Gravestones of pioneer Tacoma nuns surround the main altar at Calvary Cemetery, dedicated to Father Peter Francis Hylebos, the first pastor of St. Leo’s Parish, who was instrumental in bringing the sisters to Tacoma. RUSS CARMACK Staff file, 2005
Gravestones of pioneer Tacoma nuns surround the main altar at Calvary Cemetery, dedicated to Father Peter Francis Hylebos, the first pastor of St. Leo’s Parish, who was instrumental in bringing the sisters to Tacoma. RUSS CARMACK Staff file, 2005


Catholic history in Tacoma traces back to the ‘blackrobe’ who started it all

October 07, 2016 03:27 PM


That’s what Native Americans called the first emissaries of Catholicism in the Pacific Northwest.

The priests had come to Fort Vancouver along the Columbia River in 1838 at the calling of French Canadian Catholics working for the Hudson’s Bay Co.

In the ensuing decades, Catholicism and pioneer Washington grew side by side.

But it wasn’t until a young, visionary priest who saw what Washington — and Tacoma — could become that Catholicism set down roots that eventually grew into a multitude of religious and secular institutions.

Chief among those is today’s St. Joseph Medical Center, which celebrates its 125th anniversary this month.

Father Peter Francis Hylebos was part of a vanguard of young European seminarians trained for missionary work in the untamed North American West.

Born in Belgium in 1848, Hylebos was 21 when he arrived at Fort Vancouver in 1870.

In 1872, he published a guide of sorts to the area called, “Puget Sound Business Directory, and Guide to Washington Territory.” He gave little attention to Tacoma, describing it as a town with about 100 inhabitants.

“It contains one mill owned by Hanson, Ackerson & Co., one public school, a public hall, a hotel and a store,” he wrote.

His attitude was soon to change.

Tacoma’s first Mass was celebrated Oct. 26, 1872, by the Rev. J. B. Brondel. Apparently it was in the home of a Mrs. Atkinson and only she was present.

Tacoma was a boom town, growing to 36,000 residents by 1880, the year Hylebos moved to Tacoma. He correctly envisioned a growing Tacoma and with it a growing Catholic population.

He knew the new city would need churches, schools, orphanages and hospitals. In 1883, he began construction of St. Leo Church at South 11th and D streets. It was the city’s second of eventually three St. Leo’s.

But to further his vision he needed help. And for that he turned to the Sisters.

The 1890s were a boom decade for Catholics in Tacoma.

Sisters from various orders began to open institutions across Hylebos’s jurisdiction, , including an orphanage in Seattle, and hospitals in Bellingham, Aberdeen and Olympia (today’s Providence St. Peter Hospital).

Dominican sisters built Aquinas Academy in Tacoma, which in 1974 merged with St. Leo’s High School and Bellarmine Preparatory School.

In 1890, four nuns from the Sisters of St. Francis, who were headquartered in Philadelphia, arrived in Tacoma. They’d come at Hylebos’s urging to build a hospital true to their ideals: providing nursing care to people regardless of their race or beliefs or their ability to pay.

At the time hospitals were the province of the poor. Wealthy people were treated at home by their doctors.

By 1887, Hylebos had bought several lots at 19th and J streets that were used for a convent and later the Academy of the Visitation. For the hospital, he bought land at Yakima Avenue and South 18th Street and donated it to the Sisters.

An early rendering of the proposed four-story building shows that it originally was named St. Francis Hospital. The steam-heated building would hold 200 beds.

But times were tough and on Oct. 11, 1891, a scaled-down 60-bed St. Joseph’s Hospital opened. The ceremonies drew 1,500 people.

Faced with the need to raise operating money, the Sisters held a fund raiser in 1897 that offered a nickel-plated teapot, silver napkin ring, a doll carriage, fine cigars, opera glasses, groceries, cakes, six hams and a one ton of coal.

The new hospital added a second to Tacoma’s early health-care system, which included Fannie Paddock Memorial Hospital. It’s known today as Tacoma General Hospital.

Hylebos influenced Tacoma in other ways. For one thing, he tried to prevent the Chinese expulsion of 1885.

Like many pioneering priests, he took a great interest in ministering to native populations. In 1888, he and the Sisters opened St. George’s Indian School, a rival to the now notorious Indian boarding school system, one of which was on the Puyallup reservation.

The site of St. George’s is now Gethsemane Cemetery in Federal Way.

Father Hylebos died in 1918 during the Spanish flu epidemic. He is buried in Tacoma’s Calvary Cemetery.

The years of St. Joseph’s

1891: St. Joseph’s Hospital opens.

1892: First birth recorded in hospital.

1899: Hospital expanded.

1900: Treats first mass casualty event, July 4 streetcar disaster in Tacoma.

1900: St. Joseph Hospital Training School for Nurses established.

1903: First elevator installed.

1915: New brick, five-story, block-long St. Joseph Hospital opens. Old building becomes dormitory for student nurses.

1938: First emergency room installed.

1940: Pediatric unit opens.

1944: Penicillin first used.

1959: First psychiatric facility opens.

1973: Nursing school graduates its final class.

1967: Plans to construct new hospital announced.

1971: Heliport installed.

1974: Current St. Joe’s with its curvilinear facade opens.

1983: Old brick hospital demolished and replaced with south pavilion.

1991: St. Joe’s celebrates 100th anniversary

2016: St. Joe’s celebrates 125th anniversary.

Sources: CHI Franciscan, “A Beacon of Light” by Nancy Rockafellar, Sisters of St. Francis, “Father Peter Hylebos, St. George’s Indian School and Cemetery” by Dick Caster