Celebrating 117 Years of Care

On a steamy July day 117 years ago, something remarkable happened in Jonesboro.

The first hospital in the northeast quadrant of Arkansas opened, taking its first patients on July 5, 1900.

That hospital – named St. Bernards in honor of St. Bernard Tolomei, founder of Olivetan Benedictines – was a beacon of hope for the region which had been hard hit by a malarial fever epidemic.

St. Bernards Hospital in 1905
St. Bernards Hospital in 1905

St. Bernards was born out of community need and was an undertaking of the Olivetan Benedictine sisters of Holy Angels Convent in Jonesboro. At the urging of local physicians, the sisters – who came here to fulfill a mission of teaching – stepped up to meet an overwhelming need to help the sick. With assistance of community leaders, they were able to raise funds to purchase a two-story frame house on Matthews in the same area where St. Bernards Medical Center is located today. The sisters scrubbed, varnished and transformed the six-room house into a hospital.

Within a week of its opening, most of the beds at St. Bernards were occupied by malaria patients.

The sisters prepared food from their garden in the convent kitchen and did laundry at the convent, using tubs, washboards and homemade soap. Initially, local physicians instructed the sisters on medical techniques.

From those humble beginnings, St. Bernards has become a 438-bed regional referral center for a 23-county area in Northeast Arkansas and Southeast Missouri. It has the largest medical staff in the region and is the only designated Level III Trauma Center in this part of the state. Offering comprehensive, compassionate care, it has the only Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in eastern Arkansas.

St. Bernards has grown from a small two-story structure to a main campus that covers most of a city block in downtown Jonesboro, and it is continuing to grow to meet the needs of area residents. Work is underway on master plan projects that already have seen the medical center’s Cancer Center renovated and enlarged, bringing all cancer services under one roof. Other current projects involve work in the Heartcare Center and the Emergency Department. Heartcare Center changes will allow us to expand invasive services, to add a new cardiac catherterization lab and a new hybrid lab, as well as renovate current electrophysiology and cath labs. In the Emergency Department, changes are being made in the way ED services are accessed. Already a separate entrance has been created with multiple covered ambulance bays, and eventually ambulatory patient access will be relocated as well.

Within the next year, construction will start on a five-story surgical and intensive care tower facing Jackson Avenue that literally will change the face of downtown Jonesboro. The structure will house 14 surgical suites, along with support programs such as pharmacy and the GI Lab, a 48-bed critical care unit and more. One level will be shelled in to allow for future growth and expansion. The last phase will include renovations within the present medical center, including enhancements of patient rooms and public areas.

Our core values and our formal mission remain as they were at our founding. We are committed to providing Christ-like healing through education, treatment and health services. We strive to promote and defend the dignity of every person, to deliver care that is holistic and includes the spiritual needs of each person and to offer the very best in healthcare to all persons, regardless of their ability to pay.

As we approach the beginning of our 117th year of service, we at St. Bernards celebrate the humility, the courage, the passion and the dedication of the founding sisters … and the more than 200 others who have followed.

And we, in concert with the Olivetan Benedictine sisters who play key roles on our governing board, renew our commitment to build on the strong partnerships forged by the early sisters with forward-looking community leaders as we prepare to meet the healthcare needs within the region for the foreseeable future … and beyond.

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