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On Nov. 15, 1938, an article appearing in the Santa Maria Times announced that the Catholic Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Charity were going to erect a “hospital of adequate accommodations” in Santa Maria. Since the city was in need of a hospital, which was recognized by doctors and laymen alike, the city united with the Rev. Father Murphy to ensure that the hospital would become a reality.

Although sectarian in its administration, the hospital, like all Catholic hospitals, was intended to relieve human suffering regardless of race, creed or color.

A fundraising campaign for the new 35-bed hospital was launched March 3, 1939, with the goal set at $50,000.

With the population of Santa Maria being about 8,000 at the time, this was a huge undertaking.

A citizens committee, headed by Mayor Marion Rice, served as an executive board for the campaign, with Ross McCabe as secretary. D.F. Duster was appointed to head the drive.

On Aug. 3 of the same year, the general contract was awarded to the J.V. McNeil Company, of Los Angeles, and ground was broken Nov. 22 for the construction of the 35-bed, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Hospital, a hospital better known as "Sisters’ Hospital." By awarding most of the subcontracts to Santa Maria companies and hiring 95 percent of the workmen locally, it became a community project.

On May 29, 1940, Santa Marians turned out to attend the formal opening of the $267,000 hospital, a concrete earthquake-resistant and fireproof construction.

Eight Sisters of St. Francis and Penance were assigned to manage and staff the hospital so urgently needed by the growing community.

In July of 1942, Sisters’ Hospital was awarded final approval for membership in the Associated Hospital Service of Southern California, the Blue Cross plan. During the following years, the hospital was approved as a Class A Hospital by the American College of Surgeons and became a member of the American Hospital Association, the Southern California Hospital Association and the Catholic Hospital Association.

Mother Noella Dieringer was the hospital’s first administrator. During its first year, Sisters’ Hospital treated 1030 patients and delivered 106 babies. In 1943, over 1,000 babies were born there.

During its early years in operation, patients often paid for their care with vegetables and meat, thus creating serious financial problems for the hospital. The story goes that the Sisters called in an accountant, who diagnosed the facility as being bankrupt. This reportedly didn’t set well with Mother Noella, who then told the accountant, “This hospital is God’s work and God is never bankrupt.” It must have worked as the hospital continued serving the people in the area until a new hospital was built.

During World War II, the opening of Camp Cooke created a pressing need for many more hospital beds as well as doctors and nurses. In addition, more babies were being born at the hospital creating an all-time high birth rate. However, when the war ended and Camp Cooke closed, the hospital returned to its normal peacetime existence.

In 1947, Capt. and Mrs. G. Allan Hancock donated both deep and superficial X-ray therapy machines, which put the hospital on an even par with the largest and best-equipped hospitals in the country.

Because some of the anesthetics used in surgery and maternity were explosive, it was necessary in 1951 to install an exhaust system in surgery and delivery rooms in order that anesthesia could be given with the greatest assurance of safety.

During the same year, a large parking lot was built on the property.

As always, when particular needs presented themselves, members of the community came forth with donations to meet the hospital’s needs, thereby winning the endorsement of Johns Hopkins Hospital and many leading specialists.

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After a violent storm hit Santa Maria in 1952, cutting off the power at the hospital, two emergency operations were performed and several babies were delivered using improvised lighting. As a result of this power outage, the Hancocks donated two generators, thus providing adequate light throughout the building should emergencies of this nature take place again.

The many out-of-town visitors who came to the hospital often voiced surprise to see such a large, well-staffed, fully equipped hospital in such a small community.

However, it became obvious that Santa Maria’s days of being a small town were quickly coming to an end and a new and larger hospital was seriously needed.

In 1965, the Sisters broke ground for a new hospital facility on 10 acres of land donated by the Hancocks. The new four-story, 125-bed Marian Hospital, located at 1400 E. Church St., opened in 1967.

In 1985, Marian Hospital opened the first Kidney Dialysis Center on the Central Coast and two years later, Marian Hospital became Marian Medical Center.

In 1997, the Marian Oncology Program began and Marian Medical Center merged with Catholic Health Care West.

In 2002, Marian Medical Center officially became part of Dignity Health and became Marian Regional Medical Center.

The building that once housed the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Hospital at 124 S. Airport Ave. (now South College Avenue) is now the site of a residence for the Sisters on the right, while the left side of the building is being used by medical care businesses.

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Shirley Contreras lives in Orcutt and writes for the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society. She can be contacted at 623-8193 or at shirleycontreras2@yahoo.com. Her book, “The Good Years,” a selection of stories she’s written for the Santa Maria Times since 1991, is on sale at the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society, 616 S. Broadway.

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