What once began as a wood-framed building built by Kansas nuns has grown into the largest hospital between Denver and Salt Lake City.
St. Mary’s Medical Center, 2635 N. Seventh St., celebrated its 125th birthday on Friday, a milestone that few entities in Mesa County have ever achieved.
“I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years and this is the first time I’ve worked for a faith-based organization,” said Bryan Johnson, president of St. Mary’s. “What’s different about this place is the commitment to the poor and vulnerable, and really being a part of the community. I think that’s what the nuns were trying to accomplish 125 years ago.”
The hospital was first built by two nuns from The Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth (the namesake for SCL Health). The sisters from SCL would go around the country building hospitals, teaching children and taking care of the impoverished.
St. Mary’s opened on May 22, 1896, on 11th Street and Colorado Avenue with 10 beds to serve a city with fewer than 4,000 people and a county of fewer than 10,000.
The hospital underwent significant expansions in 1912 and 1923. In 1951, the hospital relocated to its current home at the corner of Seventh Street and Patterson Road. Since, the hospital matched the area’s steady growth into a regional hub for western Colorado and eastern Utah and the only metropolitan area on this side of the state.
An organization with a century-plus of service is common in large cities, but rural markets didn’t start receiving hospitals and health care facilities until the passing of the Hill-Burton Act of 1946 — a federal law providing grant funding for hospital construction.
St. Mary’s being ahead of its time for hospital access is, in part, what attracted Johnson to St. Mary’s.
He grew up in a small town and his wife grew up in rural Idaho. After living and working at a hospital in a suburb of Salt Lake City, he and his wife wanted to raise their kids in a small town while finding a professional challenge.
“I couldn’t find a spot like this. For somewhere like Grand Junction to have a facility is very uncommon, and there are few in the country that exist in this type of a community,” he said. “Part of that has to do with it being a traditional care facility for the whole Western Slope, and that doesn’t exist in many places in the country.”
Kitty Dexter, financial specialist for the St. Mary’s Medical Center Foundation, moved to Grand Junction 15 years ago after working with corporations on the Front Range. She wanted to apply her skills to something that would make a difference.
When she learned about the history of St. Mary’s and saw the role it plays in this region of the U.S., she knew she made the right decision.
“It’s not just here for Grand Junction but for southern Colorado and eastern Utah. Those towns are smaller than us and they can’t afford to have the facilities we have,” she said. “You can’t have some farmer in Delta needing to go all the way to Denver for cancer treatment and then go all the way back; you need that central hub.”
It’s safe to say St. Mary’s has become that.
At the celebration at the hospital on Friday, Johnson spoke to a small crowd to commemorate the hospital’s mission and reflect on its journey.
“To be 125 years old and still meeting the needs of the community speaks to the commitment to the community and to the good decisions made over the years,” said Johnson. “Here’s to another 125 years.”