Hoboken’s hospital, then and now
Medical center overcomes obstacles to celebrate 150th anniversary
by Dean DeChiaro
Reporter staff writer
Oct 06, 2013 | 7164 views | 4 4 comments | 351 351 recommendations | email to a friend | print
GENERATIONS OF SERVICE – Nuns from the congregations of the Franciscan Sisters walk from Hoboken University Medical Center, which they founded as St. Mary Hospital in 1863, to Our Lady of Grace Church on Wednesday for a mass commemorating the hospital’s 150th anniversary.
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On the morning that the doctors, volunteers, healthcare professionals and friends of Hoboken University Medical Center (HUMC) were to celebrate the hospital’s 150th anniversary, Dr. Angelo Caprio, the hospital’s chief medical officer, was reminded of family atmosphere he’s come to love since he arrived here 30 years ago.

“I was walking down the hall, and someone comes up to me and says, ‘Wow, you don’t look a day over 149,’ ” he explained. “That’s the type of place this is.”

It was all smiles and laughter on Wednesday, first at a continental breakfast for members of the hospital’s auxiliary organizations, and later a luncheon to celebrate 150 years of serving the mile-square city.

Between, a mass was held at Our Lady of Grace Church. The service is traditionally meant to honor the hospital’s deceased physicians, but this year it meant a bit more. This year, the members of the HUMC family were giving thanks that they had overcome so much to make it so far.

“I think the jubilance that we were able to do what we love to do for 150 years echoes in every hallway in this medical center,” said Caprio in a recent interview. “And I think everyone knows that we’re saved and functioning and ready to go another 150.”

The feeling of salvation was fitting; twice in the past decade the hospital has nearly closed. The first time was in 2006 when it was absorbed the city’s newly created Muncipal Hospital Authority after its previous owners, the Sisters of Bon Secours, could no longer sufficiently fund it. Again it faced closure in 2010 when the city’s money ran out and an outside investment needed to be secured. Eventually, the current owners, CarePoint Health, purchased the facility.

When it faced closure both times, Caprio said, it wasn’t simply the hospital’s community, but the larger Hoboken community, that made the difference.
“We’re saved and functioning and ready to go another 150.” – Dr. Angelo Caprio
“The relationship between this hospital and the people of this city has always been symbiotic,” he said. “Both times the people came out and stood with us, and we said ‘We’re not going to let this hospital close,’ and that was the attitude that prevailed.”

A very long history

In many ways, HUMC’s history is parallel to Hoboken’s history, and even the general chronology of American history. In response to a growing number of wounded soldiers in the Civil War that were landing on the Hoboken docks, a local chapter of Franciscan nuns joined with the pastor of Our Lady of Grace Church to open St. Mary Hospital in 1863.

Coinciding with the wave of Eastern European immigration of the time, many of the sisters were from Germany. They originally occupied three adjacent buildings on Meadow Street (now Park Avenue), but soon found that they were pressed for space. Without money to purchase the open plot of land where the hospital stands today, they again turned to Our Lady of Grace, who purchased the land and signed the deed over to the sisters.

Sister Mary Veronica, one of the Franciscan sisters who attended Wednesday’s ceremonies at the hospital’s invitation, said that the congregation’s mission has not changed since the hospital’s opening. She said she was pleased that its current owners, CarePoint Health, are still abiding by its original ethos.

“We’re always happy when the poor are cared for, we’re not so concerned about who’s in charge,” she said.

As Hoboken grew, so did St. Mary. In 1886, the nation’s first black priest, Father John Tolton, joined with Hoboken’s most prominent Irish priest, Friar John Corrigan, to say mass at St. Mary. As more and more immigrants arrived, the facility became a haven for foreign-born people unaware of the benefits of modern medicine. Those who arrived at Ellis Island and were deemed sick but not contagious were sent to St. Mary.

In 1910, the hospital had its first celebrity patient. William J. Gaynor, at the time the mayor of New York City, was boarding a vessel for a European vacation at the Hoboken ferry terminal when he was shot by a disgruntled city worker. Gaynor spent 19 days at St. Mary, where the staff waged a heroic, and ultimately successful, struggle to save his life. In gratitude, Gaynor’s family erected a plaque in tribute to the hospital staff.

