The History of Saint Agnes Hospital

St. Agnes Hospital nurses | Photo by Albert Barden, via NC State Archives

Sitting at 1315 Oakwood Ave. on the campus of Saint Augustine’s University, are the dilapidated ruins of Saint Agnes Hospital — one of the first medical centers + nursing training schools for Black people in the country. 

Saint Augustine’s University — originally known as Saint Augustine’s Normal School — is a private historically Black college and university (HBCU) founded in 1867 by the Episcopal clergy for the education of formerly-enslaved people who had been emancipated merely four years prior. The hospital was later founded by Sara Hunter, the wife of the school’s fourth principal Reverend Aaron Burtis Hunter. After the couple moved to Raleigh from Philadelphia, she noticed that Black students + surrounding locals needed proper access to medical treatment

Saint Agnes Hospital, 2009 | Photo by D. Strevel via Raleigh Historic Commission

In 1895, Mrs. Hunter attended a convention for the Women’s Auxiliary Group of the Episcopal Church, where she explained the necessity of creating a hospital on Saint Augustine’s campus. Her speech was read by widower I. L. Collins from California who was so moved by her words that he donated $600 in his late wife’s name —Agnes Collins, for whom the hospital was named. 

Saint Agnes Hospital officially opened its doors in October 1896, located inside the home of the college’s third principal, Robert B. Sutton. With limited initial funding, there was a saying at the time that “Saint Agnes Hospital was founded with faith, love + $1,100.” 

The house could fit 20 patient beds and had accommodation for 10 nurses — which it quickly outgrew. In its first six months, the hospital treated 52 patients with only basic equipment such as a single cold water faucet + a wood stove for cleaning and sterilization. 

From the beginning, the hospital was recognized for providing excellent care despite having minimal resources — it would even come to be known as “The Healing Place.” The first documented patient was sick with a severe case of either malaria or typhoid but was able to recover + the first surgical operation was considered successful. 

1900
Witnesses recounted a heroic moment when a fire started and a patient was in need of emergency surgery. The staff evacuated patients while continuing with the surgery in a makeshift area. Nurses were said to have been sterilizing surgical equipment in the burnt remains of the building where the only stove was located.  

1903 + 1904
More fires ravished the hospital which resulted in some much-needed expansion and renovation. Mrs. Hunter worked to raise $40,000 for the establishment of the new hospital building. 

1905
Construction on the 3.5-story landmark that still partially stands today was supervised by Vice-Principal Reverend Henry Beard Delany –– NC’s first Black Episcopal bishop. The granite stone that makes up its sturdy walls were quarried from the school’s campus and laid by the hands of students themselves

St. Agnes Hospital, 1944 | Photo by Albert Barden, via NC State Archives

1909
The building was finished and included 75 patient beds, improved operating space, a wing for the nursing college, and a living area for the nurses as well. For almost half a century it would function as the only hospital and medical training school for Black people in the Southeast. 

1942
The hospital’s economic burden became too heavy for Saint Augustine’s University so they gave the institution over to an independent Saint Agnes Board in hopes of soliciting community funding. Soon after, the Raleigh City Council announced a ruling that public money could not be given to private institutions and there were no longer any sustainable options for Saint Agnes to stay afloat long-term. 

St. Agnes Hospital Nursing School, 1949 | Photo by Albert Barden, via NC State Archives

1961
The Board kept the hospital going until desegregation allowed for Black patients + medical staff to move to the Wake Medical Center. It is estimated that over 500 nurses were trained at Saint Agnes Hospital — many of which were under the supervision of the first head nurse, Marie Louise Burgess. Black physicians and nurses would go on to join the hospital staff marking an important turn in NC’s medical history. 

During the 26 years of their intern program, 80 physicians were trained and more would come through for temporary or permanent residency. Doctors at Saint Agnes were considered to be some of the most skilled physicians in the city, including Dr. Lawson Andrew Scruggsthe school’s first Black physician + a Leonard Medical School valedictorian. 

The school used the building as storage and office space for years after closing and it was approved for Historic Landmark status in 1979. Since then, the structure has remained relatively unchanged + untouched, serving as an educational resource and a monument to Raleigh’s racial history. 

Did you know? VAE Raleigh is currently spearheading a public art project called Envision Saint Agnes Hospital that will share the institution’s history. Saint Augustine’s University students will create an experiential art installation at the hospital ruins to bring more attention to its significance and impact on the area + they are currently accepting public comment and suggestions here

Want to learn more? Watch this panel discussion about Saint Agnes Hospital.

Contributed by Xenna Smith