They traveled hundreds of kilometers to get here. First by train and then by steamboat from San Francisco Bay to Humboldt Bay. They arrived in Eureka with less than a dollar in their pockets, but with courageous faith, flexibility and foresight about what might happen.
The year was 1912 and Mother Bernard was its leader and, at 37, the oldest of all the sisters. Seven novices traveled with Mother Bernard, ages 16 to 24. They wasted little time and, after a warm welcome from the community, set to work teaching the local youth and establishing a school (St. Bernard’s Academy).
Guided by their charism of unity and reconciliation, the Sisters of St. Joseph responded to the needs of the community as they arose. In 1918, there was a flu pandemic and the sisters began caring for the sick. Many became ill themselves.
Mother Bernard was resourceful and found a car that the sisters could use to drive to people’s homes and care for the sick. This was the sisters’ entry into health care, driven by the needs of the community.
Eventually, the Sisters of St. Joseph purchased Northern California Hospital from Dr. Charles Falk and after remodeling it and sending some of the sisters to school to learn nursing, surgery and more, they opened St. Joseph Hospital in 1920.
More than 100 years later, Providence St. Joseph Hospital continues to respond to the needs of the community just as Mother Bernard and the first sisters did.
By year’s end, Providence will open a new permanent supportive housing program for homeless people in Eureka, named after Mother Bernard, located on Fourth St. in Eureka. It will include 42 permanent housing units and 6 units that will serve as respite care spaces for patients who are nearing hospital discharge but need more time to recover and find stable housing.
Housing is health. Safe and affordable housing is essential to overall health and well-being. Living unhoused on the streets is stressful and dangerous, and it is nearly impossible to adequately manage chronic conditions such as diabetes, substance use and high blood pressure. By providing support to vulnerable community members to find stable housing, residents are provided with the opportunity to improve their health and well-being.
Homelessness is a complex social condition to which many factors contribute. No single program or agency will solve the problem of homelessness, but by working together we can pool resources and provide worthy opportunities. The many partners who came together to make the Mother Bernard House possible include the City of Eureka, the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services, the Housing Authority of Eureka and Humboldt County, DANCO Group and SVT Group Inc. , the Betty Kwan Chinn Homeless Foundation, Enterprise Community Partners, and the State of California (Homekey and Housing for Healthy California programs).
A unique feature of Mother Bernard House is that residents are supported by a team of Providence caregivers: a nurse, a social worker and a community health worker. This team will support residents in maintaining their living conditions and improving their personal health and well-being. They do practical things like helping residents schedule medical and dental appointments, completing paperwork for various government benefits for people with a disability, or with the Veterans Administration for people who have served in the U.S. armed forces. And for those who are able, there is help finding a job or vocational training.
Another unique feature is that Mother Bernard House is owned and operated by Providence Supportive Housing – a division of Providence with over 40 years of experience owning and operating affordable housing on the West Coast.
As a nonprofit, faith-based hospital founded by courageous and remarkable women, Providence St. Joseph Hospital has the privilege and responsibility to reach beyond the confines of the hospital and collaborate with like-minded partners to meet the needs of our community . Our mission and values of dignity, justice, compassion, integrity and excellence guide our work and compel us to act, just as Mother Bernard and the Sisters of St. Joseph did over 100 years ago.
Martha Shanahan is director of community health investments in Providence, Humboldt County.