'A Phoenix'

St. Clare's Hospital launches $45 million modernization as it plans for future


St. Clare's Hospital and Health Center, a 64-year-old West Side Manhattan community hospital that has struggled in recent years, was described by Cardinal O'Connor as "a phoenix" rising from the ashes as it embarks on an ambitious new program to expand its services and modernize its facility.

"Nothing worth doing is ever done easily, and this is certainly worth doing," the cardinal said April 17 at a ceremony unveiling a newly restored lobby area in the archdiocese-sponsored hospital.

The cardinal--along with many neighborhood groups--was a vocal champion of St. Clare's during years of financial uncertainty, when state officials and even some of his own health care advisers were pressing for it to be closed or converted to a clinic.

The cardinal "was the single most important person in ensuring our survival," James A. Rutherford, St. Clare's president and chief executive officer, told CNY.

Welcoming 100 community leaders, political figures, hospital trustees and local pastors, Rutherford said the event initiates "a very pivotal point in St. Clare's history."

He reminded the gathering that St. Clare's "has a tradition of providing health care to all persons, regardless of their economic status," and that remains the hospital's mission.

"No one person personifies our mission more than John Cardinal O'Connor," Rutherford said. "When the hospital faced very bleak times, as it has often in its history, no one was indeed more supportive and committed to our mission...It is without a doubt due to his efforts St. Clare's is able to rebuild and to continue to provide health care to you, our community."

Before the ceremony, the cardinal visited the hospital room of a nun he had met years before at St. Clare's when both were ministering to AIDS patients there. Sister Annette McHugh, O.P., was recovering from hip surgery and plans to continue her volunteer work at the hospital.

The lobby improvements are the first stage of a $45 million, 20-month renovation of the 250-bed hospital at 415 W. 51st St., financed by State Dormitory Authority bonds.

Plans call for modernization and expansion of patient rooms and the emergency area and relocation of the operating rooms, which will be refitted with the latest technological equipment. Included is a face-lift of the 1930s building exterior.

Rutherford hopes that next on the agenda is the establishment of a pediatric unit. It could be in place by the end of the year and would greatly enhance St. Clare's ability to serve its community, which has a large number of children, he said.

He hopes to add maternity services as well. St. Clare's originally had pediatric and maternity units, but those services have not been offered to inpatients for many years.

The hospital also plans to continue expanding outpatient and ambulatory services in its St. Clare's Family Health Centers located at 350 W. 51st St., at 571 Academy St. and at 481 Fort Washington Ave.

The cardinal, addressing guests at the ceremony, said, "In a certain sense, I'm probably closer to St. Clare's than to any hospital in the entire Archdiocese of New York," recalling that in his first week as archbishop 14 years ago the hospital board asked for his approval of a $1 million loan guarantee to keep the hospital going.

He agreed, he said, and as a result "became very, very deeply involved."

"I realized that this was truly a community hospital in every sense of the word," the cardinal said.

He recalled the start of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when St. Clare's became the first hospital in the state to open a unit dedicated to AIDS patients--now the Spellman Center for HIV-Related Disease.

"I committed myself to come over here two or three nights a week until I would have met, talked with, listened to, emptied the bedpans of, washed the sores of, 1,000 persons with AIDS," he said. "It was St. Clare's that provided that opportunity."

The AIDS unit, the cardinal said, was "a critical contribution on the part of St. Clare's, but typical of the kinds of things this hospital does."

He spoke of the hospital's lean times in the past, the tremendous pressure, the endless array of arguments to close it, and "serious exploration of bringing about a closer affiliation between St. Clare's and another of our hospitals."

The cardinal was referring to discussions during the last few years of a merger between St. Clare's and the much larger St. Vincent's Hospital and Health Center of New York in Manhattan's Greenwich Village.

Making his first public statement on the merger talks, which fell apart last year, the cardinal said he became convinced that St. Clare's "was not going to have the position it deserved in such an arrangement," so he "significantly muted and downgraded" the proposal.

In deciding to keep the hospital open, he said, "I was generally considered simply crazy."

He acknowledged support in his quest from Dr. Mary Healey-Sedutto, archdiocesan director of health and hospitals, and Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, who represents the West Side in the state Assembly and chairs the Assembly Health Committee.

Addressing other supporters present, including doctors who wrote him "desperate letters" asking that the hospital be kept open, the cardinal said, "I personally never had any idea of closure."

He noted that there might be affiliations or other arrangements with another Catholic hospital down the road. "But as long as I'm the Archbishop of New York," he said, "I will personally permit, support, accept no arrangement that is not in the best interest of St. Clare's. This is a valuable, valuable resource in this community of Manhattan."

The restored lobby was named for longtime St. Clare's supporter Lucille Lortel, a former actress and theatrical producer known for nurturing experimental theater.

The renovated gift shop was named for Peggy Bressler, a gift shop volunteer for more than half a century. Ms. Bressler is representative of the dedication of many "who have seen and endured countless changes over the years, but maintain an almost incomprehensible dedication and commitment to this organization," Rutherford said.

Another longtime volunteer present was Cecilia McGrane, who has served at St. Clare's since the 1950s and who still corresponds with some Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, the community whose members founded the hospital in 1934.

She beamed as she looked over the lobby's original terrazzo floors that had been covered with vinyl flooring, the refinished cherrywood door frames and trim, the sparkling crystal chandelier and freshly painted walls.

"It's just beautiful to see everything restored to its original decor," Ms. McGrane said.

St. Clare's had been operating under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy code in 1982 when it agreed to turn its operations over to the Department of Health and Hospitals of Catholic Charities of the archdiocese. A retrenchment plan, including the closure of a Washington Heights branch, the sale of some hospital property and elimination of 100 beds, was put into effect to satisfy $10 million owed to creditors.

In 1980 the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany turned over operation of the hospital to the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart.

In the early 1990s, the idea surfaced of rebuilding at a new site on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th streets but neighborhood opposition and the $200 million cost killed the plan.