The commitment of the Catholic Church to providing health care is part of the early history of San Bernardino County. The community of Mentone, just east of Redlands, was home to such an effort in the form of St. Thomas Aquinas Sanitorium.
Many associate the word sanitorium (or sanitarium) with facilities that treat the mentally ill. While this is partly true, sanitoriums – such as the one that existed in Mentone – were initially conceived as places for those with long-term, contagious physical illness, specifically tuberculosis.
The Redlands-Yucaipa area, with clear, warm days and dry air, was a good location for people suffering the effects of tuberculosis. The young town of Redlands would soon achieve a reputation as a health resort, drawing both the rich and poor. Msgr. Thomas Fitzgerald, the first pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Redlands (1895), had benefited from several years of recovery there before returning to active ministry.
The religious community of the Ursuline Sisters, having opened the new parish school at Sacred Heart, Redlands (1897), considered starting a sanitorium in the city. But after initial discussions with town officials, the idea was dropped.
There was another attempt a few years later when a young lawyer, Henry Ely, came to Redlands with his family seeking relief from medical problems. Working with generous donors, he purchased a simple home to assist the people with illness and disease. Unfortunately, this effort also would fall short.
Town officials, working with local physicians, purchased a large hotel and twelve acres of land in nearby Mentone. The property and buildings, including several modern tents and a cottage, were offered to the community for $8,000, just one-third of the property value.
The building was a magnificent production of Swiss Gothic, copied from one of the Swiss Chateaus. It had three stories and a basement. The first floor had a doctor’s office, pharmacy, kitchen and dining rooms. A large porch ran all around this floor for use by the patients. The second floor had several suites of rooms reserved for female patients. The men used the tent areas nearby. Accommodations were possible for 40 patients.
A request was made to the Sisters of Mercy in Los Angeles to staff the sanitorium. The Reverend Mother M. Joachim, anxious to help the sick and the poor, discussed the proposal with Bishop Thomas Conaty, the leader of the Diocese of Monterrey –Los Angeles. Bishop Conaty was delighted with the request and stated: “With all my heart I wish you to care for the sick and the poor and may God bless and help you in this work.”
The Sisters of Mercy, who had already operated Mercy Hospital in San Bernardino from 1891-1897, had replaced the Ursuline Sisters as the faculty for Sacred Heart School in Redlands in 1908. So there was a nearby convent available as temporary quarters until a permanent location could be found. After the offer was accepted on October 3, 1891, five Mercy sisters, led by Sister M. Philomena Coe, were sent to staff the sanitorium.
For several years, the Mercy Sisters gave themselves to this nursing apostolate in Mentone. In this wholesome environment they offered hope and encouragement to those who could profit by their care. They also gave consolation to others whom they prepared for death, victims of this dreaded disease in those days when medical science had not yet discovered adequate measures for tuberculosis control.
Unfortunately, the majority of patients could not meet even the moderate rates charged. For those with some financial resources, the long period of enforced rest exhausted their funds. The religious community had no other funds to support the sanitorium and on June 1, 1917 the facility closed. The building and land were later sold.
Peter Bradley is Archivist in the Diocese of San Bernardino.