One could say that James and Mary Hill grew up with Saint Paul. They lived in Saint Paul prior to 1858 when statehood was conferred on the Minnesota Territory. Mary noted in her diary on May 21, 1903, “53 years ago today my father, mother, auntie (sister) and I arrived in the little village of Saint Paul, Minnesota. What changes since then! How few of the few who were here then can be found today.”
On May 29,1916, James Hill died. His widow, Mary, was seventy years old and in fragile health. That spring day, Mary lost her husband and friend of over fifty years. In the waning years of America’s Gilded Age, it would have been understood, almost expected, that Mary would spend the rest of her life in quiet, comfortable retirement surrounded by friends and family. However, while relying on her children and close advisors, Mary chose to devote much of her time to philanthropic activities.
EVOLUTION OF A PHILANTHROPIST
Neither James nor Mary established philanthropic foundations; all of their charity was self-directed. James Hill gave away millions of dollars. His philanthropy was wide-ranging and concentrated in the area where the Great Northern Railway ran, the northern tier of states from Minnesota to Washington. After her husband’s death, Mary sharply narrowed this scope, focussing on her lifelong charitable giving; organizations concerned with Saint Paul’s Catholic community and World War I relief agencies.
During the years of their marriage, most local Catholic organizations received yearly contributions from the Hills. In the case of Saint Joseph’s Hospital, it was usually $100 per year. Mary’s charity was of a much more personal nature. She visited the infirm and had a network of trusted acquaintances to keep her informed of needy people in the community.
Mary had close associations with both members of the clergy and the religious communities in Saint Paul. She was a member of the first class enrolled at the Sisters of Saint Joseph’s school established in 1851. Mary’s childhood friends, John Ireland and his sister, Ellen became the Archbishop of Saint Paul and the Mother Superior of the Saint Joseph order, respectively.
Mary’s giving may have come from the heart, but she was all business when evaluating need and planning her philanthropy. She had obviously learned a thing or two from her husband. Reviewing the documents associated with her philanthropic activities shows a precise attention to detail and a considerable amount of planning involved. Her individual gifts ranged from $25 to $10,000 and were given to most Catholic charitable organizations in Saint Paul and many parishes in the area. Most of Mary’s larger gifts ($10,000 to $200,000) were in the form of established and residual family trusts.
Saint Joseph’s Hospital was often mentioned in Mary’s diaries; usually when she visits the ill or when she gave them her homemade wine and hand knit garments. However, she also wrote about events at the hospital, “In the evening Charlotte, Mrs. Porter and I went to the Graduating exercises of the St. Joseph Hospital Trained Nurses, a class of eleven. We met there, Count Berrand Monti and his mother Madame Berrand Monti.” (Diary June 20, 1899)
Mary established the Saint Joseph’s Hospital Trust in September 1918 in the amount of $17,500. The trust agreement reads that the income from the investment will be used for the maintenance of a Free Room (hospital designated room 215 on the second floor), known as the Mrs. James J. Hill Free Room. This trust also had an interesting provision, “From time to time the Donor shall have the right to designate what person or persons shall be permitted to occupy said free room…”
In addition to giving money, Mary always gave her time and talents. Two diary entries in the last years of her life, show this clearly; “I sent some of my (homemade) wine to St. Joseph’s and St. Paul’s Hospitals today” and “Gave away my home-made socks today, 210 pairs of our collection…went to St. Joseph’s Hospital, City Hospital, Little Sisters of the Poor, St. Vincent’s Society.” (June 10, 1919, December 23, 1920)
Mary’s Catholic philanthropy totaled more than one million dollars ($13 million in 2015) during the five years following her husband’s death. Many of Mary’s trusts, given “In Her Own Name”, keep on giving to the people and institutions she cherished. And in an earlier diary entry, while writing about sewing that she and her daughters were doing for the poor, Mary provides us with her charitable philosophy, “After all, the greatest satisfaction comes from providing for the needy.” (December 19, 1900)
Mary’s daughters carried on their mother’s philanthropic relationship with Saint Joseph’s Hospital. From financial records held at the hospital, it seems at least three of her daughters, Rachel Hill Boeckmann, Clara Hill Lindley, and Gertrude Hill Gavin left significant bequests to Saint Joseph’s. Rachel’s gift was directed to the “Free Bed Fund”, previously endowed by her mother.