One of the Catholic Church’s most valuable and humble services to the people of Saskatchewan is coming to an end. Regrettably, the owners of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in the small city of Humboldt have been told their religion is no longer welcome at the governance of their institution.

Just as regrettably – but justifiably – the Catholic hospital’s board of directors has recommended to the provincial government that the hospital be turned over to the local health authority to run as a completely secular facility, likely by the end of the year.

In the end, the board had no real choice. If the public was no longer willing to support its operation of a publicly funded hospital along Catholic principles, there is no reasonable compromise to be had.

This sad ending to such a valuable ministry was triggered by a minor debate over sterilization for the purpose of contraception. Understandably, considering the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception, the hospital did not allow the procedure. But two doctors took offence to this minor restriction on their freedom and turned it into an ugly debate over how the Catholic Church was imposing its beliefs on the public. The debate was framed as a battle of individual rights being oppressed by the Church, a battle that, regardless of the truth of the matter, cannot be won in the face of today’s dominant hyper-individualism.

A survey of local residents ensued, to which 69 per cent of those surveyed said they wanted a public hospital not run by the Church. Only 19 per cent sided with St. Elizabeth’s current board. These figures were not even close enough to merit going on, in the estimation of the directors. They’re probably right.

So the Catholic board is gracefully bowing out of Humboldt. The hospital founded by the Franciscan Sisters of St. Elizabeth in 1912 remains a health-care institution, but it will no longer be Catholic. The people of Humboldt may think good riddance, but they will be wrong.

Regardless of what the world thinks, health care has been a mission of the Church since its inception. Jesus healed the sick and urged His followers to do the same. Catholics, and other Christians of many stripes, have been trying to do just that ever since. Indeed, the history of health care in Canada cannot be divorced from the history of the Catholic Church. The entire nation is dotted with hospitals, nursing homes and other health facilities founded by Catholic religious communities. Their motivation was not found in profits, or some vague notion of responsibility for others – as worthy as that can be – but because they saw the face of Christ in those they served, regardless of their patients’ race, income or creed.

Christ has not stopped being present in human beings just because they no longer feel they need Him. Nor will Catholics stop finding ways to help heal the sick. Even in Saskatchewan.

© The Catholic Register, April 1, 2007. Reprinted with permission.