St. Mary's Hospital, Galveston, the first Catholic hospital in Texas, was opened as a charity hospital by Bishop Claude M. Dubuis, second Catholic bishop of Galveston, in April 1867. The staff of the thirty-bed frame hospital consisted of sisters Blandine Mathelin, Joseph Roussin, and Ange Escudé, all from France and all founding members of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, whom the bishop had recruited the previous year for mission work in Texas. Dr. James Nagle was the medical director, and the daily charge per patient was two dollars-the same rate charged private patients at the tax-supported Island City Hospital then operated by Dr. Greensville S. Dowell.
At first the sisters had few patients, but a virulent yellow fever epidemic that lasted from July until November 1867 filled both hospitals to overflowing. Among those who died at Charity Hospital was the young superior, Sister Blandine. In 1868 the hospital closed for a short period because of a dearth of patients. In July 1869, with help from Dr. C. H. Wilkinson, the sisters contracted with the United States government for the care of marine patients at the rate of a dollar a day each, and the hospital reopened as St. Mary's Infirmary. (It was renamed St. Mary's Hospital in 1965.) Within a few years the hospital was able to contract for city and county patients as well, and additional sisters came from France to help the work.
Frame buildings were added to accommodate additional patients and orphaned children. In 1874 the orphans were moved to a new location, St. Mary's Orphanage, but the hospital continued to support them. In 1875 and 1879 two three-story hospital buildings designed by Nicholas J. Clayton were constructed. Part of the 1879 building housed the St. Mary's Hospital School of Nursing, which opened in 1907 and operated until 1968, graduating 825 nurses in its seventy-one-year history. All the frame buildings were destroyed in the Galveston hurricane of 1900, but only one life was lost at the hospital. The brick buildings, although badly damaged, remained standing and sheltered patients, staff, and nearly 1,500 refugees. St. Mary's orphanage, however, was completely destroyed, and ten sisters and ninety-two children were killed.
St. Mary's Infirmary was the principal convent or motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word until 1928, when the central administration was transferred to Villa de Matel, Houston. Until 1928 groups of sisters went from St. Mary's to found hospitals in San Antonio, Houston, Temple, and Beaumont; they also established facilities in Louisiana, Arkansas, and California. In its early years St. Mary's Infirmary relied for support-especially for building construction-on Bishop Dubuis, who in turn depended on help from France and elsewhere. In 1881 the bishop deeded the hospital to the sisters, and they have owned and operated it since then. The Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word incorporated in Texas in 1910, and the original charter has been amended periodically to adjust to changing circumstances. In 1987 St. Mary's Hospital was an operating division of the multi-institutional Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, Houston, Health Care System.
St. Mary's has enjoyed local community support. The St. Mary's Auxiliary, organized in 1952, has consistently helped by raising money and by personal service. There have been communitywide fund-raising campaigns; the latest in 1983 raised $1.3 million. In 1961 the hospital received a $1.5 million Hill-Burton grant and a Moody Foundation grant of $250,000 that helped generate matching funds. In 1982–83 St. Mary's Hospital received a total of $29,486,000 from system-wide tax-exempt bond issues; the money was used to build a new hospital wing and a parking garage. In 1965 a new nine-story hospital replaced the 1875 Clayton building; construction and renovation since then have resulted in a modern 271-bed facility. Outpatient and ambulatory services have grown. Psychiatric services have been expanded and include adolescent psychiatric and substance-abuse units. The medical staff numbers ninety-eight active and 126 courtesy members.
St. Mary's Hospital is a member of the American Hospital Association, the Catholic Health Association, the Texas Hospital Association, and the Texas Conference of Catholic Health Facilities. It is accredited by the Joint Commission for the Accreditation of Hospitals and has an affiliation agreement with the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. As the oldest private hospital in Texas, it was awarded a historical marker in 1980 by the Texas Historical Commission and the Galveston County Historical Commission.