Caring for sick became habit for nuns at Comox hospital

St. Joseph's General Hospital is a big part of Comox Valley history — and it all started when four women came here nearly 100 years ago.

Some Sisters of St. Joseph take a break from working in the early days of St. Joseph's General Hospital in Comox.

The Comox Valley Record will feature one story about hospital history per month leading up to the hospital’s big 100th anniversary celebration on July 7 on the hospital grounds.

St. Joseph’s General Hospital is a big part of Comox Valley history — and it all started when four women came here to care for others nearly 100 years ago.

Four Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto — Sister Majella, who was Sister Superior, Sister St. Edmund, Sister Claudia and Sister Praxedes — left their home in Toronto on June 29, 1913 to come to Comox and establish a hospital.

They came here after an urgent request for medical care for loggers and their families from J.D. McCormack, who was president of the Comox Logging Company.

The sisters arrived on July 5 and, according to Sr. Majella’s recounting of the trip, it was a cold rainy day when they got here.

However, the next day, Sr. Majella, (who wrote in the third person), was happy to be here.

“Later in the day, Sr. Majella called Sr. Claudia on the verandah and her eyes filled with tears, she said, ‘Do you know I think we will like this place, just look at the mountains. Oh the scenery is wonderful and the foliage and roses are marvelous,’ ” wrote Sr. Majella.

Comox Valley resident Myrtle Heron, (nee McKenzie), explained the community was very excited about the sisters’ arrival and the prospect of a hospital in Comox. Heron’s father John McKenzie, who was just 17 at the time, picked up the sisters when they arrived in Comox.

“My father was sent down to the wharf with the horse and carriage to pick them up and take them to where they were staying…He always felt he had been honoured by his Dad asking him to do this,” said Myrtle, as she explained her grandfather owned the livery stable business, which was similar to a taxi service nowadays. “He was always very proud of the fact that he had done that at his young age.”

The four sisters had their first patient in August, whom they accommodated in a small farmhouse at the top of Siwash Hill — which had capacity for four patients, and the sisters themselves lived in.

By February of 1914, they were able to move into a 10-bed hospital on adjoining property bought, renovated and expanded after the sisters’ arrival. This 10-bed hospital was renovated and expanded over the years until it became what St. Joseph’s General Hospital is today.

Many different Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto spent time at the hospital over their 79 years of service to the Comox Valley, until the order that founded the hospital closed the mission.

Christ the King Parish Heritage Society compiled a small booklet with excerpts from community members and their memories of the sisters, which it gave to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto before they left in 1992.

One excerpt said: “I remember seeing Sister St. James skipping like a girl through our hopscotch squares. Wearing as they did the sombre black habit, we never gave a thought to the fact that some of these women were very young, perhaps hardly more than girls.”

Another said: “My cousin had a baby in the hospital who turned out to be RH negative and in need of an immediate blood transfusion. Sister St. Jude, the nun who was the X-ray technician, had the right type of blood and donated it to save the baby.”

Another part of the booklet pointed out the non-Catholic community were not always sure how to behave in front of the sisters during the early days of the hospital. This excerpt notes a comical incident involving Sr. Claudia and a workman who was installing wiring in the hospital around 1920: “Finally during a difficult phase of the procedure a workman was heard to say to the hovering spectator, ‘Sister Claudia, get the hell out of here and let me swear!’ Sister chuckled and went. She remained forever after a favourite of the person who related the story.”

Check www.facebook.com/SJGHCentennial for other pieces of history and notifications of other events celebrating St. Joseph’s General Hospital’s centennial year.

writer@comoxvalleyrecord.com

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