The spread of smallpox in Central Missouri led Catholic nuns to travel from St. Louis to Jefferson City. In 1904, they opened an improvised hospital, which later became St. Mary's Hospital, in a home near the corner of Elm and Bolivar streets.
And for more than 114 years, care steeped in faith has been the hallmark of the Jefferson City institution.
A potential sale of the hospital to MU Health Care won't diminish that approach to charitable care, representatives of MU Health and SSM say. But some elements from that faith-based tradition, such as its crosses and relics, would be leaving the building if a sale occurs.
In August, SSM Health — a Catholic nonprofit and the St. Louis-based owner of St. Mary's Hospital — announced it was in exclusive discussions to sell the hospital and its other Central Missouri health care facilities to MU Health Care.
The process is in the due-diligence phase, in which both parties are looking at the proposal to see how it fits their missions.
Jonathan Curtright, chief executive officer of MU Health Care, Philip Gustafson, interim president of St. Mary's Hospital, and other staff members from the health organizations met with the Jefferson City News Tribune editorial board Thursday to discuss the potential sale of the hospital.
The commitment St. Mary's Hospital employees have to the hospital's mission is "amazing," Gustafson said. The SSM Health website says the system spent a year developing a single mission statement that expresses the values of the organization.
"Through our exceptional health care services, we reveal the healing presence of God," the mission says.
"Our discussion with our staff (after the potential sale was announced) — no one can take that away from you, because it is in your heart. It is in your soul," Gustafson said. "It is what you do every day."
John Nguyen, the chief marketing officer for SSM Health, participated in the conversation with the editorial board via conference call. He acknowledged MU Health Care is not a Catholic health system, but argued MU's missions to serve the poor and underprivileged are "incredibly aligned" with SSM Health.
"Despite the fact that MU Health Care is not Catholic, they share the same commitment, very similar values about care, that reaches out to everyone, that really ensures that regardless of ability to pay people still have care," Nguyen said. "They will reach out to the community — to the under-served — which is a hallmark of our mission and the work we do. And something we know we'll pass on to MU Health."
MU Health Care is one of only two "safety net hospitals" in Missouri, Curtright said.
Safety net hospitals are medical centers that have missions — or are legally obliged — to provide health care for people regardless of their ability to pay. The mandate forces safety net hospitals to serve all populations. They tend to serve a higher number of uninsured, Medicaid, Medicare and low-income patients than other hospitals.
"Spiritual Care is absolutely a part of the healing process, and we embrace that," Curtright said. "At University Hospital right now, we have a chapel. We have chaplains that are a key part of our team — and are very much a part of who we are. We very much embrace that."
University Hospital has a team of chaplains who provide "comprehensive spiritual care" and emotional support, according to the MU Health Care website. "We believe total patient care means caring for the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of our patients," the website says.
But, there may be differences in the two health care systems' approaches to spiritual care.
"MU Health Care is not a Catholic health system," Nguyen said. "The Catholic parts — our iconography, our crosses, our relics — would remain with SSM Health."
At this time, SSM officials said they don't know where those Catholic elements might go after a potential sale.
And in an area of the state that has taken a very anti-abortion stance, residents wonder if MU Health Care would allow them to be conducted in the hospital.
Pushed on whether St. Mary's Hospital would conduct procedures — such as abortions — Curtright said some things will have to be worked through.
"The University of Missouri follows all state laws and regulations relative to this topic," he said. "And we do not provide any elective procedures as you're describing them at all."