Skip to content

St. Mary's: 74 years and going strong

St. Mary's Hospital has come a long way since its meager beginnings. In 1930 the hospital opened in Pender Harbour, augmenting the Columbia Coast Mission hospital ships the community had been relying on for care.

St. Mary's Hospital has come a long way since its meager beginnings. In 1930 the hospital opened in Pender Harbour, augmenting the Columbia Coast Mission hospital ships the community had been relying on for care. Anyone with major medical needs was transported to Vancouver in those early years.

It soon became apparent the Coast needed its own hospital facility, but getting a community hospital wasn't easy.

The first attempt to place a hospital in Garden Bay saw one of the buildings that was being barged in swept away during a mighty storm. That building ended up smashed in Telegraph Cove, where it sits today.

Led by Rev. John Antle of the Columbia Coast Mission, the community kept working to establish a local hospital. On August 16, 1930, the first St. Mary's Hospital was officially opened in Pender Harbour. The hospital was named for St. Mary's Anglican Church in Kerrisdale, whose members contributed engineering expertise and other construction help.

That hospital was truly the fruit of local community members' efforts, with one man giving up his land for the site and others closing their machine shops or tying up their boats to volunteer to fall trees, blast rocks and pull stumps.

The Columbia Coast Mission carried the financial burden of operating the hospital until 1953, when management passed to a local hospital committee. By 1959 it was clear an expanded hospital was needed, and it was agreed it should be placed more centrally in Sechelt.

But two hospitals couldn't be supported, so despite strong objections from the people of Pender Harbour, the original St. Mary's Hospital was closed and a new one was built in Sechelt in 1964.

The total cost to build the hospital was $886,330. Local taxpayers picked up $327,767 of that cost. The Sechelt Indian Band donated the land where St. Mary's now sits.

From the moment the doors opened the facility was extremely busy. Soon the hospital board lobbied for a second floor to help ease the crowding, and in 1972 that floor was added.

At that time there were 22 extended care beds and 15 acute care beds, 19 medical staff and 13 consulting medical staff. The management team totalled 16.

Since then the hospital has continued to grow and change. Now there are 33 extended care beds and nearly 360 employees. In just one month the hospital cares for an average of 11,870 emergency patients and 2,110 patients booked for various surgeries.

"That's an amazing number of people to go through such a small hospital," said Viviana Zanocco of the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority. "It's comparable to a big centre like Vancouver."

St. Mary's provides many services comparable to a big city hospital. It currently offers gynecology, ophthalmology, urology, mental health services, a full service laboratory, x-ray, ultrasound, chemotherapy, dialysis, obstetrics and a pharmacy in addition to the 24-hour emergency ward and regularly scheduled surgeries.

Tess Orlando, Director of Acute Home and Community Care for the Sunshine Coast, said there are plans for hospital expansion.

"We are in the process now of finalizing our needs and working with the planning department of Vancouver Coastal Health and a design consultant to determine our space requirements for the future. We are also looking at what increased services we can provide here. People naturally want to have their care closer to home," said Orlando.

The hospital has been in a state of growth since it started in Pender Harbour over 74 years ago. For as long as there has been a hospital on the Coast, there has been a force of volunteers supporting it.

Amidst the sound of nurses and doctors relaying messages, patients explaining their symptoms, babies being born and family members anxiously flipping magazine pages, there is a silent force driving St. Mary's Hospital - a volunteer crew over 430 members strong.

Orlando describes them as "heroes in the background who often go unnoticed."

They are the Sunshine Coast Hospital Auxiliary members who have supported the local hospital and its efforts since 1930. Many members of the hospital auxiliary have volunteered their time to raise money for the hospital for over 20 years. Their efforts have pumped an amazing $830,000 into Sechelt's busy hospital in the past three years alone.

Through volunteer work in the hospital's gift shop and the popular thrift store in Sechelt, money is raised continually to fund purchases of new equipment. Volunteers also spend their time with the patients in the hospital and at local care homes, helping ease the workload of nurses and staff.

At the hospital, the auxiliary's volunteers operate a loan cupboard which lends out medical equipment that can be used at home by newly-released patients or those needing crutches or a wheelchair, a bathtub seat or an array of other medical equipment. They also restock magazine racks and distribute reading material, take care of patients' plants and flowers, do elderly patients' hair to boost their spirits before surgery, knit worry dolls for young patients and provide hand-knitted toques to newborn babies.

Volunteers in the hospital also man the gift shop and restock the pop machines, taking no wage for their efforts and donating all proceeds to the hospital.

Karen Archer, head of the hospital auxiliary, said she is constantly amazed by the dedication of her volunteers and their willingness to give so much of themselves.

"They do so much behind the scenes and rarely get any recognition for their efforts," said Archer. "I think they do it because they feel they are healthy and are glad they don't need the services the hospital provides now. But they want to make sure it's going to be there when they need it."

Perhaps the biggest monetary support the hospital receives is from the St. Mary's Thrift Shop on Cowrie Street in Sechelt, where volunteers with an average age of 72 spend five days a week sorting, pricing and selling used goods dropped off at their store.

"So far this year we've been averaging $20,000 a month," said Doug Davis, chair of the thrift shop board. But that money does not come easily.

"We've got bags of donations literally to the ceiling and volunteers have to make little pathways to walk around and be able to sort through them," said Davis.

Volunteers spend their entire day sorting through bags and boxes and deciding what is salable and what is garbage. Then they hang the clothing, price all the merchandise and try to find space to display it for sale.

"Often 50 per cent of what we get in a bag is garbage. It's really a demanding job," said Davis.

He said there are a lot of things the shop can't sell, like furniture, appliances and baby equipment, which regularly show up on their doorstep. The shop also gets a lot of dirty, worn out clothing and shoes, as well as dirty kitchen utensils.

"We have to pay to take all that stuff away to the landfill. It's very expensive and time consuming," said Davis.

Davis is hoping the community will help them help the hospital by donating only things that are clean, salable and useable.

However, Davis is happy the community feels their charity is worth giving to. He estimates sales from the shop will pump $250,000 into the hospital this year.

That money is used to buy updated equipment for the hospital, such as new dialysis machines and physiotherapy equipment that could not have been purchased otherwise.

So a hospital that started with community effort has been sustained by community effort. Archer hopes that community spirit will continue with younger generations.

"We really need new members because our volunteers are aging and our numbers are dropping. We usually get older volunteers because they have the time, but there are ways younger people can help. For example, we need hairdressers to volunteer their time to do elderly patients' hair. We need drivers and part-time workers in the thrift shop. There are lots of ways anyone can help regardless of how much time they have to spare," said Archer.

If you would like to be involved in the Hospital Auxiliary, you can contact Archer at 604-740-0890 or email [email protected].