St. John’s Hospital

The Mason Street face of St. John’s Hospital dates from 1938. (SCHS)

Mary Lincoln may have been one of the earliest patients to benefit from care provided by what is now the Hospital Sisters Health System.

The story was handed down by a Franciscan nun, Sister Francis Dreisvogt (1849-1933), who was among 20 German-born nuns who emigrated to central Illinois in 1875 to answer a need for trained nurses. Alton-based Roman Catholic Bishop Peter Baltes dispatched a half-dozen Franciscans to Springfield, starting with Sister Angelica, their first mother superior, and Sister Cassiana. (Sister Francis was transferred from Effingham to Springfield in 1877.) The Illinois State Journal interviewed three of the first local nuns, including Sister Cassiana and Sister Francis, for a 50th-anniversary article in 1925.

St. John’s hospital … grew from the humble beginning of nursing by two nuns of the order of St. Francis who could not speak the language of the people among whom they worked, and who lived in the utmost poverty, accepting no pay for their own work, but asking for donations toward a hospital fund, to the present magnificent institution of today. …

Those stories! Time when for three weeks once there was nothing to eat, morning, noon and night, but cabbage. “And then one day a man came and brough a loaf of bread and some bacon – he was so good! – and, oh, it tasted fine.”

Always appreciation, always thanks!

Times when for weeks at a time they never slept, did not take their clothes off for four and five days, when they did as Sister Frances (sic) did once, sat with a hand in that of a patient and said, “now you press my hand if I fall asleep. I have been up for several nights.”

The sisters at first did home nursing. When families offered to pay them, the nuns, who hadn’t yet learned English, would give them a card written by a priest that said, “We cannot take payment for our work, but if you want to give something for the hospital, we will thank you.”

A few months after their arrival, the nuns opened a makeshift hospital in the former home of Jacob Loose on the east side of Seventh Street near Lawrence Avenue. They continued raising money for a better facility, however, and the cornerstone for St. John’s Hospital was laid at Eighth and Mason streets on Sept. 15, 1878. The Illinois State Journal described the event as “one of the most impressive ceremonies which it has ever been the lot of Springfieldians to witness.”

Sister Francis Dreisvogt, undated (HSHS St. John’s)

Meanwhile, the nuns continued to perform home care where needed, including – according to Sister Francis years later – to Mary Lincoln, who was sick and homebound for several months before her death in July 1882. Historians have found no independent verification of Sister Francis’ story, according to a 2006 State Journal-Register written by reporter Steve Spearie.

Bryon Andreasen, a former research historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, investigated the claim in 2005, Spearie reported.

“I’d love to have a diary account or newspaper story saying Sister Francis … helped her,” Andreasen told Spearie. “Absent that, you have to rely on memory. It’s true of many things in this field.”

According to Sister Francis’ account, three nuns assisted at Mary Lincoln’s bedside – Sister Bonosa Kloenne and Sister Aldonza Eltrich in addition to Sister Francis. Spearie wrote:

This is how (Sister Francis) remembered her most famous patient: “I did all that she wanted or needed all day and all night. At night, I sat on the chair and laid my head near her pillow. She could call me any time by touching me. All I was afraid of was the big, black dog, watching at all times.”

The original hospital had 16 private rooms and four multi-bed wards and a chapel on the first floor and a kitchen, laundry room and dining room in the basement.

St. John’s was still centered around Eighth and Mason streets in the early 21st century, but expansions, renovations and modernizations over nearly 150 years meant the facility had grown to occupy multiple square blocks northeast of downtown Springfield.

As of 2021, HSHS St. John’s Hospital was the flagship hospital of the 15-hospital Hospital Sisters Health System. St. John’s itself had 400 beds and incorporated several specialty facilities: Prairie Heart Institute, St. John’s Children’s Hospital, Women and Infants Center, Neurosciences Center, Women and Children’s Clinic, Cancer Center, orthopedic services and AthletiCare.

The motherhouse of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis was northeast of Springfield; however, with the order’s membership dwindling, Franciscan nuns had largely stepped away from direct hospital management.

Sister Francis Dreisvogt is buried at Crucifixion Hill on the grounds of the motherhouse.

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incorporated By 2021, Franciscan nuns played little role in the management of St. John’s,

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8 Responses to St. John’s Hospital

  1. Glen Rogers says:

    I lived and grew up in the 1930’s near the old St. John’s Hospital. A boyhood friend Bob Lantz was Catholic and often served at the daily Mass held in the hospital Chapel. His reward for serving was a small carton of chocolate milk. A real treat for poor kids like us. I was not Catholic but would sometimes go with Bob because the nuns would also give me a carton of chocolate milk. Twenty years later my three children were born at St. John’s and I well remember the many nuns in their long black robes and highly starched collars working as nurses and caregivers. They were always genuinely concerned with your comfort and well-being.

  2. Elizabeth Rutherford says:

    My parents, my mom’s siblings, some of my dad’s siblings and myself and my siblings were all born at Saint’s. Saint’s is my hospital. Top notch staff and care. Saint’s is where I first heard “Sister Mary Frozen Holy Water” (circa 1993, thanks, Mom!). My paternal grandfather worked for Metal Air from 1948-72; their address puts it in the area of the Pavilion. Always thought that was neat.

  3. Don Culver says:

    In the Great Depression my family moved from the farmlands of central Illinois to Springfield in search of work. My Great-grandfather, Fred Sutton found work in a local drinking establishment and soon fell into a not so family friendly lifestyle. He would not use his wages to support his wife and three children. My Grandmother was sent back to the family farm close to Windsor to live with her Grandparents. Her younger brother, Harold Sutton, was forced into the streets to fend for himself at the very young age of about 10. He was very fortunate to be hanging around St. John’s when the Nuns took him in and gave him room and board to do odd jobs around the Hospital. Harold retired as an orderly from St. John’s over 50 years later. My part of the family relocated to Texas in the 1950s however Harold stayed in Springfield until his passing in the late 1990s.

  4. Liza Coe says:

    A wonderful article – thank you! Does anyone know if patient records were kept by the sisters during 1800’s? My great grandfather and great grandmother immigrated to Springfield from Norway in 1880. My grandmother was born there in 1881 and my great uncle in 1882. Family lore says that my great grandmother suffered from “illness” until they moved to Chicago in 1895. I’m wondering if she or anyone else in my family were treated there.

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