St. Mary Medical Center rings in 100 years of health care in Long Beach with summer festival

St. Mary Medical Center rings in 100 years of health care in Long Beach with summer festival

To celebrate 100 years of providing health care in Long Beach, the St. Mary Medical Center is throwing a huge birthday party—and the entire city is invited. 

This summer, St. Mary is hosting a myriad of celebrations to ring in a century of health services focused on underserved and vulnerable communities. As primarily a safety net hospital—meaning the center mainly provides care for people with Medicare or without insurance—health equity has long been one of the main focuses for St. Mary. 

Many programs at St. Mary aim to serve diverse and disenfranchised communities, such as the CARE Center, Families in Good Health and the Low Vision Program. The medical center has come quite a long way from being the first Catholic Hospital south of Los Angeles, with 360 beds, a trauma level II program, robotic surgery, a heart care unit and maternal child health services. 

Through masses, group barbecues, a gala and a community block party, St. Mary will give thanks to its workers and patients beginning in August. 

“For 100 years, people have been coming to us because they’re vulnerable and they need help and on that day, we’re inviting them to come for a different reason, to come and help us celebrate our 100th anniversary,” said Michael Neils, Foundation President with Dignity Health-St. Mary.

Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word work in the St. Mary Hospital in the early days of the Medical Center. (Courtesy of St. Mary Medical Center)

History of St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach

The Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word purchased the then-St. Mary Hospital from a doctor in Long Beach for $160,000. Mother Lacidus, one of the sisters, approved the purchase of the hospital and the sisters put another $140,000 into renovations to open the medical center two months later. 

At the time, the sisters only had medical centers in Houston, Texas. When asked why they wanted to purchase the St. Mary Hospital, Mother Lacidus said, “St. Mary will make Long Beach better for everyone.”

“We really think that’s our legacy,” Neils said. “That’s our heritage. That’s our ongoing commitment.”

By opening day on August 26, 1923, the St. Mary Hospital was able to accommodate 100 patients with an emergency room, laboratory, pharmacy and operating room. 

Ten years later, a devastating 6.4 magnitude earthquake destroyed the St. Mary Hospital, along with many other buildings in the city, according to the Historical Society of Long Beach. The sisters rebuilt the center and expanded to include even more services. 

Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word work in the St. Mary Hospital in the early days of the Medical Center. (Courtesy of St. Mary Medical Center)

By 1974, two more renovations occurred and the hospital became known as the St. Mary Medical Center, with double the number of patient beds, all-private patient rooms, a larger emergency room, an intensive care unit, a heart care unit and maternal child health services. 

In 1996, St. Mary Medical Center joined Catholic Healthcare West, which was later named Dignity Health in 2012. 

“One of the things that we’re focusing on as we prepare for our centennial is striving to make sure that everyone has health equity,” said Carolyn Caldwell, CEO of the St. Mary Medical Center. 

The center quickly became a source of health and hope for people in underserved communities in the Long Beach area. 

The St. Mary Medical Center opened the CARE Center in 1986, the nation’s first managed network to provide comprehensive care to patients living with AIDS and HIV. Today, CARE provides HIV treatment, PrEP and PEP, social services, dental care, health education and housing assistance to the LGBTQ community regardless of someone’s ability to pay. 

“That was a very scary time, you know, for so many and St. Mary stepped to the forefront and created the CARE program, and it’s still going strong today,” Caldwell said.

The CARE Program now helps about 1,600 clients on a regular basis. 

The Medical Center has many programs geared towards families of Southeast Asian, Latino and other backgrounds. Its Families in Good Health programs include an advocacy and health education program for young men, a home visitation program for parents of newborns, infant massage workshops, parenting workshops and more. 

The Families in Good Health program was created for Cambodian families emigrating to the U.S. in the ‘80s, Caldwell said. The center moved many of its programs to virtual visits and workshops during the COVID-19 pandemic, which Caldwell said brought the network of care centers, hospitals and departments in Long Beach even closer as they leaned on each other for support and resources.

Nellie de la Cruz and Arlene Ramirez donated 80 care packages to nurses at Dignity Health – St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach.

“St. Mary has been such a great supporter of our community and has, for years, looked for ways to give back and live our true mission of providing health and support for those that are vulnerable or disenfranchised,” Caldwell said.

Centennial Celebrations

The first of the summer celebrations hosted by St. Mary is a centennial mass on Aug. 23 on the St. Mary campus. The Archbishop of Los Angeles, José Gomez will be attending, as well as eight members of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word who have worked at St. Mary in the past. 

Following the mass St. Mary will host a picnic-style barbecue for all of its staff members with food trucks and tables lining the lawn. 

The sisters will be honored for all of their work in Long Beach and beyond at a celebration that is invitation-only on Aug. 24. Current and former board of directors will be present, as well as major donors from over the years to honor the sisters’ legacy. 

The entire community will be invited to a block-party-style festival on St. Mary Medical Center’s 14-acre campus on Sept. 30. from noon until 7 p.m. The festival will feature local food vendors, an artisan market, children’s activities, live music and more. 

“It’s St. Mary’s doing a block party where the block is the whole city of Long Beach. We’re really working at getting all of the cultures of Long Beach represented in what we’re doing on the campus.”

Michael Neils, Foundation President with Dignity Health-St. Mary

Music performances will take up the main stage with a rotating cast of bands throughout the day, while anyone who wants to showcase their talents will be invited to perform on a community stage. 

Attendees will be able to purchase a wristband that gives them access to a “taste of Long Beach” section of the festival where they can sample food from various local restaurants. Local nonprofits who have worked with St. Mary will be highlighted in another section of the festival. 

On the morning of the festival around 11 a.m., all religious groups and denominations are invited to a time of “blessing and thanksgiving.”

“It’s a privilege to do what we do … You look to us, and you invite us into your life in a special way,” Neils said. “So our first goal, or goal number one was to say thank you to Long Beach for allowing us to be a part of your life for 100 years.”