Our Heritage of Healing

​​​​​​They were, by almost any measure, an extraordinary group of women. Led by Mother Mary Odilia Berger, the five German nuns arrived in St. Louis on November 16, 1872, in search of religious freedom and to do God's work. When they arrived, they had just $5 among them, but they carried the faith and compassion that ultimately would become SSM Health. Watch our "Heritage of Healing" video.

Battle-tested from caring for soldiers during the Franco-Prussian War, the nuns came to a city in urgent need of their help. That first winter, in the midst of a devastating smallpox epidemic in St. Louis, the sisters took to the streets, begging for money, supplies, food and medicines – anything to ease the suffering. Mother Odilia became a familiar figure, as she carried a basket for donations for the sick and the sisters caring for them. They became known as the "Smallpox Sisters," a name that would follow them through their earliest days in St. Louis. It was not to be until 1874 that they would receive their formal name, the Sisters of St. Mary (SSM), named for St. Mary of Victories Church, with whom their convent shared a common door.

Five years after their arrival, the sisters borrowed what was then an enormous sum of money, $16,000, to open their first hospital, St. Mary's Infirmary. Account books from that time identify almost 60 percent of its patients as unable to pay, or "ODL," a designation that stood for "Our Dear Lord's." The following year, in 1878, Mother Odilia sent 13 of the congregation's sisters to Mississippi and Tennessee to care for the victims of a yellow fever epidemic. Five of them died, all under age 30. Mother Odilia herself would die at age 57 in St. Louis on October 17, 1880, days after the Catholic Church officially recognized the congregation she founded.


Founding sisters of the Sisters of St. Mary: (clockwise, starting in lower left) Sr. M. Elizabeth Becker, Sr. M. Francis Reuter, Mother Mary Odilia Berger, Sr. M. Magdalen Fuerst and Sr. M. Odilia Schneider. (Photos courtesy of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary. All rights reserved.)

In 1894, Sister Mary Augustine Giesen and six other sisters left the congregation and traveled to Maryville, Mo., where they formed a separate religious congregation, the Sisters of St. Francis of Maryville , Mo., (OSF). While the Sisters of St. Mary worked largely in the St. Louis urban area, the Sisters of St. Francis worked in more rural areas. In 1898, they established St. Anthony Hospital, which was the first hospital in the Oklahoma territory. Nearly 90 years later, in 1987, the Sisters of St. Mary and the Sisters of St. Francis would unite to form the Franciscan Sisters of Mary (FSM).

Prior to 1985, most of the facilities that would become part of SSM Health Care were sponsored by the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, but were not operated as a unified health-care system. That changed in 1986 with the creation of SSM Health Care as a system of hospitals, nursing homes and health-related businesses. The system is governed by a board that consists of members of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, SSM's founding congregation, and laypersons.

Sister Mary Jean Ryan, FSM, was named the first president/CEO of SSM Health Care in 1986. Under her leadership, the system focused on constant improvement through continuous quality improvement; nonviolence as expressed through preservation of the Earth's resources; and diversity. In 2000, following a year-and-a-half process, SSM adopted its 13-word mission statement for the system: "Through our exceptional health care services, we reveal the healing presence of God." Nearly 3,000 employees participated in the creation of the mission statement.

In 2002, SSM became the first health-care organization in the country to receive the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the nation's highest award for quality. Today SSM operates in four states – Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri and Oklahoma. With more than 33,000 employees, SSM consists of 20 hospitals, various outpatient sites, physician offices, nursing homes, home care, hospice, a pharmacy benefit company, an insurance plan, telehealth and a technology company. In 2011, William P. Thompson succeeded Sister Mary Jean as president/CEO and retired in April 2017. In May 2017, SSM Health welcomed Laura S. Kaiser as its new president/CEO who will continue this sacred ministry. 

In November 2014, SSM Health Care began unifying all of its hospitals and health care services under one name: SSM Health.

The move to SSM Health reflects the organization's commitment to an exceptional patient experience. That means delivering high-quality health care that is affordable, sustainable and convenient to every patient. Over the next few years, SSM will integrate its new name, look and promise into all of its locations in Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri and Oklahoma.

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