How St Jude Children's Research Hospital began with an Arab American's prayer

'Show me my way in life and I will build you a shrine,' actor Danny Thomas prayed to St Jude Thaddeus in a plea that led to the paediatric cancer hospital's establishment

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The history of St Jude Children’s Research Hospital can be traced back more than 70 years ago to a Catholic church in Detroit, Michigan, where Lebanese-American Danny Thomas sent up a prayer to St Jude Thaddeus, patron saint of hopeless causes.

He had big dreams of making it in the entertainment industry, but didn’t have money or know how to begin.

Thomas, born Amos Muzyad Yakhoob Kairouz, donated the last $7 he had to the church and made a promise to St Jude Thaddeus.

“Show me my way in life and I will build you a shrine,” Thomas, a Maronite Catholic, promised in a prayer.

Thomas got a job in Chicago, Illinois, that paid $70 a few days after praying to St Jude Thaddeus. A few years later, he rose to stardom.

His career as a nightclub comedian, actor and producer spanned five decades, though he was best known for starring in the television sitcom The Danny Thomas Show.

But no matter how far he went, Thomas never forgot the promise he made to St Jude Thaddeus.

After making it big in Chicago, Thomas approached his mentor Cardinal Samuel Stritch, who was from Memphis, Tennessee, about building a shrine.

Cardinal Stritch said Memphis was poor and in desperate need of a clinic to help sick children.

“The cardinal said to him, ‘We don't need a statue. We got statues everywhere. What we need is help for people who need help,'” George Simon, a member of the Alsac/St Jude Boards of Directors and Governors for more than 35 years, told The National.

“The cardinal told him that people in Memphis were poor and the children there needed help.”

The Arab Americans who built St Jude's

Shortly afterward, Thomas searched for people from the Arab American community to support the building of a children's hospital in Memphis, founding the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (Alsac) in 1957 to help raise funds and awareness for the hospital.

“He went back to his heritage, the people of his community, and he said, 'Can I bring a bunch of you together because I can't do this by myself,'” said Mr Simon.

One of the successful entrepreneurs and key Arab American community members that Thomas convinced to join Alsac was Mr Simon’s father.

“When Danny decided to look for people who were a part of his heritage to start this charity, he came in and convinced my father he should be part of it. That's how my father got involved and frankly, that's how all of the original board members got involved,” Mr Simon added.

The original Alsac members are credited with raising enough money to build the hospital. Since its launch, Alsac has remained the fundraising arm of St Jude.

Outside of fundraising, Thomas also wanted to promote Arab American culture through Alsac and “honour his immigrant forefathers”, said Mr Simon.

Seventy per cent of Alsac board members are required to be of Arab American heritage.

“I think everybody wants to be a good Samaritan, but we're doing it holding high the flags of our heritage and making sure that we're not just seen as good Samaritans, but as good immigrants,” said Mr Simon.

The preamble to the Alsac constitution outlines Thomas's commitment to honouring his immigrant ancestors.

“We, at long last, shall take our rightful place in this community of nationalities – standing proudly with our heads held high in the knowledge that we have earned the right to perpetuate the name of our heritage and maintain our reputation as unquestioned good American citizens,” it reads.

Mr Simon said embracing the contributions of immigrants to the country is part of the reason Alsac was formed.

“That is the core of why we were formed and what the goal, what the whole purpose was, it was to celebrate what America did for the immigrants that came from Lebanon and Syria at the turn of the century,” said Mr Simon.

No child denied care based on 'race, religion or a family's ability to pay'

On February 4, 1962, Thomas unveiled a statue of St Jude before a crowd of 9,000 people during the hospital's grand opening ceremony in Memphis.

When St Jude first opened its doors, Thomas had a dream that no child should die in the dawn of life.

He also wanted to create a hospital where no child is denied care based on their race, colour, creed or family's ability to pay.

Since its inception, St Jude has grown into one of the best paediatric cancer hospitals in the nation and the fourth largest charity in the US, raising more than $2.5 billion in 2023 alone.

At St Jude, no patient pays, with medical treatment, travel, housing and food paid for by donations.

Many American families struggle to pay for expensive healthcare services that are not always covered by insurance.

The hospital's Physician/Patient Referral Office outlines the requirements that must be met for children to be accepted for treatment.

“Show me my way in life and I will build you a shrine,” Danny Thomas, a Maronite Catholic, promised in a prayer

Cancer patients from outside the US are also treated at the hospital.

A small portion of St Jude's funding also comes from government grants, but Alsac raises the money to keep St Jude's daily operations running through its fundraising activities that generous donors including businesses take part in from around the country.

“It was started by Arab Americans and it's still managed from a director point of view by a majority of Arab Americans, but it's really supported by Americans, all Americans,” said Mr Simon.

Thomas's daughter, Marlo Thomas, an actress, producer, author and activist, has been heavily involved in St Jude over the years and serves as its National Outreach Director.

From an idea to a life-saving paediatric hospital

St Jude has celebrated several milestones over the decades.

It is credited with pushing the total childhood cancer survival rate from 20 per cent to 80 per cent.

In 1972, a study published by the hospital showed a 50 per cent survival rate for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia through the use of combined chemotherapy and radiation. According to the hospital, this revolutionised leukaemia therapy globally.

St Jude reported in 2006 a 94 per cent survival rate for all patients, using therapy without radiation.

In 2018, St Jude and the World Health Organisation announced a five-year collaboration to transform cancer care on a global scale by curing at least 60 per cent of children with six of the most common kinds of cancer worldwide by 2030.

St Jude has eight affiliate clinics throughout the US. In the Middle East, the hospital is affiliated with the Children's Cancer Centre of Lebanon and has a long-standing partnership with King Hussein Cancer Centre in Jordan.

“The first generation was selling an idea, a drawing on a napkin. There wasn't a hospital there, they weren't treating anybody. They were just driving towards the goal of building a hospital and supporting the hospital,” said Mr Simon.

A lasting legacy

The legacy of Thomas, who died in 1991, and the original Alsac members lives on in every child St Jude saves.

Mr Simon recalls overhearing a mother speak about her child being cured.

“She was on the phone and I heard her say to the person on the other end and in tears, 'Honey, he's cured' and it was one of those things,” said Mr Simon.

“It was a private conversation between her and her husband, but the tears of joy and knowing that you could just be a small part of helping somebody at that level as a parent is so rewarding.

“It's always about the children. How could you not feel good about helping a child?”

Genesis, whose daughter Janelle received treatment at the hospital after being diagnosed at 17 months old with medulloblastoma, a type of cancerous brain tumour, praised the hospital and its work.

“St Jude gave us security knowing our daughter had a better chance of life, and an opportunity to grow up with her sister, and that for us has meant everything,” she said per the hospital.

To donate to St Jude or learn more about its efforts, visit

Updated: February 18, 2024, 4:00 PM