The chug of the train engine slowly gave way to the spray of water as a riverboat called Reindeer sliced through the waters of the Mississippi carrying Mother Mary Magdalen de Pazzi Bentley and five other Sisters of Mercy. A month before they had been ministering to the poor in New York; now they were on their way to a city on the edge of the Wild West.
On June 27, 1856, the boat docked at Laclede’s Landing in St. Louis and the Sisters were greeted by Father Arnold Damen who, along with Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick of St. Louis, had requested they make the perilous journey.
Their mission was simple – help and educate the poor. But the Sisters often met with hardship. Hunger, poverty and lack of basic necessities seemed to meet them at every turn. But the Sisters pressed on. Within five days of arriving, they began to visit the poor and sick in their homes. Within six months they had opened a free shelter for unemployed girls, a Sunday school for African American women and children and an industrial school for poor children.
In 1871, the health care needs of the city required more help, so the Sister’s turned their school building into a 25-bed hospital for women and children known as St. John’s Hospital. By 1874, the facility became a general hospital with wards for the poor and private rooms for men, women and children.
Under the leadership of Mother Magdalen de Pazzi Bentley, the hospital reached out to the community by affiliating with local universities, established a school of nursing and offered the first prepaid health insurance in the county to United Railways Company employees.
Today, St. John’s Mercy Medical Center is an 859-bed, fully accredited teaching hospital. It also includes a heart and vascular hospital, cancer center, children's hospital, surgery center and skilled nursing center.
J. Fialka, Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America, p.131