Tag Archives: Saint Paul

Mary T. Hill: Philanthropy and St. Joseph’s Hospital

James and Mary, 1915. Photo: MInnesota Historical Society.
James and Mary, 1915. Photo: Minnesota Historical Society.

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.



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.

St. Joseph's Hospital. Photo: St. Joseph's website (click image).
St. Joseph’s Hospital. Photo: St. Joseph’s website (click image).

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.

Nurses, 1896. Photo: St. Joseph's website (click image)
Nurses, 1896. Photo: St. Joseph’s website (click image)

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.


Mrs. Hill Goes to the Fair

Photo: Minnesota Historical Society
Photo: Minnesota Historical Society

Throughout August, I am tracing Mary Hill’s summer of 1886 by highlighting her daily diary entries – follow me on Twitter to see what Mary, her family and all the visitors are up to at the Hill family’s summer estate and farm, North Oaks.

Since the Minnesota State Fair begins today, I thought it would be fun to see what Mary had to say about the Fair in her diaries. Mary was proud to be an early Saint Paul settler, moving with her family to the Minnesota Territory in 1850 – eight years before Minnesota became a state.

On September 10, 1885, Mary writes: “Went in to City to Fair with Mrs. Swan, Emma, Mamie and boys…saw Annie and family at Fair.” Mary came to the Fair from the family’s summer place at North Oaks, bringing her children (Mamie, Jimmie and Louis). The Hills made the trip with neighbor Mrs. Swan and her daughter Emma. Mary even saw her sister Annie. The Fair was bringing family and friends together long before the Fair was formerly called the “Great Minnesota Get-together”!

As a Saint Paul resident living not far from the fairgrounds, I can understand  what Mary is saying in the first sentence of her September 10, 1903, entry: “St. Paul seems filled with strangers. Fair is a great success first two days.  Philippine veterans have a reunion here and a parade today.” The tradition of honoring the military continues with special events for veterans and their families (Military Appreciation Day).

Like many grandparents today, taking the grandchildren to the Fair was a tradition. Mary writes on September 7, 1910: “This forenoon Maud, little Louis, Maudie and I went to the Fair.  In the afternoon we went to hear Papa’s address, a crowd greeted him.” Unlike most children, I suppose, little Louis and Maudie got to see their grandpa give a speech to a crowd at the Fair!

(James J. Hill gave several addresses at the Minnesota State Fair – I will cover that in my next post.)

Mary thought highly of the produce she saw in 1913, writing on September 3rd:  “About eleven a.m. Clara and I went to the Fair.  I thought the display of Minnesota apples remarkable, really fine, and vegetables equaled any I have seen anywhere.”

Photo: Minnesota Historical Society
Photo: Minnesota Historical Society

The Hill farm at North Oaks sent animals to the Fair.  Mary’s pride for these animals comes through in her entry of September 2, 1916: “We have sent the Suffolk Punch horses and several Ayrshire beasts to the Fair, the latter are beauties.” Later in the week, Mary reports that the “Ayeshires won many prizes”.

On September 2, 1918, Mary writes: “I have not felt well this week.  This is State Fair week.” She follows it up with this entry the next day: “Today was airships day at the Fair.  As I am indisposed slightly…I shall have to forego the Fair.”

The promise of airships must have been too much. On September 6th she writes: “Went to State Fair saw War Exhibit, Womans Bldg., Serbian Exhibit, and Dunwoody Workings in airships, etc.  Home and tired by 4 0’clock.”

1910 Postcard of Women's Building: Minnesota Historical Society
1910 Postcard of Women’s Building: Minnesota Historical Society

There is no mention of Mary attending the Fair in 1919, but she made certain those who worked for her had the opportunity: “This is State Fair week, so each [farm worker/servant] one must have a chance to go.  Campbell and Lena today.”

