June 20, 2010

Champlain Valley Hospital celebrates 100th anniversary

Staff Writer

---- — Shortly after the turn of the 20th Century, Reverend Mother Ann of Jesus traveled to Plattsburgh from Ottawa, Ontario, in search of support for a new local hospital.

Representing the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, she went from door to door, traveling by horse and buggy, to raise money for the project from city residents.

Her efforts helped pave the way for the creation and construction of Champlain Valley Hospital, which offered an open house the weekend of June 11, 1910, and accepted its first patients June 22, 1910.

"It was the first hospital of its kind in the Champlain Valley," said Marceline Kavanagh, who graduated from the hospital's School of Nursing in 1953 and went on to work at Champlain Valley until its merger with Physician's Hospital in 1972.

"The hospital's Hanlon Ward was named after the local family who offered to take Sister Ann around the community when she was raising money."


The hospital was originally incorporated under the State Board of Charities in 1903. Its initial charter was "for the purpose of affording medical and surgical aid and nursing to the sick and disabled persons of every creed, nationality and color."

A location was found on Rugar Street, and the first cornerstone was laid July 2, 1906. The cost of building and equipping the facility reached $129,500, nearly half of which was raised by the local community.

Physicians Hospital, on the corner of William and Court streets, opened a few months later in January 1911.

Initially, Champlain Valley Hospital had space for up to 120 patients. A new wing was added in 1954, and the traditional medical, surgical, obstetrical and outpatient services were expanded to include electrotherapy, X-ray, pathology and diet therapy.

"It was a lovely hospital," said Kavanagh, who has been the chair of the School of Nursing's Alumni Association for the past 35 years.

The School of Nursing originated in 1910 as well, and nursing students took classes and roomed in the building adjacent to the new hospital for their three-year stint. In 1913, the school was registered with the Regents of the University of New York and was officially recognized.

"My memory of working with the nuns was that we were very happy, but they were hard days and long days," Kavanagh said of the three-year program. "Everyone was very nice and helpful. Yes, there was a high turnover, like any nursing program, but the nurses who graduated were qualified providers."

The Class of '53 began with 35 students and graduated 25, Kavanagh noted. As a nurse per diem at CVPH at age 78, she believes she is the only nurse still working from her graduating class, though she has kept close contact with most of her classmates over the years.

The oldest living graduate of the School of Nursing is Thelma Neveu of Beekmantown, who graduated in 1937. Neveu then worked for several years for both Champlain Valley and Physicians hospitals.

She went on to earn her bachelor's RN degree and master's degree in educaMaster's degree in education on a part-time basis while continuing her nursing degree. She then worked as a school nurse/teacher in the City School District for 23 years, retiring at 63.


The Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart's roots date back to 1737 when Saint Marguerite d'Youville and her followers consecrated themselves to God and established the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity.

The Grey Nuns already had a presence in Plattsburgh when the thought of a community hospital first came into play. In 1860, the order opened d'Youville Academy, a training school for nuns.

"The Grey Nuns were ahead of their time," Kavanagh said. "They were wise, intelligent, resourceful, very hard-working and ethical women. They taught and trained us well for the present and the future.

"Those of us who are practicing today basically use many of the principles learned during those days."

Although run by Catholic leadership, Champlain Valley was a general hospital for the community and competed well against the independently run Physicians Hospital, initially created by a group of area physicians and then expanded through the philanthropy of William H. Miner.

In a 1915 news article from the Plattsburgh Daily Press, Champlain Valley Hospital had just moved ahead of Physicians in an ongoing public-popularity poll.

The hospital served its purpose well for five decades, but as medicine continued to develop into the 1960s, Champlain Valley began to experience financial difficulties. The building and its equipment were growing old and more costly to run, and the cost of health care itself was rising rapidly.

In July 1963, the Grey Nuns withdrew from Champlain Valley Hospital. The first private administrator for the hospital was Jerome Stewart.

Improvements were still being made, however. During September and October 1963, a remodeling program produced a recovery room, intensive-care unit and private and semi-private rooms. By February 1964, 137 beds, 24 bassinets and four labor rooms were available for patients.

Kavanagh had originally planned to be a secretary but turned to nursing when a friend praised the Nursing School at Champlain Valley.


In 1958, the school was renamed the Champlain Valley School of Nursing and was moved to Physicians Hospital. The CVPH School of Nursing opened when Champlain Valley and Physicians hospitals merged in 1972, closing Champlain College permanently.

The CVPH School of Nursing closed in 1979.

Kavanagh keeps in touch with the Grey Nuns, now based in Yardley, Pa. During the alumni group's annual meeting, some of the sisters return to Plattsburgh for the celebration, including Sister Pierette Remillard, formerly of Peru, who graduating from the School of Nursing in 1952.

"I worked the first two years out of school at St. Clair's Hospital in Schenectady and the next two years at Champlain Valley," the sister said from Yardley recently. "It wasn't until 1956 that I entered the convent."

After completing her early years of religious life, she returned to Champlain Valley as a Grey Nun and a registered nurse. She became head nurse for the operating wing.

"It was a small hospital, but we provided expert care for the community," she recalled. "I remember the first floor was the men's ward, and the second floor was the women's ward and maternity ward.

"The student nurses did a good share of the work, but the RNs were there to provide supervision."

With plenty of family still living in the North Country, Remillard returns to the area often. She is not sure if she will be here for this year's alumni banquet but said she was glad that Champlain Valley Hospital is being remembered.

When the two hospitals merged, Kavanagh stepped down from her nursing requirements and began teaching at BOCES. She did note that the switch from Champlain Valley and Physicians hospitals to CVPH Medical Center did go smoothly, and she did work in the new intensive care unit for a short period.

"Many of the nurses transferred over and are still there today," she said.

She still works in the obstetrics unit two days a week — she loves her work and can't imagine stopping anytime soon.

The building that housed Champlain Valley Hospital was demolished in 2009. It had been used by Plattsburgh State as a faculty office building, and the space is now being used for college parking.

"I watched them tear down Champlain Valley Hospital with great sadness," Kavanagh said. "They really had a hard time tearing it down, it was so well built. But now it's gone."

The School of Nursing still stands next door, however, now the home of the college's English and history departments, a seemingly appropriate continuation for a building that held such promise and provided the region with such stellar professionals.

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