Acts of Mercy
A hospital’s lifecycle
PHOTOGRAPH Courtesy the HISTORIC New Orleans Collection/CHARLES C. FRANCK STUDIO COLLECTION
Hospitals aren’t usually places that people think of fondly. But Gasper Schiro has many pleasant memories of the former Mercy Hospital, at its location on the corner of Bienville Street and Jefferson Davis Parkway. His first visit was as a very young man, and over the years Mercy was where he always felt comfortable, no matter what ailment plagued him.
“Mercy was almost like a family – of course, maybe that’s because the two chief doctors ended up being my cousins,” he laughs; Dr. Jack Ruli and Dr. Jack Castrogiovanni both served as chiefs of staff.
One other physician he remembered was the late Dr. José Garcia Oller, a well-known neurosurgeon who was honored for 50 years of service to the hospital. “Hospitals wanted him all over the U.S., but he wouldn’t leave Mercy. He had an office in a typical little New Orleans house across the street on Bienville – you would never think that this is a world famous doctor!” Schiro marvels.
Mercy’s location on Jefferson Davis Parkway was an asset, according to Dr. Jack Castrogiovanni. “Certainly it’s a lovely spot.” Castrogiovanni served “as Chief of Staff, Chairman of the Department of Medicine, and on the board for many years.”
“I loved it. It was so easy to have everything done there, it was so well planned. You could have all your pre-surgical care done in about an hour,” he reminisces.
The Sisters of Mercy provided spiritual as well as physical healing. “Just the idea that you were in a Catholic atmosphere, a religious atmosphere. They brought you Communion. That was very comforting,” says Schiro, “Sister Madeline was like a mother hen; she was always checking on you to see how you were doing, giving you encouragement.”
“We had a whole pastoral care department,” notes Sister Mary Padraic Hallaron, who began her career in education. She then specialized in pastoral care and served as a chaplain at a Sisters of Mercy facility in Baton Rouge while also serving on the board of Mercy Hospital in New Orleans.
The Sisters of Mercy first came here in 1869 to assume charge of St. Alphonsus’ School and Asylum and open a convent and boarding school. Their work in New Orleans wouldn’t be limited to education.
In 1924, the order opened Mercy Hospital on Annunciation Street (where a Schwegmann’s Supermarket was later located). That Mercy Hospital building had once been the Saulet plantation house and later housed a girls school, then a mental hospital. The Sisters of Mercy received the building as a gift from Mrs. Leonce M. Soniat in memory of her late husband (Soniat’s maiden name was Saulet, the house had been her great-grandfather’s and she had attended the girls school there.)
According to The Times-Picayune, “The interior of the hospital is as modern as its exterior is picturesque … Patients may enjoy their convalescence on the shaded galleries which look out over the handsomely planted grounds.”
By 1951, Mercy Hospital decided to expand, and The Times-Picayune reported:
“A new 219-bed general hospital will be constructed … facing Jefferson Davis Parkway at Bienville Street.”There would also be a home for the nuns and a new building for the nursing school.”
In 1993 Mercy Hospital merged with Southern Baptist Hospital, creating the biggest private hospital in the city. The new institution was called Mercy-Baptist Medical Center and claimed the next highest admission rate to Charity Hospital in the New Orleans area.
Ownership of the hospital would pass out of the hands of the Sisters of Mercy in ’95. The two hospitals were sold to Tenet Healthcare Corporation, which named them Memorial Medical Center – with a Baptist Campus on Napoleon Avenue and the Mercy campus on Jefferson Davis Parkway.
The Sisters of Mercy no longer have a hospital here, but they continue following their mission. Mercy Family Center, with executive director Rex Menasco, provides innovative mental health services to families, with particular concern for the economically poor. According to their website, “We seek to treat our clients with respect and dignity, regardless of socioeconomic position. We strive for excellence in service while maintaining wise stewardship of our resources.”
Besides Mercy Family Centers, the Sisters of Mercy today serve in “a lot of little things,” according to Sister Hallaron. She continues that nuns are involved in Mercy Endeavors, a senior day-care center and St. Alphonsus School, with pre-kindergarten though fourth grade classes. Both are located around Jackson Avenue and Magazine Street near their Galilee Housing project, which works to secure housing for low-income families. There is a Sister of Mercy teaching at Loyola University and at Our Lady of Holy Cross College and also at St. Michael’s School, where one teacher will retire this year after 45 years on staff. In the past, the Sisters of Mercy were involved with Holy Name School Uptown, and with the now-closed Mercy Academy, a girls’ high school.
In 2003, Tenet Healthcare Corp. officials split the two campuses of Memorial Medical Center back into two separate hospitals and in January ’04, renamed Mercy Hospital the Lindy Boggs Medical Center, with Boggs’ approval. A Tenet official explained that Boggs “has been such a major part of the city and the Catholic community.”
In all the ownership changes, medical care at Mercy’s location won praise from patients and their families.
Attorney Jimmy Roussel’s wife “Puddin’” received a successful liver transplant when the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center transplant unit worked there in 2003. “I had never been to that hospital before, so I didn’t know what to expect when we got there, and I have to say, it was one of the best hospital experiences I ever had,” Roussel acknowledges. “They had a cafeteria in the basement that cooked exceptionally good soul food and Liuzza’s had cold beer across the street – how can you beat that?”
As Gasper Schiro relates, “My mother and my father both died there. My mother died of a stroke, and that was in the middle of my campaign [for Register of Conveyances] in 1990. My father died there in ’95, on Mardi Gras night. We all saw him Mardi Gras day, we left to go to the Rex Ball, and Comus – we came home and there was a message on my machine.”
After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the hospital building sank into blight, suffering occasional small fires and a flooded basement. The neighborhood was concerned that an outsized commercial development would be placed on the site.
However, the Mercy Hospital story has a happy ending.
Larry Stansberry, CEO of St. Margaret’s Daughters (which operates a home for seniors on St. Claude Avenue) says the group has purchased the property and will use the Mercy building as a nursing home, with other components included in the complex, and applying the “Green House” concept of having small residential units for the elderly.
“Our mission is to see that poor people have access to health care,” Stansberry says. “We want to return it to commerce as a health care community.”