World War II had recently ended. The world was returning to normal, but the people of Columbus realized things were changing. The city was growing. Health care was advancing.
However, the war had placed a tremendous strain on the city. With Ft. Benning nearby, Columbus survived the Great Depression. Yet 70,000 officers training there, along with millions of enlisted men and their dependents, had created a strain on everything in the city — roads, housing, sanitation — even health care.
So on a January day in 1946, a diverse group of Columbus citizens drove across the state to Savannah to see the Catholic Bishop. Bishop Gerald O’Hara had played an important role in the successful attempt to raise money for a Catholic hospital in Augusta. Perhaps he could help them do the same in Columbus.
The need for a new hospital had been identified in Columbus as early as 1940. But with a war looming, the resources just weren’t available. In 1944, a forward-thinking group of citizens founded the Greater Columbus Committee, which organized the Columbus Planning Association.
They believed one of the city’s most important needs was an improvement in health care services. Because the absence of quality services not only reduced the quality of life in Columbus, but it made the city less desirable to new businesses.
$500,000 and an order of nuns
Though reluctant at first, Bishop O’Hara said if the city raised $500,000 he would support it. In 1946, half a million dollars was a lot of money, especially after more than four years of war had drained the local economy.
Undaunted, the diverse and ecumenical group said they would raise the money if the Bishop would help find an order of nursing nuns to staff it.
He agreed and the work began.
The Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, based in Millvale, PA, were recruited to staff the new hospital. They had an established and successful record at St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh and many knew them to provide a superior level of nursing care. This would be their first and only mission in the South.
In Columbus, the fundraising frenzy caught fire. Newspaper ads, door-to-door solicitations, business meetings, as well as presentations before every church and civic group in town, kept the energy high. A running tally appeared in the newspapers every morning and afternoon.
Thanks to local donations from 10 cents to $60,000, matching funds from the Sisters, and federal community hospital construction funds, a total of $1,565,000 was raised to build St. Francis Hospital.
The dream comes to life
The groundbreaking took place on October 23, 1948. Despite the delays in building materials that plagued much of the country, thanks to the construction boom, a skeleton frame was in place by Valentine’s Day 1949.
That day, a cornerstone was laid containing documents and newspaper accounts of the project from its inception. Rev. Henry J. Deimel, pastor of Columbus’ Holy Family Catholic Church said a blessing over the cornerstone and work continued.
A little more than a year later, on March 13, 1950, a five-story, red brick building was dedicated. Governor Herman Talmadge, the Auxiliary Bishop of Savannah-Atlanta, the Sisters of St. Francis, and more than 1,000 others turned out to christen the new hospital named for the Sisters’ patron saint – St. Francis of Assisi, who devoted himself to care for the sick and the poor.
A new era of health care
Now a 376-bed, two-campus regional health system, St. Francis has earned a national reputation for outstanding quality of care. To further expand care, in January 2016 St. Francis Hospital became part of LifePoint Health, a leading healthcare company dedicated to Making Communities Healthier®. LifePoint paid off all of St. Francis’ financial obligations, including its loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
As part of LifePoint, St. Francis continues its existing charity care policies, and a local Board of Trustees ensures the community’s voice in the governance of the hospital. The hospital’s staff continues building upon the legacy of excellent healthcare St. Francis has established as well as exploring new ways to improve the health and wellbeing of the communities served. In addition, St. Francis is now a local taxpayer, providing a new source of tax revenues that benefits the community and helps support local projects, local schools and infrastructure in the Chattahoochee Valley. And, as it has since its founding, St. Francis continues to recognize the importance of “holy” when it comes to healing, placing priority on meeting the spiritual needs of patients, their families, and their friends through the Chaplain Services ministry and weekly services held in the hospital chapel.
Now, more than 65 years since its founding, St. Francis remains what the Columbus Ledger described that day as “A dream of mercy shared by people of all faiths.”