OCONTO FALLS – HSHS St. Clare Memorial Hospital marked its first century of service with a Mass of Celebration and other events on Wednesday.
“What a legacy of care for those in need, especially of health care,” Green Bay Diocese Bishop David Ricken said in opening his homily.
The hospital’s staff, many of whom attended the outdoor Mass, were performing “incredibly important work,” Ricken said.
“You’re here in this place because somehow it’s an assignment in this time in your life to care for the sick in the name of Jesus Christ, for the sake of his mission, and to do that in a way that is truly beautiful and shows the beauty of when religion and medicine work together,” he said.
Ricken thanked the hospital’s employees, who he noted “walk the extra mile to take care of people,” especially during the pandemic, which delayed the anniversary celebration by a year.
“You are the heroes in all of this … and you still are, and you do it day after day after day,” he said.
Dan Boettcher, chair of the HSHS St. Clare Memorial board of directors, said the facility “continues to grow and has come a long way” since it opened as Oconto Falls City Hospital at 125 S. Main St.
In 1954, the hospital moved to the former old city hall, expanding from 25 to 34 beds, then moved to the current location, 855 S. Main St., in a new building with 104 beds in 1972. From 1994 to 2006, what was then called Community Memorial Hospital opened primary clinics in Oconto Falls, Gillett, Lena, Mountain and Suring.
And in 2003, a $9 million expansion and renovation of the hospital was completed.
The biggest change, however, came in 2014 when CMH became part of Hospital Sisters Health System, which operates St. Vincent and St. Mary hospitals in Green Bay and St. Nicholas in Sheboygan, along with 11 other hospitals in Wisconsin and Illinois.
“We knew we needed to join a bigger organization in order to survive in the newer health care climate,” Boettcher said, calling the organization the “perfect partner for us.”
“HSHS has helped take us from a small community hospital to one that (offers) all the positive amenities that a larger hospital brings, such as electronic medical records, physician recruitment and bringing more specialties to this campus,” he said.
Damon Boatwright, the president and CEO of Springfield, Illinois-based HSHS, said St. Clare Memorial’s first 100 years “is worth celebrating.”
He recounted the story of a patient in 2019, Bob, who arrived at HSHS St. Clare Memorial with severe abdominal pain. Doctors determined he needed immediate surgery to treat a hernia.
During his stay, Bob referred to the staff – not just doctors and nurses, but housekeepers, food nutrition and others – as “his troop of angels.”
“Over those 12 days, we took care of not only his physical ailments, but prayed for Bob over and over and over again, that he would be able to leave our hospital, which he did,” Boatwright said. “Catholic health care calls us to connect with our patients in a way that Christ, St. Francis, as well as St. Clare herself, connected with the people over their times … and it’s exactly what our colleagues do here each and every day.”
HSHS St. Clare Memorial President and CEO Chris Brabant said the celebration was “a beautiful culmination of our past, present and future” and thanked hospitals employers and providers.
“Without them we wouldn’t be able to care for our community,” he said, “and it’s how they care for our patients that make them so special.”
After the Mass, Brabant emphasized that both the affiliation with HSHS and the partnership with Prevea play a major role in the hospital’s success. He noted that before the service, he was discussing with Prevea CEO Dr. Ashok Rai about what other services could be offered in Oconto Falls. Prevea opened a large medical service building on the hospital campus in 2015.
“While there’s an emphasis on keeping care local, it’s also about what local care can be provided,” he said.
And although Brabant said it may sound cliché, it’s the dedicated staff that allow the Oconto Falls hospital to continue to thrive. Most of the hospital’s 170 employees are from the area, he said, or grew up in the area, left and then came back.
“It’s that sense of taking care of their own, pride in ownership, if you will,” Brabant said. “It’s about delivering the best service they can … even in such challenging times, with COVID, and all stressors. … Health care is not easy in and of itself, it’s a service industry where people expect perfection.”
During the height of the pandemic when many hospitals were near or at capacity, HSHS St. Clare supported their sister hospitals in Green Bay and elsewhere by taking patients who needed less than intensive care but were not ready to go to a nursing home or home while they recovered.
“Anywhere we could accept patients that we could care for right here,” he said. “During COVID, we took care of any and all, from all over the state.”
Also speaking at the Mass were Rai and Sister Jomary Trstensky, chair of Hospital Sisters Ministries, which first established the hospital system and now serves as its sponsors. The celebration continued in the afternoon with an outdoor health fair.
HSHS St. Clare Memorial Hospital was recently named a Top 100 Critical Access Hospital in the U.S. by The Chartis Center for Rural Health.
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Contact Kent Tempus at (920) 431-8226 or [email protected].