Many images come to mind when one thinks of gold rush days in Alaska: bearded prospectors swishing pans filled with water as they search for specks of gold; saloons beckoning the hardworking boys to forget all their troubles with a slug of whiskey and a game of chance; and ladies known as “Lil” leaning against pianos, offering to help miners lighten their leather pokes.
An image that doesn’t usually come to mind is that of four nuns mingling with the masses on the virtually lawless streets of Nome.
The Sisters of Providence foray into Alaska started at the-turn-of-the-last century. At the urging of two Jesuit priests – John B. Rene and Aloysius A. Jacquet – 50-year-old Sister Mary Conrad, Sister Rodrique, Sister Lambert and Sister Mary Napoleon sailed from Montreal, Canada, on June 1, 1902, bound for the shores of Alaska’s Norton Sound to establish a much-needed hospital.
The influx of more than 20,000 prospectors working the gold-filled beaches of Nome brought with it a desperate need for medical facilities. Before the arrival of the Sisters of Providence, the miners relied on home remedies, often set their own broken bones and sometimes used Native healing methods.
After nine days of seasickness aboard the SS Senator, the Sisters’ voyage ended with 72-hours of smallpox quarantine in the Nome harbor. But once ashore, they headed toward Nome’s Catholic Church, celebrated a welcoming mass with the priests and then got down to work.
The purchase and renovation of a two-story building near the Catholic Church came to a capital debt of $7,100. But the Sisters believed that Divine Providence would provide for the material needs of their mission, and they opened the doors of the Holy Cross Hospital on July 15, 1902. They convinced the Nome City Council to pick up the tab for the indigent sick at $1.50 per day, and then charged $3 to those who stayed in the wards and could pay. Patients in private rooms paid $5.
Most of the Sisters’ patients were miners, but they also helped other white residents and Natives. A Nome News headline proclaimed, “Sisters of Providence Have Given Nome the Best Hospital in Alaska.”
The Sisters regularly visited the mines – on foot, horseback or dog sled – to solicit donations. They also sold tickets, as a form of insurance, for hospital care: $3 bought the miner a one-month stay, $12 for six months and $24 for one year.
The price included board, medicines, milk and liquor – as ordered by a doctor – as well as the use of bathrooms and the operating room. Miners had to pick and pay for their own doctors.
According to hospital records, a non-Catholic miner requested a baptism before his death in 1902. He then bequeathed his mining holdings to Holy Cross Hospital. The Sisters quickly sold the property, which helped pay off their debt. By 1911, the Sisters had taken over ownership of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Fairbanks and later expanded into Anchorage in 1938.