A new historical marker for East Austin recently approved by the Undertold Markers program of the Texas Historical Commission will soon commemorate the final site of the former Holy Cross Hospital, the city’s first hospital for Black patients — and the first to allow Black physicians to practice alongside whites with equal privileges at the time of its opening in 1940. This milestone came in direct response to growing outrage in the late 1930s from Austin’s small community of Black physicians at their treatment by segregated medical facilities like Brackenridge Hospital, which isolated patients of color from the rest of the facility and barred Black doctors from performing surgery.
Though nominally open to all, Brackenridge segregated African-American and Mexican-American patients from Anglos. “They had black and Latin patients in the basement,” recalled Dr. B.E. Conner, a long-serving African-American doctor. Black doctors initially were prevented from admitting patients to the hospital. When they won that right, they still were not allowed to perform surgery on their own patients. Conner recounted that he had to “stand in the doorway and watch a white doctor operate on his patient.”
Holy Cross Catholic Church in East Austin, the first home of Holy Cross Hospital until 1951.
Holy Cross Hospital was a project of East Austin’s Holy Cross Catholic Church, built at 1610 East 11th Street by the parishioners of Rev. Francis R. Weber in 1938 as the first Catholic Church serving the city’s African American community in response to poor treatment of Black Catholics at other local churches. Rev. Weber, who also worked to establish a daycare facility in the church basement for Black children, heard from Dr. Conner and other Black physicians about the challenges to adequate patient care created by the city’s segregated hospitals, and resolved to establish a small hospital on the church grounds to serve Black residents.
Opened in 1940 with only 20 beds, the hospital’s staff included resident physician Sister Celine Heitzman, M.D., one of the first Catholic nuns in the nation to practice medicine, and nurse Sister Anne Marie, said to be one of the only Black nuns in America at that time. Sister Celine’s obstetric and pediatric care was considered second to none among East Austinites of the era — in 1947 alone, she reportedly delivered 232 babies. “Several times,” explained the Austin American-Statesman in a 1949 article, “white babies have been sent to Holy Cross by local doctors because of the special care given them there by Sister Celine and her staff.”
But the facility, as the first of its kind in the city, was almost immediately overcrowded at the time of its opening, and by the mid-1940s the need for an expanded hospital was clear. Along with local fundraising efforts, the new building was finally made possible by a federal grant of $164,456 from the Hill-Burton Act, passed with the urging of President Truman to improve the nation’s medical system. According to Dr. Connor, still serving as a physician at Holy Cross, successful approval of funds for the hospital arrived at least in part due to efforts by then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson:
“One night I was at a meeting and Sen. Lyndon Baines Johnson spoke and he said if there was anything he could do for Austin, let him know.” The next day, Conner was at a meeting where money shortages for the new hospital were discussed. “I said I know a man in a position to help us. They didn’t believe it. . . . I went home that night at about 11 p.m. and called Washington to talk with Sen. Johnson. Mrs. Lady Bird answered the phone and said he was out but that she’d have him return my call.” Johnson did. The doctor and Weber outlined their needs and were granted federal Hill-Burton money.
(Though Johnson didn’t live long enough to see it, his brother Sam would be hospitalized for several weeks at Holy Cross before dying of lung cancer in 1978 — meaning that if Dr. Conner’s story is true, Johnson pushed forward not only the hospital’s initial funding, but also the Civil Rights Act of 1964 during his presidency, desegregating the hospital where his brother would later spend his final days.)
Groundbreaking on the new location of Holy Cross Hospital at 2600 East MLK Jr. Boulevard — then known as East 19th Street — commenced in 1949, celebrating its grand opening in 1951. The 50-bed facility, designed by legendary Austin architect Charles Henry Page, included two operating rooms, two delivery rooms, and other cutting-edge medical equipment for the time, with a special focus on obstetrics — as virtually the only option for Black mothers to safely give birth, the hospital delivered approximately 4,000 infants between 1940 and 1965.
By the 1960s, Holy Cross Hospital was increasingly known for serving patients of all races, and after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 formally desegregated the city’s hospitals, the facility sought additional Hill-Burton grants to refashion itself as the region’s most advanced cancer treatment and surgical center. Local architects Page, Southerland, and Page designed a five-story addition to the facility, a striking circular building housing a new nursing wing, which opened in 1965. A standalone radiation therapy center containing Austin’s first Cobalt-60 radiotherapy device would open in a new building next door to the hospital in 1973.
Despite these improvements, the integration of other local medical facilities eventually took a toll on Holy Cross, and the opening of the 300-bed Seton Medical Center in 1975 drew away many of its patients. Though still considered top notch for cancer treatment, the hospital struggled through the 1980s, with the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul — the Catholic organization that founded and ran Seton Medical Center until 2014 — taking over operations at Holy Cross in 1984.
Seton’s leadership turned the embattled hospital into an eldercare-focused facility in the mid-1980s, but closed its doors for good in 1989 after Medicare reform efforts reduced federal reimbursement for treatment under the plan, crucial for a hospital where the vast majority of its now-elderly patients were Medicare recipients. The empty hospital building, including its memorable circular wing, was eventually torn down in 1991 and replaced by Campbell Elementary School. The 1973 cancer treatment building still stands at the site as Austin Cancer Center, the only remaining evidence of Holy Cross Hospital’s nearly 50-year legacy.
Though there is a historical marker at Holy Cross Catholic Church noting the original location of the hospital on the church grounds, the site on MLK Jr. Boulevard where Holy Cross Hospital operated for the majority of its life in its most modern building is currently unmarked, but that’s about to change. Thanks to the successful nomination of the site to the state’s Undertold Marker program by local historian Berri McBride, the hospital’s final home will soon receive a new historical marker telling its remarkable story — a must-see stop on any tour of Black history in East Austin.