Religious order first began serving Tennessee in 1866, East Tennessee in 1896 providing education, health care
By Dan McWilliams
Whether it’s through educating young people, ministering in parishes, or simply praying with a hospital patient, the Sisters of Mercy have a long and deep legacy in East Tennessee.
The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas are celebrating their 150th anniversary in Tennessee this year, and they are also marking 120 years of service in East Tennessee.
Five sisters arrived on Halloween night in Nashville in 1866 at the behest of Bishop Patrick Feehan to start the city’s first parochial school. A “convent school,” St. Bernard Academy, was also opened when the sisters first arrived. That school is celebrating its sesquicentennial in 2016.
Three sisters living in Mercy Convent near Physicians Regional Medical Center in Knoxville, formerly St. Mary’s Medical Center, shared some of their memories over many decades of religious life. Sister Albertine Paulus is the Diocese of Knoxville’s director of pilgrimages after serving as a teacher for more than three decades and as the diocese’s longtime director of evangelization. Sister Yvette Gillen is the pastoral associate at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Alcoa after serving in the same role for many years at St. Therese in Clinton. Sister Martha Naber is mission liaison with Tennova Health at the old St. Mary’s Hospital.
Sister Albertine has been a Sister of Mercy for 67 years, Sister Martha for 58, and Sister Yvette for 55. Sister Marie Moore has been a Sister of Mercy for 65 years. Sister Margaret Turk, who has been a Sister of Mercy for 64 years, retired in September and returned to the Sisters of Mercy convent in Nashville.
An education mission
Seven Sisters of Mercy first came to the future diocese of Knoxville in the 1890s, alighting at downtown Knoxville’s parish school to succeed another order of sisters in the education ministry.
“The sisters came here at the request of Bishop [Thomas S.] Byrne to take over teaching at St. Mary’s School, which was at Immaculate Conception, in 1896,” said Sister Albertine. “At first it was a little awkward because the other sisters were loved and appreciated, and we were seen as interlopers or usurpers. Fortunately, that didn’t last long.”
St. Mary’s School was founded in 1876 and remained open for nearly a century, closing in 1970. Sister Yvette and Sister Mary Jude Toben were the final two sisters to serve at the school
“Two of us were left,” Sister Yvette recalled. “When Father Jim Murray came as pastor and saw the school, he said he was no longer going to keep the school open because he remembered the [1958 Our Lady of the Angels] school fire in Chicago. St. Mary’s was an old building, straight up and down, and he was afraid it was a firetrap. So we closed the school that year.”
Most of the St. Mary’s students went to St. Joseph School in Knoxville, which had opened in 1963, succeeding the old Holy Ghost School.
Sister Yvette recalls the multi-story St. Mary’s School building that stood next to Immaculate Conception Church. The convent was on the floors facing east.
“When I first went there in 1967, there were eight of us sisters who lived in the convent,” she said. “Five of us were from Knoxville Catholic High School and three of us taught in the grade school. We all lived there until 1968. One day Father [Francis R.] Shea came over to the convent because there had been a fire in front of his rectory; we were at the back of his rectory and he was afraid another fire could happen, so he moved us to the hospital to live.”
Sister Yvette remembers the St. Mary’s School days as “probably one of the best years of my community life, and I would say that was true for most sisters who lived there, because we were very bonded together.”
The bedrooms at the school convent were very small.
“You almost had to come out to change your mind,” Sister Yvette said.
Sister Albertine and Sister Martha are St. Mary’s alums. One vestige of St. Mary’s remains at Immaculate Conception today, according to Sister Albertine.
“When you go up the steps next to the church, that gateway and that fence formed the path through which school was dismissed in my day, in the ’30s and early ’40s. We went out in line, and the principal stood by the gate. Same gate, same fence,” she said.
The history of St. Mary’s School overlapped that of Holy Ghost School.
“We were from St. Mary’s School, and the ‘Holy Ghosters’ were our sworn enemies – until we got to Catholic High, when we became the best of friends,” Sister Albertine said.
Holy Ghost School, which opened in 1908, was one of several schools the Sisters of Mercy staffed from the very start.
“With the announcement of the new church [Holy Ghost] was the news that the Sisters of Mercy would have the school,” Sister Albertine said.
