BUCKHANNON — From 1921 to 2021, St. Joseph’s Hospital continues to reflect the transformation of healthcare. Over the span of 100 years, St. Joseph’s Hospital has evolved from a multistory home, to a multi-floor hospital that serves the needs of central West Virginia residents.
The history of the hospital dates all the way back to 1838 when the Pallottine Sisters were founded. This group was reportedly formed to assist Roman Priest Vincent Pallotti with his life’s mission to “revive, strengthen, spread faith and enkindle charity throughout the world.” In 1912, the first of the Pallottine Sisters made their way to the United States, as they passed through the wreckage of the Titanic and their own ship navigated its way safely through the icebergs.
A short eight years later, the Sisters were invited to open a hospital in Buckhannon, West Virginia. By 1921, four Sisters purchased the four-story wooden and yellow bricked Barlow Estate on the hilltop overlooking town. With the help of friends and benefactors, the beautiful Barlow Estate was converted into an eight-bed hospital.
Since 1921, St. Joseph’s Hospital has continued to expand in order to provide the best care possible, noted St. Joseph’s Hospital Administrator Skip Gjolberg. In 2015, the Pallottine Missionary Sisters transferred sponsorship of the hospital to United Hospital Center and WVU Medicine.
In 2010, St. Joseph’s Hospital further expanded with the addition of a Cardiologist, Urologist, full time Hospitalist, and a second General Surgeon. They also added the first Open MRI in the region, in addition to digital Mammography. “You can see how 10 to 20 years ago, we had a lot more patients in the hospital than we have today. Healthcare has moved from kind of in-patient to an out-patient type of medicine. Things that normally you came in the hospital and stayed for several days, you get done as an outpatient now. So, the need for as many beds has decreased. Right now, we have 25 beds,” Gjolberg explained.
The healthcare field also continues to implement vast technology that didn’t exist 100 years ago, and St. Joseph’s strives to keep a competitive edge. Gjolberg emphasized, “We are continuing to expand that technology. There are a lot of things we can do here that you don’t have to travel outside of Buckhannon—80 to 90% of what people need, they can get right here. That is an asset to the community.” The Administrator proudly expressed, “Healthcare and education are the two cornerstones of a thriving community and we’ve got those here with the public schools, the college, and the hospital.”
St. Joseph’s fundraising target in 2021 reportedly has a “women’s focus.” Their goal is to raise $225,000 for equipment specific to women’s health, as well as new furnishings for their obstetrics unit. These furnishings will include the beds that women use for delivery and comfortable seating/sleeping combos for their partners. They have doubled their campaign goal this year in comparison to last, but Gjolberg noted that they’re already off to a great start.
Beginning in 2020, like with all healthcare facilities across the globe, St. Joseph’s Hospital had to shift its priorities to the COVID-19 pandemic. This quick transition forced the hospital to switch its focus in many aspects. According to Gjolberg, the pandemic response created many specialized opportunities within St. Joseph’s Hospital and the healthcare community in Upshur County. St. Joseph’s continues to actively work with Community Care and the local health department to test and vaccinate residents. Gjolberg noted that these experiences have truly brought the healthcare community together more than ever. “In a lot of places, hospitals don’t get along together. But here, we get along, which brings a good service to the community, and we’re proud to work with them,” he stated.
Although telehealth previously existed, COVID-19 also created a whole new set of opportunities for healthcare. This year, St. Joseph’s Hospital is adding a pediatric specialty telemedicine program and they have also been updating their lab equipment, according to Gjolberg. He expressed, “It is amazing what these guys can do in a lab.”
Gjolberg also explained that St. Joseph’s is notably unique because of its faith-based mission. “Part of our healing is not just to heal the body, but the spirit as well. Our Sister Francesca and Chaplain Barry Moll, they’re here to minster to people that have that desire as well.” The hospital has a chapel that is utilized for services throughout the week. On Wednesdays, they offer an ecumenical service for everyone at noon, which is now held virtually. Gjolberg noted that there are a number of people that specifically said they have come to work at St. Joseph’s because of that faith-based mission which reads, “We are inspired by the love of Christ to provide our community with quality healthcare in ways which respect the God-given dignity of each person and the sacredness of human life.”
Sister Francesca has been with St. Joseph’s Hospital for 25 years in September and she is the only remaining Pallottine Sister from Germany. Sister Francesca told The Record Delta, “I am glad we have made it this long.” She explained that back in 1921, many people couldn’t pay their medical bills, so the Pallottine Sisters had to use the barter system. Although it was primitive, it helped. “And also, with the help of the community, we’ve come a long, long way. I am really proud to be part of this hospital,” she expressed.
A teacher by profession, Sister Francesca has taught in multiple places throughout the United States, but her time in Buckhannon is the longest she’s stayed anywhere. “I just love it,” she exclaimed. “I’ve gotten to know so many wonderful people… People that work here, as well as patients and their families, and what I really enjoyed, was that when I grew up everyone was Catholic… And when I came here, Catholics are just about 2%, so I got to know all the other denominations… I’ve enjoyed that. It was like it opened a whole new world. We all enrich each other so much.”
Referencing how things have changed, Sister Francesca added, “Technology, as everyone will know, has changed so much.” She also referenced the days of Sisters raising their own pigs, dairy cattle, orchards and gardens on the hospital grounds. “Eventually, the government started coming in and the first thing they said was, they couldn’t use the milk anymore because it had to be pasteurized,” she explained. The government wasn’t as involved originally, so that was the beginning of government regulation, as Sister Francesca recalls.
For Gjolberg, the most rewarding aspect of St. Joseph’s Hospital is hearing the positive feedback from patients and the community. Gjolberg added that he is also proud that they’re able to employ such a large number of people and pay them a good wage so they can thrive and survive and do well here in Upshur County.
Sister Francesca concluded, “Thank everyone who has been involved in working at St. Joseph’s Hospital the past hundred years and also thank you to the citizens of Buckhannon and Upshur County for helping us from the very beginning. If it wasn’t for them, there would be no use for us.”
St. Joseph’s Hospital will officially recognize its 100th Anniversary on March 28, 2021, but they will be celebrating this significant milestone throughout the entire year. From the original beautiful Barlow Estate to the current multistory facility, St. Joseph’s Hospital captures the transformation of healthcare perfectly. St. Joseph’s Hospital is constantly evolving and upgrading to fulfil its vision to “be the best small-town hospital in West Virginia,” and to most, it already is.