Country’s only diocesan-owned hospital is unique
One winter’s day in 1921 four Sisters of Charity boarded a stream train at Sydney’s dusty Central Station for a 700-plus kilometre journey to Lismore in the state’s northeast.
They were answering a call to serve the people of the river-side town and wider region which was rapidly growing thanks to its thriving dairy industry, but lacking adequate local health care.
Lismore Bishop John Joseph Carroll had invited the congregation the previous year to establish for his diocese a hospital in a two-story timber house on four acres he had purchased in Dalley Street, with a promise of their own convent and a primary school to follow shortly afterwards.
The congregation, inspired by the vision of their founder Mary Aikenhead to care for those most in need, had already founded Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital in 1870, a tuberculosis hospital in Parramatta and St Vincent’s Private Hospital.
Mother Berchmans, the Mother General, sent Sister Leonard O’Beirne to lead the new venture, along with Sisters Adrian, Luigi and Norbert.
They lived on the top floor of the large house and soon had St Vincent’s, Lismore, up and running with 12 beds downstairs and the Sisters caring for their first patients admitted by two local doctors.
By 1923 they were able to move into their own convent on the hospital’s grounds, and shortly after they faced their first serious trial – an epidemic of dengue fever.
Fast forward 100 years and St Vincent’s is celebrating its centenary in the midst of a pandemic but with the same undaunted spirit of dedicated service that arrived with those selfless religious sisters.
Australia’s only diocesan owned and operated hospital is now an acute surgical, medical, rehabilitation and palliative care hospital providing an increasingly wide range of services and around 170 accredited specialists.
Lismore Bishop Greg Homeming OCD said that under the excellent leadership of the hospital’s chief executive officer Steve Brierley and his executive team, St Vincent’s has a significant place in the Northern Rivers community, particularly in Lismore which is now a city in its own right with a population of more than 40,000.
“It has provided constant quality of care over 100 years, but in addition to that, being the hospital that it is, it gives anyone who works there the possibility through their work to become better people, and even to grow in holiness, which is what should happen in any one who works in the context of the Church,” Bishop Homeming told The Catholic Weekly.
“It’s got to do with having the focus on the whole person, and being able to see not simply someone who’s sick but working with the goodness in that person. That in turn draws goodness out of us.”
Mr Brierley said that in the hospital’s centenary year he wanted to pay tribute to St Vincent’s founders. “They were extraordinarily resourceful and driven by a clear vision for better healthcare for the people of Northern New South Wales,” he said.
“A century on and it is the extraordinary care our more than 550 staff exhibit each day that is the hallmark of St Vincent’s. In fact our entire history has been defined by the spirit and selfless contribution of our doctors, our nurses, support staff, and our volunteers.
“And as we look to our future, it is our unique history that inspires us to keep serving our community with great healthcare.”
St Vincent’s chairperson Damian Chapelle said the milestone provided a time of reflection.
“There is no doubt St Vincent’s has a special place in the story of the healthcare of our region and I firmly believe that legacy will continue well into the future,” he said.
“What strikes me about St Vincent’s history is the resourcefulness of our founders, who were driven by a clear vision and how across the decades that commitment continued enabling St Vincent’s to keep pace with the healthcare needs of our region.
“We should be proud of the diverse range of medical services our Hospital provides to northern NSW. St Vincent’s continues to grow its services and this is primarily able to occur as a result of our great staff who consistently deliver high-quality healthcare within the hospital and our aged care facility.
It is also important to recognise our hospital could never function without the support and hard work of our volunteers. In this respect I would like to acknowledge the Friends of St Vincent’s headed by Ann Spillane. St Vincent’s Lismore is enriched by the support of a large volunteer network who are valued members of our hospital community.”
Mr Chapelle said the hospital has already expanded its geographical footprint with the opening of a consulting suite in Ballina and a day surgery in Lismore. “We will continue to explore our regional presence in the coming years, whilst also reviewing the implementation of our Dalley Street campus master plan,” he added.
The centenary’s celebrations have included a centenary dinner earlier this year attended by Bishop Homeming and local members for parliament Janelle Saffin and Kevin Hogan, and a centenary garden will be established on the hospital grounds later this year.
To mark the occasion St Vincent’s has also created an online Centenary Hub featuring an historical photo gallery, a video telling the hospital’s story and a historical timeline at https://100years.svh.org.au.
Hospital chapel livestreamed Masses provide pandemic hope
Following damage to St Carthage’s Cathedral last year due to a fire, and the pandemic restrictions, Bishop Greg has been livestreaming his Sunday Masses from St Vincent’s chapel, with medical and administrative staff participating as readers.
Viewer numbers regularly soar to almost 40,000 at the diocese’s YouTube channel each week, making it one of Australia’s most popular online Masses. “I go to Mass in Lismore every Sunday that I can (even if I live seven time zones away),” wrote one recent viewer.
“I feel so refreshed after every Mass and am ready for the week! For this I am so grateful.”
Bishop Homeming said the chapel location is fitting as it is separate from the hospital itself so it doesn’t compromise the safety of patients and staff, and also puts a focus on the need for the Church to be present to people in their illness.
However, he does not intend to continue livestreaming Masses when the pandemic is over, and hopes and prays that time will come soon. “The primary reason for doing it is so that my people in my diocese of Lismore will be able to at least have some spiritual sustenance, who either cannot go to Mass or because of the pandemic are too afraid to go to Mass,” he said.
“I still need to be able to minister to them as their shepherd and I do hope they help somebody.”
This article drew upon a short history compiled by Lismore chancellor and episcopal vicar Fr Peter Slack, and St Vincent’s online Centenary Hub.