She added that the Sisters of Mercy were there from the beginning, not only at Holy Ghost but also at Knoxville Catholic High School, Sacred Heart School [now Sacred Heart Cathedral School], St. Dominic School in Kingsport, and St. John Neumann School in Farragut. The sisters also served at St. Mary School in Johnson City and at the former schools of Our Lady of Fatima in Alcoa, St. Elizabeth in Elizabethton and St. Genevieve in Dayton.
The sisters also taught CCD in Morristown and LaFollette.
“In 1976 we had sisters as pastoral associates in the Norris-LaFollette Missions, which included Norris, Clinton, LaFollette, and Helenwood,” Sister Yvette said.
“Sister Patricia Soete is still pastoral associate at St. Jude in Helenwood; she also does a lot of work with the poor there,” Sister Albertine said.
A health-care ministry
The Sisters of Mercy’s long service at St. Mary’s Medical Center began with the facility’s founding as St. Mary’s Memorial Hospital in 1930.
“The sisters have been here since 1926 when Sister Pauline Gray and Sister Mary Thomas Dauner came and knocked on the door of Mrs. Guy Darst. Together they began the process of trying to see if there would be support from the physicians in the community to begin a Catholic hospital,” Sister Martha said. “They also addressed fundraising, which became a major issue with the coming of the Depression.”
The seeds of the hospital were planted well before 1930, she added.
“In 1919 some Knoxville doctors had approached the bishop of Nashville requesting a sisters’ hospital in order to meet the growing needs of health care,” Sister Martha said. “At that point the bishop had no resources and dismissed it. Then in 1926, Daniel Dewine offered to donate the property here on Oak Hill Avenue, and he was giving it to the bishop with the stipulation that a Catholic hospital would be built on the property. The bishop then approached the Sisters of Mercy, who were teaching in Nashville and beyond.
“All the Sisters in Tennessee at that point were teachers, so it was a step in faith that they were willing to accept the mission of beginning a hospital. Five sisters went off to study: Sister Annunciata Dannaher studied administration; Sister Magdalen Clarke, radiology; and three sisters studied nursing.”
Sister Annunciata served as the St. Mary’s hospital administrator from 1930 until her death in 1963.
“They said she was the best ‘businessman’ in Knoxville,” Sister Albertine said. “This was true through most of the hospital’s history: the sisters who were responsible for the administration, for the financial growth, and for the excellence of the institution have been extraordinarily acute and most excellent. They often dealt with the top financial minds of the city and were held in great respect.”
Sister Marie served as hospital administrator for 12 years.
The sisters in Knoxville carry on despite St. Mary’s having been sold to an investor-owned corporation in 2011.
“We do the same things we did before the sale. We’re fortunate to have the chapel, daily Mass, and the religious artifacts that are so important to people who come here, regardless of their religion,” Sister Martha said. “The sisters’ faith, commitment and dedication, their generosity and compassion – all these are qualities that are in the memories of thousands and thousands of people. Every day I meet people who say, ‘I wouldn’t go to any other hospital.’
“It is a rich, rich heritage that we have, and today I feel we’re standing on the shoulders of all those giants who have gone before us. There have been about 120 sisters throughout 86 years who have served here at St. Mary’s.”
Some people have trouble calling Physicians Regional Medical Center by its present name.
“‘It will always be St. Mary’s’ – I hear that all the time,” Sister Yvette said.
The legacy of old St. Mary’s Hospital also includes its School of Nursing, in operation from the beginning of the hospital in 1930 until 1988.
“It’s really neat; working in a parish I meet a lot of people who went to the School of Nursing here. They were disappointed when it closed, but they are proud to be graduates,” Sister Yvette said.
Until she had a recent operation, Sister Marie was a stalwart at visiting patients, one of the Sisters of Mercy’s principal ministries at the hospital.
“Every morning she’s up and over in the holding room at 6 a.m., praying with people who are going to have surgery, regular as clockwork,” Sister Albertine said. “Then on one day she would go to Turkey Creek to visit patients, another day to LaFollette, another to Tennova North, and to Jefferson City and the residential hospice.”
Living out mercy
The sisters today continue to live out the charism of their foundress, the Venerable Mother Catherine McAuley.
Sister Martha sees the sisters’ charism as their “compassion and caring for people.”
