Turning the page of history, the Sisters of Providence left their namesake Medford hospital in secular hands four decades ago.

Turning the page of history, the Sisters of Providence left their namesake Medford hospital in secular hands four decades ago.

Now Providence Medford Medical Center, which turns a century old Thursday, is reopening the annals of its role in Southern Oregon to share with patients, employees, supporters and visitors. Administrators say that after 100 years, the hospital's mission hasn't really changed since an order of Catholic nuns from Montreal committed it to writing in their Chronicles.

"Whatever changes there are, the Providence values will always be here," says Chief Operating Officer Brian Herwig.

So named for their trust in divine providence, the nuns dedicated their lives to compassionately caring for the suffering and oppressed. Some 50 years after establishing the Northwest's first hospitals and schools, they were petitioned to found a hospital in Medford. The May 26, 1911, arrival of Sisters of Charity of Providence to Medford is the first entry recorded in the "Chroniques de l'Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur."

These handwritten journals in painstaking penmanship were kept in the nuns' native French for their first decade in Southern Oregon. Despite the leather-bound ledgers' scuffed corners and cracked spines, their script remains remarkably vibrant.

"It's really how Providence is part of the fabric of Medford," says Herwig.

"It's definitely grounding," says Vicki Chamberlain, Providence manager of marketing and public affairs. "It's actually a little humbling, to be honest, if you read it."

A "small, yellow house" at South Central Avenue and 11th Street was the Sisters' first hospital, previously the charge of "secular nurses." Tending to 14 patients the day after their arrival and then immediately preparing a place to worship, the nuns remarked "the house is poor and very disorderly."

Almost as quickly, the nuns began laying plans to construct a red-brick hospital on Nob Hill in Siskiyou Heights. Despite some Medford doctors' frosty reception of the nuns, the town's residents pledged to raise money for the hospital, which cost $150,000 to build. The Sisters moved with their patients to the new building Jan. 2, 1912.

Although Sacred Heart Hospital boasted modern architecture and medical devices, the Sisters lacked funds for food and instead relied on the community's generosity. The Chronicles tally gifts of fruits, vegetables and eggs for the nuns' kitchen and hay for their cows. At the end of its first year, Sacred Heart served 350 meals to the poor.

In honor of the Sisters' commitment to feeding the hungry, Providence still designates one day per year when anyone can eat bread and soup in its cafeteria, regardless of ability to pay. From diners who can afford it, the hospital solicits donations for St. Vincent de Paul Society's soup kitchen. This year, the effort raised $667, but Providence donated an additional $15,000 to St. Vincent's operation, says Lauren Van Sickle, Providence's former marketing and public-affairs coordinator.

Also reminiscent of modern-day fundraisers, Sacred Heart's first bazaar, in November 1913, featured "fancy objects" such as "embroidery, laces, paintings" and a doll wearing a "complete winter wardrobe." That Christmas, local pharmacist J. Wold gave the sisters 12 thermometers, according to the Chronicles.

Foreshadowing the next century's lament of lagging medical reimbursements, the Chronicles document the Sisters' 1914 battle with Jackson County commissioners over payment for their care of the "indigents and the sick of the county." After the hospital was granted a tax exemption, Jackson County Bank refused to exchange the nuns' checks from the county for cash. National Bank of Medford ultimately agreed to cash them.

Soon after, the Sisters despaired over the county renewing its contract with a "secular" organization. They argued the new contractor couldn't give care for "these poor people" at a cost lower than theirs. But the nuns had strong opposition from Protestant ministers who pleaded with the county that "all the poor should not be confided to the Sisters' care in fear they will make Catholics out of them."

Their name shortened 50 years later to "Sisters of Providence," the order provided hospital administrators in Medford until 1970, when Sister Carmelina stepped down and Jack Stormberg became Providence's first lay employee in that post.

Rechristened simply "Providence," the nonprofit hospital relocated in 1966 to its current location on Crater Lake Avenue after a massive construction project. As the new Rogue Valley Memorial Hospital (now Rogue Valley Medical Center) drew away Providence patients, the hospital board knew it had to rebuild to survive, says Stormberg.

"That was a major endeavor for them," says Stormberg of the nuns' bid for a new hospital. "They didn't have money; they had to raise money."

Their numbers declining, the nuns gradually exited hospital operations. Sister Carmelina folded sheets in the laundry and made rounds until 1992. In January last year, the order relinquished governance of its five-state Providence Health & Services to a secular board. The Medford hospital's board retains one nun, Sister Mary Grondin, who lives in Seattle, says Herwig.

Affiliation with the Catholic Church is not required of any hospital employee, says Herwig. Indeed, "diversity" is a core principle. But in the nuns' absence, he says, the health care system trains administrators in "ministry leadership formation," so they can understand the Sisters' traditions and legacy.

"The nuns were very compassionate people," says Stormberg. "They weren't in it to make money."

Providence provided $30 million in charity care in 2009 for uninsured patients, says Van Sickle. That expenditure is expected to grow every year, says Herwig, as Providence eyes expanding its spine institute, rehabilitation, stroke and surgical services, in addition to its presence in Central Point and Phoenix, as well as coverage under its own insurance plan.

"The health system supports us being here for another 100 years."

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email slemon@mailtribune.com.