The Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kansas, came to Montana in 1869 to pioneer health, education, and social services in many Montana communities. Billings was the Sisters’ final Montana frontier. In 1896, Father Clarence Van Clarenbeck and Billings mayor Dr. Henry Chapple traveled to Leavenworth to make an appeal to the Mother House. The need for a hospital in the bustling railroad town of 3,000 would soon be critical. The men were so persuasive that Mother Mary Peter Dwyer assigned two Sisters from St. John’s Hospital in Helena to assess Billings’ needs. Dr. Chapple, who was not Catholic, had lamented a chronic shortage of nurses throughout his career. He challenged the Sisters and they accepted, caring for patients first in makeshift quarters above Chapple’s drug store. The first patients were admitted to St. Vincent’s Hospital in 1898. In 1916, infantile paralysis afflicted at least 125 children in Billings. When Mother Irene McGrath, Superior of St. Vincent’s, established a children’s ward for these young patients, the overcrowding this caused underscored the need for a new building. The work was underway when World War I intervened. Mother Irene halted construction, deciding the Red Cross and Liberty Loan drives were more important. Her patriotic sacrifice won the hearts of the community.
When the new 200-bed hospital opened in 1923, Mother Irene opened a school for children whose deformities had heretofore prevented their education. It was the first school of its kind in the West. These efforts laid the groundwork for Billings’ modern medical and social services. The Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth Health Care remains today St. Vincent’s parent system.