Mother Mary Michael Cummings

Founder of Scripps Mercy Hospital

Mother Mary Michael Cummings - San Diego - Scripps Health

Founder of Scripps Mercy Hospital

“We have come to stay and intend to build in time,” Mother Mary Michael said in the local newspaper on the day St. Joseph’s Dispensary opened in 1890.

Mother Mary Michael Cummings opened St. Joseph’s Dispensary in downtown San Diego on July 9, 1890 — the day after her 37th birthday. St. Joseph’s later became Scripps Mercy Hospital San Diego, the city’s first and only Catholic hospital.

She was born on a farm in a small southwest Illinois town as Rose Anna Cummings, and her mother remarked that she was a “born nurse” for her affection toward helping sick animals. Her older sister Margaret joined a Catholic order called the “Sisters of Mercy” at age 17 but died shortly thereafter. Rose Anna followed in her sister's footsteps, joining the order as Sister Mary Michael on Nov. 14, 1871. She spent nine years in St. Louis, embracing the vows of poverty, charity and obedience while caring for the sick and poor. Following assignments in Colorado and Salinas, California, Sister Mary Michael was asked to establish a mission in San Diego.

Newly named Mother Mary Michael settled in San Diego during a tough economic period for the mostly poor population of 16,000 people. With a $50 gift from Father Antonio Urbach, pastor of San Diego, Mother Mary Michael and Sister Mary Alphonsus signed a six-month lease for space in a building at Sixth and H (now Market) Streets and opened the five-bed St. Joseph's Dispensary.

Within hours of opening, a malaria victim named James O’Connell became the dispensary’s first patient. Following his recovery, O’Connell became a lifelong supporter of the Sisters of Mercy.

As the dispensary’s patient population grew, Father Urbach recommended the Sisters of Mercy purchase a 10-acre plot in Hillcrest. Mother Mary Michael paid $5,600 for the site on University Avenue between Sixth and Eighth Avenues — less than a half mile from where Scripps Mercy Hospital San Diego now stands. The three-story St. Joseph’s Sanitarium replaced St. Joseph’s Dispensary and opened to the public in 1891, offering a tranquil retreat for the chronically ill.

In 1916, businessman Anson P. Stephens bequeathed to the Sisters of Mercy a six-acre plot of land at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Washington Street, which would eventually become the hospital’s new location. Soon thereafter, the Sisters and the community came together to raise $200,000 for the hospital, $22,000 of which was donated in the first four days by, among others, E.W. Scripps — brother of Scripps Health founder Ellen Browning Scripps. Mercy Hospital opened in 1924, the same year Ellen Browning Scripps established the 57-bed Scripps Memorial Hospital and Scripps Metabolic Clinic on Prospect Street in La Jolla.

Sadly, Mother Mary Michael Cummings did not live to see the new hospital. She died of a heart attack on October 6, 1922, one year after celebrating her golden jubilee as a Sister of Mercy. She was 69 and had given nearly half her life to the people of San Diego.

The Sisters of Mercy in San Diego had a long list of accomplishments under Mother Mary Michael’s direction, including:

  • In 1893, they established a home for the elderly on the grounds of St. Joseph’s Sanitarium.
  • The Sisters acquired 1,000 acres in Del Mar in 1897 and renamed it Mount Carmel Ranch. They used the land to provide dairy products and fresh vegetables for the hospital’s patients during the next 30 years.
  • In 1904, they opened San Diego’s first training school for nurses, adjacent to St. Joseph’s Sanitarium, and they expanded the hospital to 220 rooms.
  • They built the Big House at Mount Carmel Ranch, which at varying times was used to house the Sisters, the homeless and orphaned children. (1905)
  • The Sisters sold Mount Carmel Ranch in 1945, and the property now straddles highway 56. The Big House still stands to the south as a City of San Diego Historical Landmark No. 391, between the exits for Carmel Creek and Carmel Country Roads. 
  • Mercy School of Nursing trained nurses for three generations — 1,550 nurses in all — before closing its doors in 1970.