Through both World Wars, the hospital returned to its original mission of treating wounded and convalescent soldiers. In 1918, it was declared closed to all civilian patients and from 1939 to 1945, it served as a school for military nurses.

In 2001, people fleeing the attacks on the World Trade Center were brought to St. Mary, its last defining moment under that moniker. Not long before, it had become the longest continually serving hospital in New Jersey.

Personal memories

Many of Wednesday’s attendees weren’t simply employees or benefactors of the hospital; many of them were patients at one time as well. Caprio, for instance, who was born on First and Jefferson Streets, came to the hospital when he was 10 to treat a broken leg.

Catherine “Cookie” Raggio, another lifetime Hoboken resident, was born here, was treated for her disabilities here, and to this day still volunteers.

And Anthony Romano, the chairman of the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders and a former Hoboken police captain, described how his connections to the hospital went far beyond his role in saving it (twice) as an elected official during the 2000s.

“It goes a lot deeper than that for me,” he said. “I’ve been treated here, most of my relatives have been treated here, my parents passed away here. The police force has always had a special bond with this place. It’s a pillar of the community and my life personally.”

Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who presented the hospital with a proclamation on Wednesday, offered her congratulations as well.

“To all the hospital’s employees, its auxiliary groups, the doctors, everyone, I want to say congratulations,” she said. “I’m incredibly proud that the oldest continuing hospital in New Jersey is in Hoboken, and at times it was paper thin whether it would stay open, so thank you to the Municipal Hospital Authority as well.”

What’s next?

Continuing the trend it began setting well over a decade ago, HUMC is on a mission to provide the most modern and cutting-edge medical care possible, said Caprio. Recently, the hospital opened the CarePoint Research Institute, a Transitional Care Unit, and hired an assistant vice president exclusively assigned to service excellence.

Paul Walker, the president and CEO of the hospital, said on Wednesday that while he has only been involved for a few years, he has been humbled by the dedication of his staff.

“I’m a very small component in a 150-year history,” he said. “But I’m very proud to be a part of such a wonderful community, and I couldn’t be gladder we’re still kicking.”

Now that the hospital is finally on level ground, Caprio said, the possibilities are practically endless.

“It’s come so far, and there’s really a sense that we can do more and more each day. Medicine changes and develops constantly,” he said. “We fought very hard for the privilege to serve this community, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

Dean DeChiaro may be reached at deand@hudsonreporter.com

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October 11, 2013
I just got out of HUMC and I am so grateful we have a hospital right in town. I was able to walk there! It is getting a little tatty around the edges, but considering what it's been through in the past year, it's doing well. The staff is fantastic and the staff IS the hospital.
October 06, 2013
We will always remember that Mayor Zimmer and City Council Bhalla, Cunningham, Marsh and Mello saved our hospital. Thank you.

We will also remember that City Council Castellano, Mason,Occhipinti and Russo tried every which way they could to kill it. Shame on you.

October 06, 2013
It's great to see the HR supporting our hospital (and our Hospital supporting the HR to the tune of something like 4 full page ads per week).

Too bad elected officials like Ramos and Occhipinti did not when the hospital and our City's taxpayers desperately needed that support.

Our hospital was saved despite the best efforts of both these gentlemen to destroy it and that says it all about whether these two are qualified to hold any office much less higher office.
October 11, 2013
Tim Occhipinti who is running for Mayor, Beth Mason who is supporting him with some fascist cable TV propaganda watched by 15 people and perhaps unreported contributions not on ELEC, and the John Corea Apologist HPU crime cover up twins of Mike Russo and Terry Castellano tried to kill the Hospital deal with lies, obstruction and callousness that upset the lives of every who works at the HMUC. They put Hoboken is jeapordy just to score some cheap political points and almost succeeded.

Tim and the rest of the Council of No are a lot like the current tea bagger nutbags in DC who enjoy shutting the government and watching people suffer because they don't get their way.

Tim and his council allies have no shame and are morally bankrupt and inept. End the Old Guard reign of Terror and Error!