Their story is our story.
Father Luke Sheehan
Father Luke Sheehan didn’t give up easily. Maybe it was in his blood. Born in 1873 in poverty-stricken Ireland, he joined the Franciscan order of Capuchins and was ordained at 23.
Maybe it was the discipline of his order, whose members worked as missionaries in some of the world’s most remote and least Catholic places. Sheehan served in Arabia and India before coming to Oregon.
Whatever the reason, Father Sheehan’s quiet tenacity served him well when he decided the high desert town called Bend needed a Catholic hospital. It took him seven years and a bit of negotiation, but persistence paid off.
That spirit has appeared time and again for the little clapboard hospital that grew into St. Charles Health System. It echoed in the late 1940s, when the community rallied to build a new hospital building. And it appeared in 1970 when Sister Catherine Hellmann stood firmly by her idea to build a modern medical center for the seemingly unattainable sum of $12 million.
Father Luke came to Bend in 1910, one of two Capuchin friars sent by their order to assess the opportunities for establishing missions in the less settled Eastern Oregon. One, Father Thomas Dowling, returned while Father Sheehan stayed.
Everything he owned fit in a carpet bag. He moved into the upper floor of a hall used for dances, boxing matches and picture shows and immediately began the Lord’s work. It was an endurance event. With only seven Catholic families in town, a territory that spanned from Warm Springs to La Pine and no horse, Sheehan walked 20 or 30 miles a day to reach parishioners.
“Many tell us about the Good Shepherd seeking the lost sheep, but for six months, my efforts were expended in finding the sheep that were not lost, ‘Sheehan was quoted in a Capuchin history.
Sheehan quickly came to love his new territory and the people who lived there. Yet, he stared to see problems. The railroad was coming to town, and track construction was hazardous with its blasting and digging. So, too, was work in the town’s sawmills and the surrounding forests and ranches. The area’s medical facilities were not sufficient to handle major medical emergencies. This worried Sheehan, and he decided to do something about it.
Two years before coming to Bend, Father Sheehan had met Mother Gertrude, the superior of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Tipton, Indiana, on a ship bound for Ireland. They talked about the teaching and nursing needs each had encountered in their travels.
In 1912, Father Sheehan renewed his acquaintance with Mother Gertrude by correspondence and discussed his idea of a sister-run hospital in Bend. On Feb. 22, 1915, the Right Rev. Charles O’Reilly, bishop of Baker City, wrote to Mother Gertrude asking her to send sisters to Bend to start a nursing school and clinic or hospital in Bend.
Sheehan enticed the sister to Central Oregon with tales of its natural splendor. An anonymous history by one of the early nuns documents this passage, “He described to the nuns the beauty and grandeur of the Oregon scenery, the delight of the Oregon climate, and the hospitality of the western people. Mother Gertrude, in turn, confided to the good priest that she too had dreams of such a place where her sisters might go for rest and recuperation when their health failed from the long and strenuous hours of nursing and teaching.”
Yet the decision to send sisters across the country was not easy. The Sisters of St. Joseph were just setting up their first hospital at Kokomo, Ind., and barely had enough nurses there. In the fall of 1915, the order decided not to come to Bend. Disappointed but not discouraged, Father Sheehan continued his correspondence with Mother Gertrude. She promised she would send nuns, but she died of cancer April 18, 1916.
Later that year, Bishop O’Reilly visited New York and tried to interest another order, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, in coming to Bend. They considered it and may even have sent a delegation to Bend, according to the History of the Diocese of Baker City. Early in 1917, the mother superior of the Sisters of Charity postponed indefinitely the plan to send nuns to Bend. Again disappointed, Sheehan and O’Reilly huddled. In October 1917, Sheehan traveled to Tipton to meet with the new Mother Superior of the Sisters of St. Joseph, Mother Xavier. She agreed to honor Mother Gertrude’s promise.
On Nov. 13, she wrote to Bishop O’Reilly, “Rev. Father Sheehan has told me of the wonderful work you have done, and are now doing in your Diocese in Oregon … My Sisters are anxious to partake of your great work …” On Dec. 4, she wrote that the sisters would arrive in Bend on Dec. 28.
Father Sheehan was practically giddy with the news. He scrambled to make arrangements, procuring free train passage for them from Omaha. On Dec. 27, he traveled to La Grande to greet them. He accompanied them the rest of the way.
Sheehan continued as a priest in Bend for 27 years, building the St. Francis of Assisi Church as well as remaining an ardent supporter of the hospital. He died on Feb. 11, 1937. His obituary in the Bend Bulletin noted, “Women cried and men who had known Father Sheehan since he came here in the early days were unable to control their sobs as the requiem mass was celebrated.”
Read this story about how Father Luke helped people in Central Oregon during the Depression.