Nun who started St. Mary’s Hospital memorialized in bronze sculpture

A bronze sculpture of Sister Mary Balbina Farrell is unveiled Friday evening at Seventh and Main Streets in downtown Grand Junction. Hers is the third of five statues to be placed downtown in the Legends of the Grand Valley project, which honors five pioneers and trailblazers in the area’s history. Sister Mary Balbina Farrell was the motivating force behind establishing St. Mary’s Hospital in 1896.

To look at her face now, serene in bronze, is to see barely more than a girl. She was so young.

But look closer and there is determination in her clear eyes, and hope and faith. And there is love. Sister Mary Balbina Farrell could not have done what she did without a generous portion of each of these.

And what she did has become her finest legacy: St. Mary’s Hospital. She was the motivating force that established what now is a nationally recognized medical facility.

She was honored Friday evening at the unveiling of a sculpture of her. It is the third sculpture in the Legends of the Grand Valley project, which honors five pioneers and trailblazers in this area’s history.

Already, sculptures of Walter Walker and William Moyer have been unveiled, at 634 Main St. and at Fifth Street and Rood Avenue, respectively. Next year, a sculpture of John Otto will be unveiled, and 2013 will bring one commemorating Operation Foresight.

But Friday night was Sister Mary Balbina’s, as a cloth was pulled from the figure, sculpted in clay and cast in bronze from the single existing photo of her, at the northwest corner of Seventh and Main streets. In the sculpture, created by Greeley artist Greg Todd, Sister Mary Balbina has her arm around a young boy who leans on a rough crutch. She is pointing north, some might say toward what is now St. Mary’s Hospital. On the ground in front of her is a primitive, stick-drawn sketch of a hospital.

The sculpture is titled “With Eyes of Faith.”

“It’s such an inspiring story,” Todd said. “Especially when you think of her being a woman alone in the West, in the 1800s, being young in a strange place, starting from scratch. It’s monumental what she did.”

Sister Mary Balbina and Sister Mary Louise Madden of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kan., arrived in Grand Junction on Sept. 14, 1895, coming at the invitation of a local priest. He invited them to start a hospital in a town that was, at that time, a rough patch of dirt in the middle of nowhere.

The two young nuns were responsible for every aspect of building that hospital, including fundraising, said Sister Maureen Hall, community director for the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth.

So, the two women went on “begging missions” to the area mining towns, standing “outside bars and hoping people came out in a good mood,” Hall said.

Then, Sister Mary Balbina acquired land at 11th Street and Colorado Avenue. She joined the men in hauling rocks from the river to lay the first foundation and oversaw the hospital’s construction.

“I guess she didn’t know that she couldn’t do it,” said Ken Johnson, a member of the Legends Sculpture Committee.

St. Mary’s Hospital opened May 22, 1896, with 10 beds. That day, an editorial in The Daily Sentinel said, “Here, without distinction as to race, creed or color, the afflicted at all times may find a refuge.”

In the sculpture, Todd explained, Sister Mary Balbina is looking not only to the future and what might be, but to the immediate needs of a young community and its people. The boy she shelters with her arm leans on a crutch, and Todd painted a story in which this was a boy Sister Mary Balbina had nursed and cared for.

“And now he was well enough to be back on his feet,” Todd recounted to the crowd. “She stands, and makes her appeal before God, creator of all, that because he remembers the sparrow, remember also this small boy and others that need his care in the form of a hospital.”


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