Baton Rouge was a growing town with a population of more than 22,000 when Msgr. Francis Leon Gassler arrived as the new pastor of St. Joseph Church on Feb. 11, 1921. Shortly after his arrival, he was approached by two physicians, Drs. Trahan and Chamberlin, imploring his aid in finding a religious order of women to take over the administration of St. Mary’s Infirmary, the only hospital in Baton Rouge.  

St. Mary’s was founded by Dr. and Mrs. W.B. Chamberlin several years before. Since 1917, the doctors and the priests from St. Joseph had been unsuccessful in finding an order of religious women to come and run the hospital.  

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The original Our Lady of the Lake Hospital in Baton Rouge is shown in this 1923 photograph.  Photo provided by the Archives Department | Diocese of Baton Rouge 

 

The Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady, founded in Calais France, had already established a hospital in Monroe in 1911. Msgr. Gassler was aware of their work and traveled to Monroe hoping to convince them to visit Baton Rouge. According to Msgr. Gassler, he was initially turned down by Mother Marie de Bethanie Crowley; but his “wit and charm” convinced them to consider the proposal and come tour the city and hospital.  

Mother Marie de Bethanie declared St. Mary’s Infirmary unsuitable. However, she did see the need for a hospital and the potential growth of the city and decided that their order would establish a new hospital in Baton Rouge. Mother Marie de Bethanie settled on an abandoned brick yard “full of underbrush, mules and skinny cows” located on the outskirts of downtown Baton Rouge as the site for the new hospital. The site was near the former LSU campus overlooking what is now Capital Lake.  

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Named Our Lady of the Lake Sanitarium, the new general hospital opened its doors on Nov. 4, 1923. It was a four story brick building with 100 beds, six surgery suites and a nursing school. Through the years it expanded from 100 to 200 beds, added a chapel, labor and delivery suite and pediatric wing.  

For 55 years it operated at the original downtown site, closing in 1978 as the new Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center opened its doors on the Essen Lane Campus. The new hospital had 460 beds. The campus has grown to include Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital and Our Lady of the Lake College. In 2013, it became the primary teaching site in Baton Rouge for the LSU School of Medicine residency programs. Also within the Essen Lane complex is the 141-bed Heart & Vascular Institute dedicated to heart, vascular and critical care.  

Little did Mother Marie de Bethanie Crowley realize the impact of her decision to establish a new hospital in the Capital City. Today, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center is a private, not-for-profit 800-bed hospital that strives to provide the most complete and comprehensive medical care in Baton Rouge. It stands as a testament to the mission of Mother Marie de Bethanie and the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady.  

Richard is assistant archivist for the Diocese of Baton Rouge.