Their story is our story.
Building a team, building a legacy
Sister Catherine Hellmann didn’t make a lot of fans when she first started talking about building a new medical center on the east edge of Bend.
In June 1969, she returned to St. Charles Memorial Hospital after nearly 20 years working as a nurse for her order in Indiana. The ink on her administrator’s credentials had barely dried and already she was pushing for a fundamental change.
“When I even mentioned the idea, they thought I was out of it,” Hellmann said. “The Sisters of St. Joseph … they could no way afford a new hospital. The community didn’t think we needed one.”
In the next six years, however, the spirited nun would win over the doubters with her vision of a modern medical center in the high desert.
Faith and a newly formed team would help her create an organization that would ensure SCMC’s continued growth in the decades to come.
The St. Charles Memorial Hospital Hellmann left in 1951 was brand-new. A 38-bed wing had been added in 1958. But the community’s growth was relentless even then. By 1969, crowding was a problem again.
The medical staff and Sister Andrea, acting administrator before Hellmann arrived, had started looking at options. The Sisters of St. Joseph governing board wanted to expand the five-acre Hospital Hill site. Hellmann discerned quickly that would not meet the community’s needs, and the board agreed to an independent study. In the meantime, the existing building was remodeled, expanding the hospital to 99 beds in 1971.
As the study proceeded, hospital officials investigated whether they could buy more than 70 surrounding homes to expand the Hospital Hill site. Harvey Watt, then a member of the Lay Advisory Board, started knocking on doors. At one, he met a woman who had just purchased the house.
“When I asked the new owner if all that stood in the way of a new hospital was her new home, would she sell it? Her prompt answer was ‘No,’ she wanted to keep her house,” Watt said.
It became evident expanding Hospital Hill would be too expensive and disruptive to the neighborhood. Hellmann and the Lay Advisory Board began searching for property elsewhere. The more daunting task would be raising the money.
“I said, ‘if you’re truly committed to health care on this side of the mountain, in God’s time it will come,’” Hellmann said.
Building a team
“I’m not good at finances, so I had to get someone who was,” Hellmann said 32 years after hiring James Lussier and Roger Highland. In the spring of 1970, she advertised for a business manager. Highland and Lussier, both in their late 20s, responded.
“Sister Catherine had two openings, but had advertised for only one of them – the business manager position. Roger was best qualified for that one and I was totally unqualified, but I still sought an interview. Sister Catherine hired Roger for the fiscal job and I convinced her to hire me for the personnel position,” recalls Lussier.
Lussier, a Montana native, came with an MBA and experience in management engineering from the Air Force. Hellmann saw something more in both him and Highland.
“I really got the impression they could do the work,” she said. “Their hearts were in it as much as mine, and my heart and soul were completely in it.”
Lussier would be named vice president of administration and Highland would become vice president of fiscal services. Highland, a certified public accountant, saw potential in the situation from the start.
“I think the number-one attraction was Sister Catherine and her vision,” Highland said.
Planning began in earnest in 1970. The consultants came back with a proposal for a hospital on the east side of Bend. A facility to serve the 64,000 people living in the area, as well as to accommodate population growth, would cost $12 million.
Neither the Mother House of the Sisters of St. Joseph nor the Baker Diocese could afford that. The community of dubious as well, but as in 1948, it rallied behind its hospital.
“They came to me and said, ‘Sister, we decided we want our medical center,’ but they said ‘nowhere on God’s earth will we get $12 million,’” Hellmann recalled. “I said, ‘last year, in 1969, we made the first step on the moon … Are you committed to making the first step?’ They couldn’t say no to taking the first step.”
In 1971 representatives of the community, the medical staff and the Sisters of St. Joseph established St. Charles Memorial Hospital, Inc., later changed to St. Charles Medical Center, Inc., a non-profit corporation. Hellmann became president and chief executive officer. Early in 1972, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Tipton, Indiana, turned over $3 million in assets and buildings it had accrued in its 54-year presence in Bend. That same year, the City of Bend lent its bonding authority to qualify the project for tax exempt revenue bonds.
In the meantime, Sister Catherine had fallen in love with 68-acres of juniper trees and cow pasture east of Pilot Butte. A few farm houses dotted the area then; town ended on the east side of the butte. That worried some and offended a few.
“…There were implications particularly moving out here, that we were leaving town. We were out by Harney County somewhere, because there was nobody out here at that time,” Highland said.
But the land was cheap relative to land in the west side of town and the area tugged at Hellmann since the first time she laid eyes on Central Oregon.
“I could just see the patients looking out and seeing those beautiful mountains,” she recalled.
On a cold Sunday morning, Sept. 21, 1975, those patients got their first look at Sister Catherine’s views, and at the newly christened St. Charles Medical Center. It was an all-hands event. Fifty-seven patients were moved one by one from St. Charles Memorial Hospital on the hill. A doctor, a nurse, two ambulance crew members and a hospital guild volunteer accompanied each patient.
Two-day-old Jason Paul Van Norsdall of Prineville was the last child born at the old hospital and the first patient moved. That same morning, Calvin Marion McAllister of Bend became the first child born at the new hospital. By noon, several patients had been treated in the emergency room and two had undergone surgery there.
The new medical center had 160,000 square feet on four and a half floors. It had 164 patient beds, and the design provided for expansion to 500 beds, according to Hellmann and to a 1972 document.
Sister Catherine said she worried at the time whether St. Charles would be able to pay for it all. More than 25 years of successful operation and numerous expansions, however, vindicated her faith. Though others credit her vision, she gave much of the credit to the people of Central Oregon.
“I saw much more community involvement at that hospital than at any other hospital I ever worked at,” Hellmann said. “the people of that community were so open to new ideas. I was kind of like a bird out of a cage there.”