125 years and counting: St. Mary’s marks milestone in caring mission

What started out as a 10-bed hospital in downtown Grand Junction has relocated and expanded over 125 years into the 346-bed St. Mary’s Medical Center and the largest facility of its kind between Denver and Salt Lake City. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Bryan Johnson wonders what the nuns who founded St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction would think of what’s become 125 years later a regional medical center. Would they be satisfied their mission to care for the poor and vulnerable continues?

“I really believe if the nuns were here today, they would be proud of what we’ve done,” says Johnson, president of St. Mary’s Medical Center.

Johnson offered his observations during a brief speech in celebration of the 125th anniversary of the opening of St. Mary’s on May 22, 1896.

The milestone is important, he says, not only because of the rarity of organizations enduring that long, but also because it reflects an ongoing commitment to providing care in the region.

The 125th anniversary follows a difficult year in which St. Mary’s joined with other hospitals and health care providers in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson says. Other challenges lie ahead, among them ensuring access to health care and lowering the cost of that care.

But changes over the past 125 years in terms of physical facilities, technological advancements and additional services have been remarkable, he says.

What opened in 1896 as a 10-bed hospital in a wooden frame building near 11th Street and Colorado Ave. has grown into a 346-bed regional medical center, the largest between Denver and Sale Lake City.

Bryan Johnson

A medical center the size of St. Mary’s is unusual for a city the size of Grand Junction, Johnson says. “There are very, very few.” 

Rather, the scope of St. Mary’s reflects its service to a large geographical region that stretches across Western Colorado and into Eastern Utah, he says. St. Mary’s makes it possible for patients in the region to receive even sophisticated treatments without having to travel to Denver or Salt Lake City.

Johnson cites as one example a neurological unit that cares for patients who’ve suffered strokes or other brain injuries as well as those suffering from epilepsy. A heart and vascular institute  provides in Western Colorado care patients previously had to travel to Denver or Salt Lake City to receive.

Johnson says the opportunity to work at a medical center like St. Mary’s while living in a smaller community like Grand Junction attracted him and also attracts physicians and others.

Taking into account the full 125-year history of St. Mary’s, Johnson says some of the most important developments the construction in 1951 of a new hospital near the corner of Seventh Street and Paterson Avenue, the location where facilities were subsequently expanded to create the medical center.

The opening of the Advanced Medical Pavilion in 2003 was important in offering outpatient imaging, he says.

The Century Project completed in 2010 not only expanded and renovated St. Mary’s facilities, but also added a 12-story patient tower. With a cost of $400 million, the project is one of the largest and most expensive in Grand Junction history.

In addition to providing health care to the region. St. Mary’s also contributes to the economy, Johnson says — by one estimate $1.2 billion a year.

The medical center ranks among the largest employers in Mesa County with a staff of nearly 2,500 and provides what’s likely the largest payroll, he says.

At the same time, the mission of St. Mary’s hasn’t changed in 125 years, Johnson says, and that’s to care for the stick and meet the needs of the poor and vulnerable.

And, he believes, the founding nuns would be proud of the ways in which that mission goes on.