“Austin Askew”–Chapter XXIV– Seton Hospital: 104 Years of Healing

Up until two years ago I was a dedicated resident of Central Austin, always residing in either West Campus or the North Campus/Heritage neighborhood. I do a lot of walking, and this habit has allowed me discover areas and sights I might not have found otherwise. Once I came across a short street called “Seton Avenue,” that ran from West Twenty-fourth to West Twenty-sixth, parallel to Nueces and Rio Grande. I assumed there had to be some connection to Seton Hospital, but couldn’t figure out why was this street so far from Seton Medical Center on Thirty-eighth.

I did a little poking around and found out that Seton had originally stood at the northern end of that avenue, where the Rio Nueces Apartments are today. A few years later I was apartment hunting in the area and settled on an efficiency right behind Rio Nueces, at the Mirabelle Apartments. The landlady showed me around, explaining that it was an older building with quirky design features, and said, “It was built as a dorm for nurses.” “Yes,” I chirped,” for the old Seton Hospital.” The landlady was surprised I knew this and no doubt realized right then how much trouble I would be.

At the end of the nineteenth century, a woman’s group called the St. Vincent’s Aid Society learned that Catholic patients were not receiving proper treatment, respect, or courtesy in the city hospitals, and invited the order of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul to build a Catholic charity hospital in Austin. The Society purchased, for $5,300, a 4 1/2 acre tract of land called “Tobin Park,” located between Twenty-sixth, Rio Grande, and Nueces, and ground was broken on the structure in the spring of 1901.

Seton Infirmary, a red brick Colonial Revival building with four stories, forty beds, seventeen private rooms, eleven wards, and quarters for the Sisters opened on May 28, 1902. Naturally, there was a big ceremony to celebrate the opening, but in the middle of it the hospital’s first patient, an African-American woman who was about to have a baby, was admitted.

Seton’s history stretches back to St. Vincent de Paul, who was born in 1581 in France, to a poor family. He was ordained as a priest in 1600, but in 1605, while on a sea voyage, was captured by pirates and sold into slavery. Two years later his owner’s wife helped him escape.

Once free, De Paul went to Paris, where he suffered a crisis of faith that lasted four years. During that time he started visiting and helping the poor. Eventually De Paul turned from his previous love of power, influence, and wealthy friends, and vowed to spend his life providing food, clothing, and medical care to the poor, and in 1617 founded the Confraternities of Charity (later the Ladies of Charity) to promote this end.

In 1633, De Paul and one of the Ladies, Louise de Marillac, herself a future saint, founded the Company of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul, Servants of the Poor, with a mission of serving “the poorest of the poor.” De Paul died in 1660, was canonized in 1737, and in 1885 was declared patron of all charitable causes resulting from his works, by Pope Leo XIII.

Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born in New York in 1774, and in 1793 married William Seton, a wealthy importer. During her marriage, she put her prominent position in society to good use,  founding a charity group that raised money for the poor widows of New York. In 1801, William Seton went bankrupt and died two years later in Italy, leaving Elizabeth with five children to support.

While in Italy Elizabeth Seton became attracted to Catholicism and she converted in 1805. Because of anti-Catholic prejudice, she wasn’t allowed to open a school in the United States, but she did find a teaching position at a Protestant school, though it soon closed. She opened a boarding house for pupils at an Episcopalian school, but parents soon started withdrawing their children, fearing Seton would be a bad influence. Finally, in 1808, she was invited to Baltimore to open the first parochial school in the United States.

In 1809 she took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and was made “Mother” of the order of the Daughters of Charity of St. Joseph, the American branch of the order founded by Sts. Vincent De Paul and Louise De Marillac, which was based out of a farmhouse in the Maryland countryside. The Sisters spread their work across the United States, opening schools, orphanages, and hospitals. Abraham Lincoln even specifically requested the Sisters work in military hospitals during the Civil War. Mother Seton died in 1821, and in 1975 was canonized by Pope Paul VI as the first native-born American saint.

The new Seton Infirmary was large by Austin standards, but to the Sisters, who were used to doing things on a large scale, the place seemed rather small. In 1912, a twenty-bed west wing was added, with a chapel, and, in keeping with the way things were back then, separate wards for whites, Hispanics, and African-Americans.

Apparently, the new wing surprised a lot of Austinites–they couldn’t believe such a lavish new facility with state-of-the-art surgical facilities was being built just to take care of poor people. But early publicity for the hospital stated that the facility “belongs to suffering humanity in general, irrespective of creed, color, nationality, financial standing, or any other limitation. All well-intentioned persons are cordially welcomed. True charity knows no bar to brotherhood.”

Seton in those days was a quirky place. One writer described a private room with a bathtub in one corner and a toilet in the other (rather like some old-fashioned cold-water flats in New York). The hospital staff all wore clogs, which made loud clattering noises on the floor. Patients who weren’t already scared silly by the prospect of surgery were shaken by the whistles of a mynah bird, who lived in a cage outside the operating rooms.

Fifteen beds were added in 1914 when the kitchen was expanded, and the Nursing School moved out of its fourth floor quarters into a separate building. An east wing was added in either 1916 or 1918. It contained forty-eight private rooms, a nursery, maternity ward, and operating rooms.

There was a major smallpox epidemic in Travis County in 1917 and 1918. One of the Sisters had a great deal of experience in dealing with that disease, and so was put in charge of the camp outside town where the smallpox patients were being isolated. For ten weeks the Sisters treated a total of 235 cases, and when the epidemic passed, they refused payment, so the people of Austin struck a medal in their honor instead.

In 1918 the worldwide influenza epidemic hit Austin, initially affecting the three camps of soldiers in and around the area. Seton offered its facilities to care for the sick. Soldiers filled the hospital, tents on the grounds, and even houses in the neighborhood. Sister Mary Reilly died from the flu while on duty.

Thanks to bureaucratic nonsense and red tape, Seton wasn’t reimbursed for all of its expenses by the government, and this put the hospital in trouble financially. Also, most locals were under the impression Seton had been turned into an Army hospital, and it took about a year for regular patients to start using it again.

Seton rebounded, fortunately. A charity wing was upgraded and renovated in 1921. A laundry building and heating plant were constructed, as was the Home of the Holy Infancy, a nursery for abandoned babies. A nurses’s home (my old apartment building?) was added in 1928. Other expansions were made in 1945 and 1954, bringing the total number of beds to either 140 or 225, depending on the source.

Seton Hospital came into the international spotlight in 1967, when President Lyndon Johnson paid a visit there, to see his first grandchild, Patrick Lyndon Nugent, who was born on June 21.

As early as 1964 plans were made to build a new Seton Hospital on Thirty-eighth Street. The new facility opened in 1975 and the old hospital was torn down. Today the SETON Healthcare Network serves a population of 1.4 million people in eleven Central Texas counties, and maintains twenty-one facilities, employing a staff of over 7,500.

—April 13, 2006

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