How Health Care in Rhinelander Came to Be

Jan 6, 2021

In the nineteenth century, government rarely got involved in issues of health care. In the absence of government aid, the Catholic Church often stepped in to fill the gap.  There were many people involved in bringing quality hospital care to the Northwoods, but for Rhinelander the life of one individual member of the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother serves to tell the story.  

Rhinelander was founded as a lumbering town.  Work in the logging camps was dangerous and injuries were frequent.  During the earliest years of Rhinelander’s existence, the closest hospital was in Chippewa Falls.  Itinerate doctors would visit the lumber camps, but they lacked the support needed to do anything more than provide superficial treatment of wounds.

In 1891, a house on the corner of King and Pelham streets was converted into the Rhinelander Hospital.  The Catholic Church was then and still is the largest non-government provider of health care in the world.  Father Nicholas Joch of St. Mary’s Church wanted to help the new hospital, so in 1893 he contacted the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother and asked for their assistance.  Mother Frances Streitel, who had founded the order, agreed to take over operation of the hospital and promised to send Sisters from Rome to the United States.

Among those who received the call was Sister Mary Wendeline Bauer.  Born Eva Bauer in Bamburg, Germany, in 1870, she entered the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother in 1891.  She was one of twelve Sisters whom the Reverend Mother Frances Streitel sent to America to help set up hospitals in needy communities.  In Wisconsin, the order helped establish hospitals in Marshfield, Oshkosh, Tomahawk, and Rhinelander.  In Rhinelander, the Sisters took up residence in the house on King and Pelham streets.  They lived a simple life and gladly offered health care services to the people of the Northwoods free of charge.

In 1893, Father Joch obtained lots on the banks of the Pelican River and began selling insurance tickets at six dollars each to help fund the construction of a new hospital.  Many Sisters came and went during this time, but all helped in carrying bricks and wood for the construction.  The new hospital was completed in 1895.

In 1895, Sister Bauer accompanied Father Joch to help found a health resort in Denville, New Jersey.  But in 1900 she was at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rhinelander and placed in charge of the operating room.  From there she went to work in Tomahawk’s Sacred Heart Hospital.  By 1905, through her experience Bauer became Sister Superior of St. Mary’s in Rhinelander.  She was sent again to Denville late in 1905, and by 1914 Bauer was elected Commissary General, which effectively made her as Superior over all the American houses.

In 1927 Bauer oversaw the construction of a new American Motherhouse in Milwaukee, to which the novitiate was transferred.  She became the first Superior of the Convent of the Sorrowful Mother in Milwaukee.  In 1937 Bauer was elected Mother General over the entire community, after which she returned to Rome and took up residence at the Motherhouse there.  She died in Rome on the last week of December 1938.

The Reverend Mother Bauer was one of many of the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother who gave service to the Northwoods, and the pioneering work they performed continues to benefit the community to this day.