BY THE OLD TIMER
A few weeks ago, I was talking to a neighborhood kid and I was describing where something was and I told him it was right near “where St. Anthony’s used to be.”
He gave me a blank stare. He had no idea what St. Anthony’s was, where it sat, or anything about the important work that they did in that imposing building which loomed over Woodhaven Boulevard in Woodhaven for so many decades.
And so, for this young man and anyone else who might not be so familiar with our local history, here’s a brief lesson on St. Anthony’s Hospital.
The Franciscan Sisters of the Poor founded St. Anthony’s in 1900, but it would be 14 years before the building would open on Woodhaven Boulevard between 89th and 91st Avenues. Their mission was the treatment of poor people with tuberculosis. In order to raise funds, they had collection boxes in all of the city hospitals and held many fundraisers.
In the few years prior to St. Anthony’s official opening, almost 10,000 New Yorkers died from TB and treatment had been very hard to come by. By the end of World War I, New York found itself also treating many soldiers who came home carrying the infectious disease.
At one point, it was estimated that there were over 3,000 people in desperate need of treatment, many of them children, but there was little over 500 available hospital beds city-wide.
St. Anthony’s tripled our city’s ability to handle TB cases. They were not only providing badly needed care, but they also made several breakthroughs in treating tuberculosis that helped a great many people here in New York City and beyond.
With all of the good work that they did, it is important to note that residents at the time were less than happy with the idea of a TB hospital in their midst. First, there were rumors that a crematorium on-site was going to be used on deceased, infected patients.
Secondly, because the hospital catered to the indigent (they were run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor, after all), residents were worried that it would have an adverse impact on the community. A century later and similar concerns are voiced by people in neighborhoods around the city, but the focus this time is about homeless shelters and drop-in centers.
When St. Anthony’s Hospital first opened, it had a big front yard, with a large circular driveway. But that was eliminated with the widening of Woodhaven Boulevard. It also had a school for sick children, a small theater for shows and a beautiful chapel.
There was also a large field behind the building which was used as a farm. The Sisters would sell produce to the locals to raise money for the patients.
As a result of medical advances in treating TB (many of these advances developed at St. Anthony’s), the Sisters became victims of their own success. Better medicines and treatments led to less patients and a loss of income. And so, the Sisters expanded their mission to include other chest and pulmonary diseases, and achieved similar success.
In later years, it served as a training facility for nursing. But the building was old and difficult to maintain (and started to look a little run down). In 1999, the decision was made to close the facility and sell the land. Though several alternate uses were proposed (including housing for seniors), it was torn down in 2003.
Today, the land is occupied by houses (with the original St. Anthony’s gate along Woodhaven Boulevard preserved) and a school (P.S. 306).
The Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society recognized the contributions of St. Anthony’s with a historical marker that sits in front of where St. Anthony’s front door used to be.
St. Anthony’s Hospital may now be just a memory, but it is important that residents are aware of its important contributions in fighting a deadly disease that took the lives of many people.