Providence St. Vincent photo
The fledgling St. Vincent Hospital School of Nursing graduated its first full class in 1896.
Providence St. Vincent photo
The fledgling St. Vincent Hospital School of Nursing graduated its first full class in 1896.
Providence St. Vincent and Providence Portland medical centers played key roles in training thousands of nurses in the first half of the 20th century.

The Sisters of Providence built and opened St. Vincent Hospital in 1875. As the community grew, so did the need for trained nurses. In 1892, the sisters started a nursing school in the hospital, graduating their first nurse, Agnes Johnson, in two years. The first full class of eight students graduated in 1897. By 1912, St. Vincent nurses had organized an alumnae association, which continues to hold annual reunions each July.

The St. Vincent Hospital School of Nursing partnered with the University of Portland in 1934 to establish a four-year degree program. Student nurses lived and trained at the hospital, with university faculty commuting to the hospital to teach. The first class graduated in 1938.

In 1941, only months before America entered World War II, the Sisters of Providence opened Providence Hospital.  The war increased the need for nurses.

To meet that need, the government created the Cadet Nurse Corps program, enlisting help from hospitals and nursing schools nationwide. Both St. Vincent and Providence hospitals began three-year training for cadet nurses, graduating large classes in 1947 and ‘48.

“During the war years, student nurses kept the hospital running, under the supervision of the nuns,” said Dee Rennie Wallo, class of ’46. “At one time we had three-, four- and five-year students at St. Vincent. Low-income five-year students worked extra shifts to pay their tuition.”

At Providence Hospital, cadet nurses initially lived throughout the hospital, but in 1948 an east wing was completed with classrooms, social areas and dorms for the 60 students. The Sisters of Providence, who supervised the hospital and often taught the classes, also lived in the new wing.

At war’s end, St. Vincent returned to its four-year nursing program and the government paid for cadets to complete an additional year. Across town, the cadet program remained three-year and became the Providence Hospital School of Nursing – often shortened to Providence School of Nursing.

Pat Bacon, class of ’59, has helped organize annual Providence Hospital alumnae reunions since 1977, and also stays in touch with many classmates. She recalls some student nurses dropping out due to homesickness “or when they saw their first autopsy,” but most completed their studies. Bacon says that nurses of her generation began hands-on patient care after just six weeks of training.

“Present day students are juniors before they start working with patients,” she said.

“We reused glass syringes with stainless steel needles– we sharpened our own needles,” she noted. “I thought at first I could never give a good shot. Today it’s my claim to fame.”   

In the 1940s, tuition for the three-year program at Providence Hospital cost $300. That did include $55 for eight white uniforms, two caps and a cape. A watch with a second hand, white hosiery an alarm clock and a hot water bag were also required equipment.

Students had a full schedule, beginning with daily 6 a.m. Mass. At St. Vincent, nurses in training “were on the floors from 7 to 10 in the morning, had lunch and classes, then worked 4 to 7 at night.” Providence Hospital had a similar schedule. Sophomores spent weeks offsite doing their “affiliations” — pediatrics in Providence Hospital, obstetrics at St. Vincent Hospital, and psychiatric training at Oregon State Hospital in Salem.

In the summers, students were expected to give 40 hours of unpaid work a week, and seniors could earn extra money on their days off working for about $1 an hour. Upon graduation, new nurses could expect a starting salary of close to $90 a month.

By the late ’50s, the National League of Nursing began pushing to move hospital-based nursing programs into accredited universities, giving students broader academic opportunities.

In 1962, the Sisters of Providence closed the Providence Hospital Nursing School at the end of that year. At the same time, the St. Vincent nursing program moved out of the hospital to the University of Portland campus, which assumed oversight of the School of Nursing. Today, nursing is the university’s largest undergraduate major and the school is the largest single-site nursing program in Oregon.

From 1894 to 1962, the St. Vincent Hospital program graduated more than 1,600 students. The Providence Hospital School of Nursing trained 540 nurses during its 19 years in operation.

Providence continues its support of the next generation of nurses. University of Portland student nurses train at Providence facilities across the region. The Providence Scholars Program provides full tuition for selected juniors and seniors pursuing a nursing degree at the university, in exchange for a three-year commitment to Providence after graduation.

Both Providence nursing schools graduated many successful nurses. Alumnae also entered careers in nursing administration and academics. Now deceased, Providence Hospital grad Pat Chadwick ’56, served as dean of the University of Portland’s School of Nursing from 1974 to ‘96.

Fellow class member Dee O’Hara ’56 followed a military career into the Air Force. She went on to become the first aerospace nurse to serve with NASA. O’Hara spent several decades treating and training astronauts in the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab programs. She witnessed every launch from the first Mercury spacecraft in 1961 through the first Space Shuttle launch in 1983.

“They were wonderful years,” she said of her nursing education. “Nursing has changed significantly since then.”

The terminology, procedures, and equipment are far more advanced, O’Hara observed. “But one thing stays constant across the generations — nothing replaces bedside care.”

“You have made a tremendous difference in the lives of thousands and thousands of patients and their families in our community,” said Janice Burger, chief executive of Providence St. Vincent Medical Center. “Every July, when we celebrate your graduations, I see what a family you are. Thank you so much for the contributions you have made over the decades.”

 “You helped convert medical students full of knowledge into doctors,” said Dr. Ugo Raglione, retired chair of general and vascular surgery at Providence St. Vincent. “I was one of them.”

The skills today’s students are learning vary dramatically from the education nurses received at St. Vincent Hospital decades ago. Computers now play a major role. “But one thing stays constant across the generations,” said Martie Moore, chief nursing officer at Providence St. Vincent. “There’s nothing that replaces bedside care.”