The tradition endures today with some employers giving their staff a free afternoon or day off of work to attend the Fair. When I worked at the James J. Hill Reference Library, we were given a half-day to go to the Fair. I always thought of Mary’s diary entry. It is great for staff morale!

I will share more of Mary’s Fair observations throughout its twelve-day run on Twitter. Click here to see my tweets!

Want to read more on the history of the Fair? Click here to visit the Minnesota State Fair history page, with links to their digital archive.

Cherokee Park: James J. Hill’s gift to Saint Paul

CherokeeParkRealized as a potential recreational and natural green space in the early 1900s, Cherokee Regional Park has since developed into one of Saint Paul’s most visited parks, bringing in over 300,000 visitors a year.

(City of Saint Paul website)



James J. Hill is known as the Empire Builder for his vast network of railway, extending from Saint Paul, Minnesota to the Pacific Northwest, which created prosperous towns and cities along the way, changing lives and offering opportunities. Emphasis on Hill’s personal financial success overshadows what he gave back to build communities – gifts to institutions, groups, and individuals, along the railway, throughout the country, and especially at home in Saint Paul.

In October 1905, James J. Hill gave $13,000 ($335,364 in 2016 dollars) to the City of Saint Paul. Hill donated the money for the express purpose of “…acquiring by purchase or condemnation, for park and parkway purposes, a certain strip of land lying…west of the High Bridge, east of Chippewa Avenue, and between Cherokee Avenue and the foot of the bluff on the south side of the Mississippi River.”

A donation letter, dated October 23, 1905, outlines the specifications of the gift. Hill kept precise records of all financial transactions – taking as much care to document a ten-cent travel reimbursement as he did for a $13,000 donation. It is fascinating to see the “rough draft” of this letter, with handwritten edits and notes in Hill’s own hand, as well as that of Hill’s private secretary, John Toomey. If the City of Saint Paul Board of Park Commissioners was unable to secure the site and establish a park within two years, the money would need to be returned to Hill.

This would not be necessary. Fresh air and open space welcomed the citizens of Saint Paul to Cherokee Park. The original park plan included camping areas, a bathhouse, picnic shelter and plenty of trees. Later improvements to the park included basketball and tennis courts, a playground, two large picnic shelters and walking trails.

Storm hits High Bridge, 1904. (www.wikipedia.com)
Storm hits High Bridge, 1904. (www.wikipedia.com)

The spectacular views from the Mississippi River bluff are a focal point of Cherokee Park. These views existed long before James J. Hill sent his check to the Board of Park Commissioners, and they are the same views visitors enjoy today. The City of Saint Paul was important to Hill. He was committed to giving back to the town which had given him so much. Cherokee Park stands today as tangible evidence of Hill’s dedication to the city and her residents.

The donation acceptance letter from the Board of Park Commissioners sums up the importance of the both the gift and the giver:

RESOLVED, That it is the confident expectation of the Board that, with the help of this generous donation, the land in question will be soon acquired for a parkway; and that thus, this portion of the west side bluff, which is one of the most conspicuous of the natural beauties of St. Paul, will be preserved to its people for all time to come; and add one more to the many benefactions which owe to the bountiful good will of Mr. Hill towards the City, which has been so long his home, and the primary center of his activities in building up the northwest; and which have so greatly benefited this City as the terminus of his great Continental Railway System.

(Hill Family Collection, Minnesota Historical Society)



  • Click here for current information on amenities and facilities of Cherokee Park.
  • To see a lovely photograph of present-day Cherokee Park, as well as photos of other Saint Paul parks, click here.
  • For the fascinating history of the Smith Avenue High Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River near Cherokee Park, click here.

Mary T. Hill and Saint Mary’s Parish

1867 Mary Mehegan Hill. Photo: Minnesota Historical Society.
1867 Mary Mehegan Hill. Photo: Minnesota Historical Society.

By Eileen R. McCormack


c. 1875 Saint Mary’s Church, Saint Paul. Photo: Minnesota Historical Society.
c. 1875 Saint Mary’s Church, Saint Paul. Photo: Minnesota Historical Society.

