The Hotel St. Nicholas has enjoyed a long and colorful history. The hotel traces its roots to the year 1898 and its construction, by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy, as the first dedicated general hospital to serve Cripple Creek, Colorado, and the surrounding area at the height of the 1890's gold rush.
The Catholic Order of the Sisters of Mercy has a rich history of over 175 years. The Order was founded by Catherine McAuley in Dublin, Ireland, in 1831. McAuley, born into a prosperous Catholic family in 1778, was orphaned at age 19. For several years Catherine, a devout Catholic, lived with relatives who disapproved of her practice of Catholicism. Within several years they suffered financial losses themselves, making it necessary for Catherine to find outside employment and residence. She soon entered the household of William and Catherine Callaghan, elderly and prosperous Quakers, as a household manager and companion to Mrs. Callaghan. During the next 20 years and while remaining with the Callaghans, Catherine became deeply involved in ministering to the needy, particularly poor women and children who were often overlooked by other institutions of the day. In 1822, following the death of the Callaghans, Catherine inherited their £25,000 estate (worth about $1 million today), and in 1827 opened the first House of Mercy, in Dublin, as a home providing religious, educational and social services to disadvantaged women and girls.
Although McAuley originally intended to establish a secular society, her work and advice from supportive Dublin clergy led her and two associates to profess vows in December, 1831, and establish the Religious Institute of the Sisters of Mercy. In the early 1800's there were few social support organizations for the poor, and the need was great. Sisters of Mercy members soon became known as the “walking nuns” because of the frequency with which they were seen moving throughout Dublin ministering to the sick and poor. By the time of McAuley’s death in 1841 there were 10 foundations in Ireland and England with over 100 sisters.
The first Sisters of Mercy arrived in the United States from Ireland in 1843 at the invitation of the Bishop of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Their energy in ministering to the sick and poor in the new world attracted many new members. By 1854, Sisters from Ireland had settled in New York and San Francisco, and continued to spread throughout the country, establishing schools and hospitals.
In 1882, at the request of the Bishop of Colorado and Utah, Joseph Machebeuf, Mother Mary John Baptist Meyers led a group of 5 sisters from St. Louis to Colorado to establishing a hospital and school in Durango, and in 1887 in Ouray, Colorado. By 1889 they were working in Denver. In 1894, Sister Mary Claver Coleman was sent to Cripple Creek to establish the town’s first general hospital.
The Sisters originally operated from an existing wood-framed building at 326 E. Eaton, one block from the current St. Nicholas, and served 307 patients during their first year. A massive fire in April, 1896 destroyed most of Cripple Creek, and led to an incident of drama and irony. As the fire progressed through Cripple Creek, many wooden-framed buildings were dynamited in an effort to slow the fire. While the sisters were evacuating patients to safer locations, a member of an anti-catholic society entered the hospital’s kitchen and attempted to destroy the building by placing dynamite in the stove chimney. To the man’s misfortune, the dynamite exploded prematurely, causing little damage to the hospital, but blowing off his leg. He was evacuated with the other patients, and the compassionate care he received from the Sisters led him to express remorse for his deed. His shoe, which had landed in the tea kettle, was kept by the Sisters as a memento.
Although the original hospital survived, the fire convinced the Sisters that there was a need for a more modern and safer structure. The Sisters engaged John J. Huddart, a well known Denver architect responsible for many Colorado landmarks, to develop a design. Huddart's design was an elegant three-story brick structure that mixed elements of several design styles to create a stately and distinctive building. Construction of the current St. Nicholas was begun in 1896 and was completed in 1898, at a cost of $12,000. The first two floors of the hospital were used for patients. The Sisters’ living quarters were on the 3rd floor. The hospital orderly occupied the attic. The St. Nicholas took advantage of Cripple Creek's developing town infrastructure, which was advanced for its day. The new hospital was "thoroughly modern, with electric lights, steam heat, hot and cold running water, and a surgery department". Dedicated on May 15, 1898, the hospital was in use from March 12, 1898, when it received its first patient, a young miner named Elijah Ayers, who had fallen down a shaft at the Specimen Mine. The hospital was named for and dedicated by then Colorado Bishop Nicholas Matz. In 1902 an addition was made to the hospital to serve as additional living quarters for the sisters.
After almost 30 years of service, the Sisters left Cripple Creek in 1924, and the hospital was purchased and operated privately by a series of local doctors. During the years as mines closed and the population of Cripple Creek shrank, the hospital continued to serve the area. The St. Nicholas Hotel continues to host guests who were born or treated in the hospital during the mid-1900’s, or whose family or friends were. The hospital finally closed in 1972, and was used as a boarding house or stood vacant until its purchase and meticulous refurbishment in 1995, when it joined the list of fine Cripple Creek hotels as the Hotel St. Nicholas.
The Sisters of Mercy who first built the St. Nicholas as a refuge for sick and injured miners now comprise a worldwide community of 10,000 members, continuing Catherine McAuley’s vision of service to the poor, ill, and disadvantaged. In the United States, over 4,700 members, and worldwide, over 10,000 members support community development, education, healthcare, housing, long-term care, and spiritual ministries.