St. Joseph’s: A Calling, Not a Job

Kim Cosgrove (left) and Kady Phelps created an exhibit about the history of St. Joseph’s Hospital
Kim Cosgrove, left, and Kady Phelps created an exhibit about the history of St. Joseph’s Hospital.

By David Perry

It was a hospital, yes. But Lowell’s St. Joseph’s Hospital was so much more to the nuns who worked there and to the residents of the Acre neighborhood.

Now, two UMass Lowell students have created a tribute to the hospital, celebrating its singular value to its workers, patients and the neighborhood around it.

The single-panel installation, composed of text and vintage photographs on a canvas, stands in the lobby of the university police station at University Crossing on Salem Street. Alongside the panel is a small pew bench that once stood in the hospital’s chapel.

Kady Phelps ’17, who is pursuing a master’s degree in history, and senior graphic design major Kim Cosgrove also created a more extensive pamphlet to accompany the large panel celebrating the hospital’s singular value to its workers and the neighborhood around it. 

“I think it’s fabulous, what they did,” says Acre neighborhood activist Dave Ouellette of the students’ exhibit. “It shows the heritage of the people in the neighborhood. Even as you go to the future, we should all look back at the past. St. Joseph’s was, in a lot of ways, the glue that held the Little Canada area together. It was the place everyone went when they got hurt, and it was also where everybody would go for meetings. Now, people go to malls to find meeting spots.” 

“This kind of hospital is not something you see today, anywhere,” says Phelps, whose grandparents toiled in Lowell’s mills. “You talk to people who were there and that was the overarching theme that kept coming back – ‘We were family and cared for each other.’ Even today, in online groups, people talk about St. Joseph’s with great affection.”

Mill owners opened the hospital in 1840 as the Lowell Corporation Hospital, to maintain the health of their employees. It housed St. Joseph’s School of Nursing, which was founded in 1887 and trained hundreds of nurses over the years.

When the mill economy withered and the jobs emptied from the area, the hospital was sold to the Boston Roman Catholic Archdiocese for $1 in the 1930s. The Grey Nuns of the Cross of Ottawa took over administration and operation of the hospital until it closed in 1992, after merging with St. John’s Hospital to eventually form Saints Memorial Medical Center. UML purchased the building in 2011, and demolished it the following year to make way for University Crossing.

“Only UMass Lowell could have done what needed to be done with the property,” says Ouellette. “For years, the place just sat there, abandoned.”

Phelps and Cosgrove began putting together the exhibit in the summer of 2017, culling photographs from St. Joseph Nursing School yearbooks at the Center for Lowell History. They were hired and paid as interns by the university’s Facilities Planning department. Cosgrove also received Art Department course credit.

And it afforded hands-on, real-world experience to both students as they connected a neighborhood with its neighbor, and connected a university with its past.

Ellen Wetmore, associate professor in the Art & Design Department, says such assignments give students an opportunity to explore the type of projects they may do as working professionals.

“We have a lot of talent around here,” says Wetmore. “There’s so many of the young people enrolled in the department who want to be taken seriously, and when you give them the opportunity, they really shine.”

Designer Cosgrove says the historical images convey the hospital’s role in the neighborhood.

“There was an incredible amount of love and care between the hospital staff and its patients,” she says. “We felt it was best expressed through the main image we chose, of two nurses and a nun caring for a young child.”

Phelps, who gathered the information used in the text by visiting museums and libraries and through interviews, said the Grey Nuns of Ottawa were “really strong women, amazing. And some of the kindest people I’ve ever met.”

Yvette Ouellette (no relation to Dave), who now lives at D’Youville Manor Nursing Home, graduated from St. Joseph’s School of Nursing in 1951 and spent her career at the hospital. She told Phelps her work, “wasn’t a job, it was a calling.”

“She was so passionate about the care she gave,” says Phelps.

St. Joseph’s central role in the community went beyond the care provided, says Dave Ouellette.

“The funny thing is,” he says, “the hospital was also where a lot of people went to eat . They would have whole cooked turkeys, real meatloaf. The nuns would cook the food with a lot of care and serve it cafeteria style. It was never more than two or three bucks. I remember going there with my grandmother. We’d all go out for supper at St. Joe’s.

“It was such a big deal that you’d hear about the menu out on the street during the day. Word would filter out.”