In 1865, the downtown area of Saint Paul had two Catholic parishes, the Cathedral, at Sixth & Saint Peter Streets, and Assumption Church built in 1856 to serve the city’s German Catholic members.  As the residential area in Saint Paul’s Lowertown grew its Catholic inhabitants asked for a new parish.  Bishop Grace agreed, and plans went forward for a new church, to be built at the northeast corner of Ninth and Locust Streets. The cornerstone of Saint Mary’s, blessed on May 20th, 1866, was an important event in the city.  The Great Western Band led the procession from the Cathedral to the Lowertown site, and many of Saint Paul’s 7000 Catholics attended the ceremony. Contributions to Saint Mary’s building fund came from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and included a number of the city’s most prominent citizens; Rice, Sibley, Prince, McQuillan, Merrriam, Borup, Davidson, Thompson, Wilder, Sheehy, Markoe, and James Hill.

1883 Gertrude Hill in christening gown, Mary Mehegan Hill. Photo: Minnesota Historical Society.
1883 Gertrude Hill in christening gown, Mary Mehegan Hill. Photo: Minnesota Historical Society.

Construction of the church was completed in 1867, the same year James J. Hill and Mary Theresa Mehegan married and moved to their first home in Lowertown.  Father Louis Caillet, Mary Hill’s old friend, was named the pastor of Saint Mary’s, and the first Mass was said on July 28, 1867. The ten children born to the Hills were baptized and received their First Holy Communion in Father Caillet’s church. The first parish school was opened in 1869 with a new building constructed in 1887 and high school classes added in 1896.

Saint Mary’s was a very active community from its inception, and Mary Hill and other women were involved in not only the parish organizations and activities, but also in raising funds and administering some of the institutions associated with the church.  In 1882 the women presented Father Caillet with $12,000 to pay off the church debt (Mary Hill $5000.) and in 1884 Saint Mary’s Home for Girls was opened under the direction of a Board consisting of parish women, with Mary as president. On May 19, 1884 Mary Hill’s diary entry read, “Opened St. Mary’s home today informally.” The Home provided lodging and industrial classes, such as sewing instruction, for young women who came to the city to work. A day nursery to care for the children of working mothers was added and both institutions were under the supervision of the Daughters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

In 1891, after 24 years in Lowertown, the Hill family moved to their new home on Summit Avenue, joining the movement of other neighbors whose homes were being encroached on by railroad and industrial development. Mary continued her involvement with Saint Mary’s and attended services there until old age and fragile health necessitated her attending Mass closer to her home although she returned for funerals of old friends and special occasions. “We went to closing of St. Mary’s School exercises at Opera House this afternoon. The exercises were creditable indeed.” Over the years James and Mary Hill donated over $16,000 (about $290,000 in 2014 dollars) to Saint Mary’s not including “pew rent” that Mary continued to pay until her death in 1921.

The importance of “Old Saint Mary’s” in the lives of the Hill family was demonstrated in 1926, five years after Mary Hill’s death. An almost exact replica of the original Lowertown Saint Mary’s was constructed in White Bear Lake, funded by Mary’s daughters. The Hill family spent summers at their North Oaks farm and attended Mass at Saint Mary’s in White Bear Lake. The new church was dedicated, “In Memory of a Beloved Mother Mary Theresa Hill…”

In 1919, the same factors that had precipitated the move of many of Lowertown’s original residents more than thirty years earlier, now necessitated the move of Saint Mary’s Church itself. The old church property was sold to the Great Northern Railway and property was purchased at Eighth & Rosabel Streets, across Ninth Street from where the Hill home had stood.  The new church was dedicated in May 1922 and Saint Mary’s remains in that location today, and is serving an emerging residential area once more.


St. Mary’s Church today. Photo: Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.




