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Benedictine nuns opened first hospital

St. Anthony's Hospital at 803 Dewey Ave. N.E. served Bemidji in the early 1900s. Beltrami County Historical Society

In 1898, Bemidji had been established for two years and consisted of one store, a post office and six homes.

That year, a group of Benedictine nuns from the motherhouse in Duluth came to town to start a hospital.

They leased the second floor of a store at the corner of Third Street and Minnesota Avenue and equipped it for temporary use as a hospital. The hospital, which could accommodate 24 patients, was officially St. Anthony's, but was generally known as the "Lumberjack Hospital."

The sisters helped finance the hospital by going into the woods and selling hospital insurance tickets to local lumberjacks for $1, although, the price eventually rose to $7.50. A ticket entitled the buyer to ward accommodations, medical, surgical and nursing care, and was good for one year.

However, the insurance wasn't good for injuries caused by intoxication or fighting - reasonable exceptions considering there were more than 40 saloons in Bemidji in the city's early years.

Lumberjack tales

The most colorful personality among these nuns was Sister Amata.

According to Beltrami County Historical Center archives, North Country Regional Hospital files and Sara Breeze, who researched and portrayed Sister Amata in a historical re-enactment, this nun was particularly known to the lumberjacks. She stood 6-feet-2-inches tall and weighed 250 pounds. She traveled to logging camps however she could, hitching rides in sleighs and wagons and snowshoeing. Later, when rails were laid, she hopped aboard the caboose to sell the $1 insurance tickets.

According to Breeze's research, Sister Amata would sleep overnight in the camp office before heading to the next camp. If the office wasn't available, she bunked with the men. Everyone was respectful of her, Breeze said

One of the stories about Sister Amata is a bet she took at one camp. A lumberjack said all 80 of the men in camp would buy a ticket if she could jump from the floor into a top bunk. She accomplished the feat, but crashed through the slats onto the bottom bunk. One of the men argued that, because she ended up on the bottom bunk, he didn't need to pay up. But the man she made the bet with said he saw her on the top bunk, if only for a second, so the bet stood.

Another story tells of Sister Amata arriving at a camp where the cook had just died, so she stayed, cooking for the men until a new cook was hired.

Within a few months of their arrival, the nuns ran out of room at the store. They paid $1,000 for land at Eighth Street and Dewey Avenue, now the site of Baker Park Apartments, and built a bigger hospital. They completed this first hospital building in 1899. They added a new wing in 1900 and another addition in 1910. The nuns continued to sell the insurance tickets until an arrangement was made to deduct the insurance payments directly from the workers' wages.

After a life of service, Sister Amata died in 1929 at age 68 of influenza.

St. Anthony's closed in 1922 when the nuns were called to Crookston to help the hospital staff there. The North Central Lutheran Hospital Association bought the hospital for $25,000 and operated it from then until it was destroyed by fire in 1929.

The Lutheran Hospital Association members collected $25,000 insurance from the loss and built a new, three-story, fireproof building on the site. Open house was Dec, 13, 1930.

Health care grows

Since then, the structure has been expanded, the Lutheran Hospital Association was replaced in 1975 by the Bemidji Community Hospital Corporation, and a new $8 million hospital was built on 150 acres on Anne Street Northwest in Northern Township.

The new Bemidji Community Hospital opened Oct. 29, 1979, and the downtown hospital was converted to Baker Park housing.

In 2004, a 90,000-square-foot hospital addition was completed, and the Neilson Place replaced the former North Country Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

"If we have the benefit of looking back, we added facilities and upgrades at the right time in our history," said Jim Hanko, NCHS president and CEO. "We would not be able today to find the capital to build."

In addition to these additions, NCHS also operates North Country Home Care and Hospice, North Country Peak Performance, Senior Behavioral Health Unit, Baker Park Apartments, Bemidji Medical Equipment and North Country Health Services Foundation.

As of 2008, NCHS employed 925 people with a payroll and benefits of $58 million, according to the non-profit's fact sheet. NCHS is also served by more than 500 volunteers. There were a record 1,083 babies born at North Country Regional Hospital in 2008, 4,518 surgeries and 23,288 emergency department visits.

Hanko said the gap between state Medicare and Medicaid payments has caused NCHS to show a shortfall in finances. Managers and staff took pay cuts in April as an effort to make up the differences. Budget balancing continues, he said.

However, NCHS continues to build. WoodsEdge of Northcountry, a 27-unit memory care studio apartments named Trillium, is under construction on Anne Street Northwest near Neilson Place. Also under construction as part of the expansion is WindSong, 80 one- and two-bedroom apartments offering catered living.

"Residents there will be able to, on an à la carte basis, order services to include assisted living services," Hanko said.

These services "cross subsidize" the hospital finances, he said.

Specialties Hanko said he would like to add to North Country Regional Hospital are invasive cardiology, as in heart stents placements. Dr. Kevin Schoepel, a surgeon who works in the cardiovascular suite, inserts stents in blocked arteries, but NCRH does not yet offer the in-heart repairs. Hanko said he envisions a part-time cardiology surgeon coming to Bemidji.

An obesity-control specialty could also be useful for the area, he said.

"We'd like to see, perhaps, bariatric surgery," Hanko said. "That's not just surgery. It's diet. It's counseling. There's a whole emotional component."

Aesthetic additions Hanko hopes to bring to fruition are outdoor and indoor healing gardens. Several designs are under consideration for the outdoor garden, which would be laid out in what are now lawns between the hospital and MeritCare. One design includes a labyrinth, as well as walkways, water gardens and resting places.

"We've received $40,000 from the Neilson Foundation, and they want it to be in memory of Charlie Naylor (lifelong Bemidji businessman who died last year)" Hanko said. "It's something I've wanted to do for a long while, and to do it totally through philanthropy."