Sr. Mary Martha Naber celebrates 6th decade of healing ministry

Knox native has devoted her consecrated life to extending Jesus’ compassion and caring to people in East Tennessee

By Dan McWilliams

Sister Mary Martha Naber, RSM, mission representative at Physicians Regional Medical Center (the former St. Mary’s Medical Center), couldn’t help but be influenced by the Sisters of Mercy as she discerned her vocation as a young woman in Knoxville.

“I was taught by the Sisters of Mercy,” she said. “They were at school from grades one through 12. I went to St. Mary’s grade school on the hill next to Immaculate Conception Church. We had sisters there teaching in practically every grade. Grades one through eight. Then I went to Knoxville Catholic High School on Magnolia [Avenue], and again we had sisters teaching there.

“My parents, George and Alma Naber, were both very active at church and in the school, so I was always around the sisters, even outside of school time. I admired the sisters. I saw how joyful they were, along with being people of prayer. Their example is really what inspired me.”

Influenced by joy

That inspiration has carried Sister Martha through six decades of religious life. She celebrated her 60th anniversary as a sister Aug. 4 at Mercy Convent in Nashville, 12 days before her actual anniversary date.

“It was wonderful,” she said. “It was primarily our sisters from Tennessee, but also there were a few who came from Louisville, Ky., and also several who came from Cincinnati to Nashville. My cousin, Father John Schork, is a Passionist priest, and he was the celebrant at my jubilee Mass. Monsignor Bill Gahagan gave the homily, and also in attendance were Father Tom O’Connell, who is our chaplain here at the hospital, and Father Bill McKenzie.”

Mr. and Mrs. Naber’s only child went into religious life.

“I didn’t realize at the time what a sacrifice it was for my parents, because I was an only child,” Sister Martha said. “I was doing what I felt God was calling me to. They supported me very much, never let on, but afterward I learned a little bit more about how really hard it was for them. I went to Cincinnati for the novitiate, and they would make that trip up to Cincinnati very faithfully when we could have visitors once a month. It was an eight-hour drive. That was a sacrifice that they made.”

Sister Martha was among 21 who entered the community of the Sisters of Mercy in 1958.

“After I made my vows, I came back to Tennessee and taught school in Nashville for five years,” she said. “Then I was invited to come here to the hospital. I came here in 1968, stayed until 1980, then I was coordinator at St. Bernard Convent in Nashville for four years. I came back here in ’84 and have been here ever since, 46 years here.”

Being at the former St. Mary’s Hospital “has really been the greatest part of my ministry, being able to be alongside other Sisters who have been here over the years, along with some very dedicated employees and wonderful physicians,” Sister Martha said, “just really to share in that caring and outreach to people who are sick and those who have special needs. It’s such a place where through the years we have extended the healing ministry of Jesus to the people in East Tennessee. All through the years, and even in more recent times, we have continued to do God’s work with a great deal of compassion and caring for people.

Setting an example

“I think the example of the sisters has attracted other people who share those same values. Even though we have had fewer sisters in more recent years, the employees and the doctors still exhibit an attitude of service. That’s what really makes it so hard now to see that the hospital is closing, but we’re very, very grateful for the 88 years that the hospital has served the Knoxville and surrounding communities, and we’ve done it with a great deal of compassion and generosity and have had such dedicated and wonderful physicians.”

Sister Martha has seen major changes in religious life since she has been in the Sisters of Mercy.

“In religious life, following Vatican II, there were major changes that Vatican II called religious to go back to our roots and reflect on the spirit of our foundresses,” she said. “We, as Sisters of Mercy, had wonderful leaders who guided us through that whole process. That involved many changes, not to who we were as the core of our religious life in community living and prayer and service, but some of the externals changed as far as the change in our religious habit.”

Sister Martha said she has made many friends among the Sisters of Mercy over the years, “too many to name.” Sister Mary Albertine Paulus, the only other Mercy Sister who now lives at the convent in Knoxville, is among Sister Martha’s best friends.

“Sister Albertine Paulus and I gather every night after our evening meal, and we pray the Office together,” Sister Martha said. “Sister Albertine and I have lived together many years here in Knoxville. Sister Yvette [Gillen] recently moved to Alcoa. We’ve had a wonderful community and still do, even though there’s only two of us here. We have always had sisters who have been very dedicated and enthusiastic about whatever their ministry was.”

Celebrating the milestone

Many Sisters of Mercy gathered in Nashville on Nov. 11, the anniversary of the death of Venerable Catherine McAuley, the foundress of the community.

“We gathered as a Tennessee community of sisters, and we had a prayer in memory of Catherine,” Sister Martha said. “We also had a litany of every Sister of Mercy who has died in Tennessee.”

Sister Martha is the mission representative for the hospital and has served in that role since Sister Elizabeth Riney, RSM, died in 2001.

What does she do in that role?

“Whatever the Lord puts in my path for the day,” she said. “Basically I guess it comes down to visiting patients and supporting patients and their families, also supporting the employees, and of course that’s intensified here recently. Even prior to that, also being able to help employees who were struggling financially, who had some crisis in their family, and we were able to provide financial support from a benevolence fund that came from contributions by employees. Another area would be, I’m kind of the historian around here, the archives and everything that’s related to that.”

“I represent the Sisters of Mercy, all those who have served here over the years, especially the ones patients and employees remember from earlier days. It is a beautiful privilege, and I am very grateful,” she added.

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