Saturday May 16, 2015

261 E 8th Street in St. Paul’s Lowertown


4:30pm     Mass celebrated by Archbishop Nienstedt with the Saint Mary’s Choir and                                 May Crowning

6-7pm       Social Hour

7-8pm       Buffet Dinner — reservations required, call 651-222-2619

8-10pm     Music by City Vibes



NOTE ON SOURCES: Two books by Rev. James M. Reardon, pastor of Saint Mary’s from 1916-1921, The Catholic Church in the Diocese of St. Paul (St. Paul: 1952) and The Church of St. Mary of Saint Paul (St. Paul: 1935). Excerpts taken from my article in Ramsey County History (Spring 2006) “Lost Neighborhood: Mary Hill’s Lowertown 1867-1891”.

Happy Anniversary MIA!


MIA-Springtime of Life
Springtime of Life, Camille Corot. Donated to MIA by Mrs. Erasmus C. Lindley in memory of her father, James J. Hill. 1949. Photo: Minneapolis Institute of Arts


by Eileen R. McCormack


 In 1913 when the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts began planning for the construction of the present Minneapolis Institute of Arts [MIA] building, trustee and Saint Paul resident and art collector James J. Hill lent his expertise as a significant collector of works of the French Barbizon School.

MIA-Deer in the Forest
Deer in the Forest, Gustave Courbet. Donated to MIA by James J. Hill. 1914. Photo: Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

James Hill did not stop at giving advice. He presented the Society with its first great acquisition, Gustave Courbet’s Deer in the Forest,  When the MIA opened its doors to the public in January 1915, the majority of the art in the new building was on loan. Hill loaned twenty-two paintings by Courbet, Corot, Daubigny, Delacroix, Dupre, Millet, Rousseau and Troyon that were a significant part of the collection viewed by the public in the inaugural exhibition. On that 7th day of January in 1915, Hill’s  speech contained an injunction to:

Set your standard high and live to it. This Institute is to pitch the key for the community. Do not pitch the key too low.

JJH Audibert001
James J. Hill, Paul Raymond Audibert (1912)

James Hill began collecting art in 1880 and continued buying, selling and giving away paintings the rest of his life. He became very knowledgeable and certainly developed a particular fondness for artists of the Barbizon School. He purchased over thirty  paintings by Jacques Camille Corot and many by other Barbizon artists as well as a number of Barye bronze sculpture. His personal papers document his collection and contain inventories, invoices and correspondence with other collectors and his art dealers, Samuel Avery, Julius Oehme, Durand-Ruel family and Knoedler family.  By the turn of the 20th century Hill’s collection was considered the State’s finest and nationally significant. In 1891 a new home at 240 Summit Avenue in Saint Paul was completed and Hill and his family moved in. The home contained a large gallery so the art collection moved in as well. Hill’s collecting accelerated and the walls of the gallery, hallways and public rooms rapidly filled with paintings. The gallery, which had a separate exterior entrance, was open to the public on a limited basis. Application for admittance was made to Hill’s secretary and permission cards were issued for a specific day and time.

James Hill had his dealers resell paintings that he no longer liked. Hill explained:

I began in a modest way to make a collection. I bought a Rousseau, not a large one, fortunately for me a very good one. Then I bought a Corot, a small one. But these pictures were of first-class quality. [They] meant so much to me and so much more than about ten others which I had, that they literally drove the others out of the house, and where they went I do not know.”

And that is the how his collection evolved; he lived with, and loved, his paintings. They were his relaxation and his joy.

After the deaths of James Hill in 1916 and his wife Mary Hill in 1921, the collection’s art work was divided among their nine children. In the almost 100 years since their deaths, many of these pieces, and others from descendants’ personal collections, have a found permanent home at the MIA, including almost all the original loan by James J. Hill for the 1915 inaugural exhibition.



NOTE: James J. Hill quotes contained in The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin (1915). Image of James J. Hill from the Hill Family Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.

Visit ArtsMIA.org for information on the special exhibits and events celebrating the 100th anniversary.