Standing together at the anniversary celebration are (left to right) Sandy Anderson, president, Ascension St. Mary’s Hospital; Karla Ashenhurst, chief mission integration officer, Ascension, Wisconsin; Debra Standridge, north region president, Ascension Wisconsin, Bishop James P. Powers; Sr. Lois Bush, SSM, regional superior for the St. Clare of Assisi Region; Sr. Dorothy Ann Dirkx, SSM; Tracy Rogers, chief operating officer, Ascension Wisconsin. (Submitted photo)

Ascension St. Mary’s Hospital, Rhinelander, welcomed Bishop James P. Powers of the Diocese of Superior to celebrate the hospital’s 125th anniversary Thursday, June 21.

The celebration included Mass with Bishop Powers in the hospital’s Galleria as well as a prayer and memorial service at Nativity of our Lord Catholic Cemetery honoring the founding sisters. “This is a wonderful event to celebrate the legacy of those who laid the foundation for our current system of care,” said Sandy Anderson, president, Ascension St. Mary’s.

Ascension St. Mary’s traces its roots to the late 19th century as lumbermen sought the lucrative north woods as an essential part of a growing nation. Many lumbermen suffered severe injuries while the nearby camps and towns experienced severe typhoid outbreaks.

In 1891, the people of Rhinelander converted a boarding house on the corner of King and Pelham Streets into the Rhinelander Hospital. The pastor of St. Mary’s Church, Fr. Nicholas July, had heard of the work of the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother in Marshfield and traveled there to ask for their help in the spring of 1893. Mother Frances Streitel, foundress and Mother Superior of the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother, gave her permission for the sisters to take over the hospital and promised to send more sisters to the United States from the Motherhouse in Rome.

On June 5, 1893, a group of sisters led by Fr. Joch began their work in Rhinelander.

“At the time, the closest hospital to Rhinelander was in Chippewa Falls, and the pioneer doctors who visited the lumber camps and towns were not equipped to treat the population and did not have access to support from a trained nursing staff,” said Sr. Lois Bush, SSM, Regional Superior for the St. Clare of Assisi Region in the USA and Dominican Republic.

To help the hospital financially, Fr. Joch started the ticket system in Rhinelander, which already had been introduced there by some of the doctors. The tickets cost $5 and were good for one year. These were sold to the lumbermen with the promise of free care if they became sick or injured.

In July 1893, Fr. Joch purchased five lots on the banks of the Pelican River and purchased plans for a new hospital. He continued to sell insurance tickets to fund the building of the new hospital, and the sisters helped by carrying bricks and lumber, painting the doors, windowsills and other woodwork. New sisters came throughout the construction, and soon there were 11 sisters serving the community.

By July 4, 1895, the two-story brick structure with 12 rooms was completed. Msgr. Jacquemin, spiritual director of the community, gave the hospital and its chapel a blessing.

By 1922, it was apparent the community needed a larger hospital. The citizens of Rhinelander, Oneida County, and the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother all financially contributed to the construction of a large addition. Diocese of Superior Bishop Joseph G. Pinten blessed and dedicated the addition April 5, 1923.

Six other phases followed over the next 90-plus years, until the decision was made to build a new hospital on the city’s east side. The hospital has operated at its present site since 2002.

In 2013 Ascension St. Mary’s joined Ascension. Ascension is the largest nonprofit health system in the U.S. and the world’s largest Catholic health system.