Priest founds hospital to help Mexico’s poor

When Capuchin Father Scott Seethaler visited a friend in Oaxaca, Mexico, in November 1999, he was so moved by the health care needs of the poor that on his last day there, he promised a doctor that he would raise money to found a clinic.

“I think the doctor was dumfounded,” he said.

Father Seethaler was taken aback by his own promise, too.

“There it was, a one-two punch, and I was back in the United States wondering how it was going to happen,” he said. “I prayed, ‘Dear God, is this what you wanted?’”

Capuchin Father Scott Seethaler poses with a boy in Oaxaca, Mexico, where Father Seethaler opened Clinica Hospital del Pueblo (the People’s Clinic) in 2001. Courtesy photo

Apparently it was, because the next Thanksgiving he was back in Mexico blessing the Clinica Hospital del Pueblo (the People’s Clinic), and the doors opened Jan. 1, 2001. The facility also is known as the Anna Seethaler Hospital, named after the priest’s late mother who was an inspiration in his life.

“I originally was thinking of a small clinic with a doctor — or two doctors at the most — who would be seeing people as outpatients,” Father Seethaler said. “I was never thinking of a hospital.”

But there were definite and desperate needs for something bigger than a clinic. So from the priest’s humble intention grew a facility with a staff of 52 that serves 2,300 people a month in an outpatient clinic, family practice, surgical center and community outreaches to urban and rural areas.

And how was this made possible?

“I’m a traveling preacher and I started telling people about the dream,” Father Seethaler said. “And that’s exactly what happens for the rest of the story.”

Dream realized

Father Seethaler was born in Pittsburgh and was ordained a priest in 1969. He is a member of the Capuchin Friars of the Province of St. Augustine in Pittsburgh and has a master’s degree in religious education. He previously taught at high schools in Pennsylvania and Maryland and at colleges in Pennsylvania, including Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

He is the author of a number of books, gives retreats and speaks in religious and public forums, particularly on the topics of family values, stress and personal and professional excellence. He also has a radio ministry, Joyful Reflections, six days a week on several stations in western Pennsylvania, and the broadcasts are available on his website (

In other words, he has a wide audience, and when he talked about the hospital and clinic, people responded.

“People just bought my dream,” he said. “Many times they would hand me a folded check and walk away, and the check was for $1,000. So you can see the hand of God in it.”

Although this is his ministry and is not connected with the Capuchins, the friars are behind what he’s doing.

“This obviously was a dream of one man come true,” Father Seethaler said. “When I initially came to them, there was an openness when I showed them that we were dealing with the poorest of the poor. That touched a nerve in a good sense that it was following the footsteps of St. Francis.

“And then I was having complete financial accountability to the community and had a board set up (for a nonprofit). That made my community more and more comfortable, as well as knowing that I hadn’t forgotten my commitment to my community. So although it is not a community ministry, I’ve had their blessing all along.”

Serving the poor

The people served by the clinic and hospital are indeed impoverished. The city of Oaxaca is located 320 miles southeast of Mexico City and is in the state of Oaxaca, the poorest state in Mexico. Drought and poor crops have affected an already struggling economy, and many people who live in remote villages have few resources. About 4 million people in the state have little or no access to basic health care, and their needs are great.

“We have a very strong ophthalmology program,” Father Seethaler said. “People down there get cataracts at a young age because of the bright sun and dry seasons, and it’s not part of their culture to wear sunglasses. Wearing sunglasses is seen as a sign of the very sick or very wealthy, but the doctors can usually get them to wear the cataract glasses for a while. It gets chilly, too, and the poor have no heaters, so in the months of December, January and February, there are a great deal of upper respiratory problems, especially with little kids. Then recently, Mexico has surpassed the United States in obesity, so we are dealing with diabetes and high blood pressure.”

Oaxaca also has a high rate of high-risk pregnancies and of women and children dying at childbirth. Many of the women arrive at the clinic “very pregnant” and with no prenatal care, and sometimes they have little information about pregnancy. Breast cancer rates are high, too.

“Part of the program is to help women to know about their bodies,” Father Seethaler said. “Many people don’t even know the names of their organs, and that’s why the intake takes so long. Either a doctor or social worker has to help them, and the patient will end up pointing to where the pain is.”

Compassionate care

The facility started out with a modest existing building that expanded in several phases. There’s now space for a family practice clinic, examination rooms, modern operating room, administration offices and a family dormitory for in-patient procedures.

“Obviously, we started out small and were not very well known,” Father Seethaler said. “We very quickly got to be known, and now the state department will send people to us. For instance, if one major public hospital for the poor can’t schedule cataract surgery for a year, they will refer to us, and we will do it within five days.”

Fees are charged on a sliding scale, and only the most destitute are not charged for services. Paying something, no matter how little, eliminates the fear that free care might be substandard. It also helps to protect a patient’s dignity.

“That’s important, even if they just pay a few pesos,” Father Seethaler said. “It also helps them to prioritize whatever money they have, that they should have some for health care. But if they can’t pay anything, they won’t get turned away. And they can stay for free in the dormitory because sometimes they come from so far away that they have to stay a week or two.”

They buy their own food and cook it in the kitchen, and they have to keep the place clean,” he added.

Even small fees help to offset costs, and Father Seethaler is grateful that donations and fundraisers keep the hospital running.

“Our mission and our vision is to treat everybody with compassion when they walk through the door, just as if Jesus would walk through the door,” he said. “That is the heart of the Gospel, and it was the conversion of St. Francis when he kissed the leper. And this is my calling with the Capuchins.”

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.