“In the hospital, our primary role is caring for patients and their families as well as employees. We support both employees and doctors, and are there if they personally need assistance. That’s our real legacy right now, caring for and supporting people.”
To that end, Sister Martha administers a benevolence fund for employees of the hospital.
“So many of our employees struggle because they’re single parents, and if they don’t get a full paycheck for whatever reason, they can’t pay their bills,” she said. “We also have a mission fund that we are able to use for patient needs.”
Sister Yvette said “We’re really carrying out the works of mercy in all ways.”
“Whatever ministry we’re in, the sisters go regularly to funeral homes to support employees who have lost loved ones. Often the deceased is someone who worked here long ago,” she said. “That comes from Catherine’s legacy – she lived the works of mercy. And that’s part of our legacy, too.”
Sister Albertine said “We do our level best to live out” the mercy charism.
“Our lives are given to being the mercy of Jesus to everyone we meet,” she said. “In a practical way, that’s the spiritual and corporal works of mercy; there are many different ways to bring people to the Lord.”
“Our community spread to most of the English-speaking parts of the world,” Sister Albertine said. “Missionary bishops from Ireland wrote to Mother Catherine, who was an Irish foundress, asking for sisters to come to serve their immigrant flocks. That’s how we came to have a huge community in Australia, a huge community in New Zealand. We have a community in England. There are sizable communities in Guam and Jamaica and the Philippines. We’re now in 47 different countries on six continents.”
Sister Yvette mentioned “another way the sisters carry on the works of mercy.”
“We have established Mercy Associates, and we have a large group here, laypeople who don’t take vows. They make promises, and they join us in spreading the word of mercy in their works,” she said. “We have men, we have two priests [Father Bill McKenzie and Father Bill Gahagan], and a lot of women who live out mercy in their lives.”
Sister Martha added, “We meet regularly with the associates, and we have days of prayer and reflection, with time together to build community among ourselves.”
Into the future
The sisters’ numbers are down from their peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when four sisters served at St. Joseph School, five at Knoxville Catholic High School, three at St. Mary’s School at Immaculate Conception, four at Sacred Heart, two at Alcoa and 10 to 15 at the hospital.
What does the future hold for the Sisters of Mercy? Sister Albertine has the answer.
“It’s in the hands of God,” she said. “Really, we don’t know. Corporately, it doesn’t look like the Sisters of Mercy are going to disappear, but I don’t think we will continue to be in East Tennessee.”
The Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., have been serving in the diocese since 2009 and are worthy ministers of the spirit of mercy and its life in many apostolates,” Sister Albertine said.
“We’re glad that we have (our) sisters here, because the work of mercy continues,” she said. “It’s the same ministry, the same foundress, the same charism – in the plan of God, that’s what’s going forward.”
Sister Yvette cited the Mercy Associates as one key to the future for the mercy charism.
Highlights for the sisters over the years include everything from commercials with Peyton Manning to fundraising efforts.
“I roller-skated several years for the Kidney Foundation and abused children. I figured it out one day – I raised about $45,000 over five years,” Sister Yvette said. “But working with people” is a more important highlight.
“Everybody used to ask me, when I worked in pastoral care at the hospital, how I could be around patients who I knew had terminal cancer? It could be very draining, but the rewarding part overpowered the ‘draining-ness.’ Working with these patients and being there when they were dying and with their families was wonderfully rewarding. It gave me a much different outlook on death. I was almost envious of the person dying, because I saw how close they were to God. I got to walk that last walk with them. It was very, very rewarding,” Sister Yvette added.
For Sister Martha, being with people is a time of great blessing for the sisters.
“Often I experience God’s presence, an awareness of God’s grace touching their spirit and mine. What a privilege to be God’s instrument, being used by God to encourage, support or assist another just by being there, being attentive and responding with respect and regard for their well-being.”
Sister Albertine added, “As I look back over a long life, I have gained the most from working with people. Whether they are little folks, high school kids trying so hard to grow up, college students facing adult life, adults growing in grace and knowledge of the faith, or pilgrims seeking a deeper connection with God – they are such signs of hope as they grow in maturity and comprehension, in faith and understanding and love.
“And when I chance to meet them again as adults or seasoned Catholics or senior citizens, to see them grown into really fine Christian people – what humbling and delightful gratitude fills my heart! In all the different ministries where I have served, that is what has mattered to me the most.” ■