole.

On May 4, 1869, The Poor Handmaids opened the doors at St. Joseph Hospital and were still scrubbing the floors when the first patient was admitted.

In 1918, the sisters opened a nursing school that offered a three-year program. Students would go to class during the day and work in the hospital at night, Sister Carole said. In the early days, a nurse would sometimes return from making a house call to find a patient sleeping in her bed because the rooms were full. The nursing school was ran on site until the 1980s.

St. Joseph Hospital Nurses
St. Joseph Hospital Nurses(St. Joseph Community Health Foundation)

“The Poor Handmaids started in the old hotel, added to that, and then tore down the old building put up a new building, added to that building. And so over the years, the entrance of the hospital has been on all four sides of that block, where it still stands today,” said Sister Carole.

Not only was St. Joseph the congregation’s first hospital in America, it was also the site of their first American mother house. It eventually moved from Fort Wayne in the 1920s to Donaldson, just west of Plymouth, Indiana, where they’re still based. Today The Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ has more than 600 sisters who primarily minister in healthcare and education across nine countries including Germany, the Netherlands, England, India, Kenya, Nigeria, the United States, Mexico and Brazil.

The Sisters’ Presence

The Poor Handmaids owned and operated St. Joseph Hospital until from more than 100 years until the 1998 when they sold the hospital to Quorum Health Group. The sisters invested the proceeds from the sale in the St. Joesph Community Health Foundation.

“St. Joe Community Health Foundation, which is just a block away from the hospital on Berry Street, is an outgrowth of, of the hospital and it is a ministry of the Poor handmaids and continues today as a ministry of the Poor Handmaids and was founded and continues to serve the healthcare needs in Allen County,” said Sister Carole.

When the hospital was sold, the sisters asked that pastoral care always be a part of the services. There would be the position of mission integration to ensure that the Catholic mission and values of the Catholic Church would be upheld and that one of the sisters would be on the board of directors, said Sister Carole. Until recently, that was upheld, she added. Sister Carole Langhauser was one of the last sisters to leave the hospital, in 2013, along with Sister Julian Smith, who volunteered as a hostess in the lobby. Sister Carole was the vice president of mission integration and served at St. Joseph for 10 years.

“I was charged to make sure that the Catholic mission of the hospital, so treating people fairly, compassionate care, that we acted morally and ethically in conjunction with the ethical and religious directives of the Catholic Church,” said Sister Carole. “Mostly that was to make sure that every person was to be treated the same and no one was turned away and that everyone was treated morally and ethically, in everything we did at the hospital.”

One memory of her time at the hospital still stands out in her mind today. There was a young woman who needed surgery, but she didn’t have insurance and didn’t know how to pay for it. Somehow Sister Carole was able to make sure she got the care she needed, she said. They were able to write it off as charity care. To this day, 15 years later, Sister Carole still gets phone calls and letters from the woman’s mother-in-law, who lives in Canada.

“That story to me, kind of exemplifies what the hospital always did. They did what was needed, to make sure that people got good care and somehow, someway we always found ways to make it happen, and that’s just one story of of many ways of just doing doing the right thing,” said Sister Carole. “I think that that was always what we wanted to do at the hospital, was to do the right thing and that was always what kind of guided decisions”

From High School to the Hospital

Along with creating Fort Wayne’s first hospital and educating nurses, The Poor Handmaids also taught young Catholics in the community. Dr. Thomas Kintanar has fond memories of his time with the sisters. From birth, through high school and the start of his career, the Poor Handmaids were an integral part of his life. In 7th and 8th grade, he was taught piano by one of the Poor Handmaids, Sister Enela.

“She probably had about 10,000 years taken off of purgatory because I wasn’t the greatest student,” said Kintanar.

The sisters had a large presence at Bishop Dwenger High School when Kintanar attended. It wasn’t until he was past 60 years old that he was diagnosed with ADD, but he said he always had that inkling back in school.

One of the sisters, Sister Maris, was a librarian at St. Joseph Hospital and taught math at Dwenger. She embraced his different approach to calculus and trigonometry and he did well in her class because of it, he said.

“There was a trigonometry equation, cosine cosine sine sine and when we were juniors, I believe, we started a conga line in her class when we learned the equation, and she let us run with it until the entire class was in the conga line doing, (singing) ‘cosine cosine sign sign,’” said Kintanar.

Kintanar worked at St. Joseph Hospital as a respiratory therapist, went to medical school and went on to become chief of staff at the hospital. Now he’s a family medicine doctor with Lutheran.

One day, when he came back after his first year of residency, he was siting in the library and heard, “cosine, cosine.”

“And I said, ‘sine sine.’ I turn around, it’s Maris... and we hugged each other and we recollected some very fond memories together. And she was just, not only a teacher, but a dear friend.”

Their friendship carried on until she died at the age of 104.

“The nurses, I still have taken care of some of the octogenarian nurses that worked there from way back when I was a respiratory therapist, and those nurses worked there from the time I was pre med, and I’m taking care of some of the retired ones,” said Kintanar.

The Legacy Lives On

Now, more than 150 years later since the hospital first opened, St. Joseph Hospital will close its doors and move next door into the new facility -- Lutheran Downtown. Another piece of the hospital is also moving. Two stained glass windows in the chapel at St. Joseph are now in place inside the new chapel, named St. Joseph Chapel, at Lutheran Downtown.

“The leadership there [Lutheran Downtown] have been very respectful and wanting to make sure that they do the right thing and want to carry some of that legacy to the new building, so I think that to me it’s very heartwarming to know that even though it may not be a Catholic hospital, they really want to bring forth some of that spirit of St. Joe into the new building,” said Sister Carole.

Since leaving St. Joseph Hospital in 2013, Sister Carole is now serving as the mission leader at St. Joseph Hospital in Mishawaka.

“It must be St Joseph in my blood because this is also St Joseph Hospital,” she said.

Regardless of what the hospital’s called, Sister Carole believes the spirit of St. Joe that wants to care for people and looks at everyone the same, will be instilled in anyone who works at Lutheran Downtown. Those who have worked their for 30 and 40 years instill on each other that special spirit, she said.

“There was just a special spirit that was St. Joe and sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on it, but it’s something you experienced. If someone came for care there, they experienced that special touch, that was St. Joe, or that is St. Joe hospital that’s been there since the very beginning,” said Sister Carole.

St. Joseph Community Health Foundation

The boundless compassion the sisters have is still seen today in the community in the people that the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation invests in, said the foundation’s executive director Meg Distler.

The money from the sale funded the foundation that continues to invest in people today. The executive director Meg Distler says the foundation looks at four main areas, pregnant women and families, immigrants and refugees, access to nutritious food and affordable health and wellness care. The foundation funds organizations like Matthew 25, SuperShot, SCAN, Amani Family services and more.

“My life has been so enriched by hundreds of stories, and then not just meeting the people who benefited. But more so meeting people who walk in the same footsteps as the poor handmaids,” said Distler.

One of the sisters, Sister Mary Conrad Kirchhoff, started SuperShot. It was an effort started in St. Joseph Hospital and the foundation has consistently funded it today, she said. Today, 2 people serve on the board at the St. Joe Foundation, including Dr. Thomas Kintanar, to help the community invest in support efforts for vulnerable populations.

“We have an opportunity to take this gift from The Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ to keep investing, to keep goodness going out,” said Distler.

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