East Tennessee’s first Catholic medical center to be shuttered Dec. 28, longtime Sisters of Mercy to relocate
By Dan McWilliams
An 88-year-old tradition will end Dec. 28 when Physicians Regional Medical Center in North Knoxville, formerly long known as St. Mary’s Medical Center, will close its doors.
The hospital’s owners, Tennova Healthcare, announced the move Oct. 26. The hospital was a Catholic facility from its founding by the Sisters of Mercy in 1930 until its sale to Tennova in 2011.
“I think about the generations of East Tennesseans who were born at St. Mary’s Hospital and the many others who were returned to health thanks to the skill, care, and compassion of the many dedicated doctors, nurses, technicians, and staff who served there, including the Sisters of Mercy, who helped establish St. Mary’s Hospital in 1930,” Bishop Richard F. Stika said in a statement.
“Its doors as a health-care facility may be closing, but I know that St. Mary’s will remain a community landmark for its significant and positive role in the history of our region and for its continued legacy,” he added.
Funds received by the Diocese of Knoxville when St. Mary’s was sold to Tennova by Mercy Health Partners in 2011 helped fund the St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation, which to date, has contributed more than $6.8 million to benefit health care, education, and charity through grants distributed by the Diocese of Knoxville. The funds also created its most visible legacy: the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic, a mobile medical mission that continues to bring the healing ministry of Jesus to remote communities and the medically underserved in the East Tennessee region.
Tennova said in a press release that as it “proceeds with its strategic reorganization of services, growing capacity at North Knoxville Medical Center and Turkey Creek Medical Center and enhancing services at its affiliated hospitals in Jefferson City, LaFollette, and Newport, the system has begun work to end operations of Physicians Regional Medical Center and Lakeway Regional Hospital [in Morristown] by the end of this year.
“All services at Physicians Regional Medical Center and Lakeway Regional Hospital will be permanently terminated as of 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 28, 2018, subject to satisfaction of all necessary notices and regulatory requirements.”
“We will work with our medical staff, patients, and local EMS/first responders to ensure a smooth transition of care,” said Tony Benton, chief executive officer for Tennova Healthcare in East Tennessee. “Strengthening our network and pursuing new outpatient strategies is critical to meet the needs and preferences of today’s health-care consumers and support the way our physician partners prefer to practice. Delivering care in facilities designed to support current medical practices will best serve our patients and the community.”
Multiple construction projects this year have grown capacity for services at the Powell and Farragut Tennova hospitals. Construction is continuing with completion projected for next summer.
North Knoxville Medical Center has renovated and reconfigured existing space to add cardiac catheterization laboratories and operating rooms to help accommodate cardiac care and orthopedic, general, vascular, and other inpatient surgeries from Physicians Regional. Capacity for surgery and childbirth services is being added at the facility off Emory Road, with construction targeted to be complete next summer.
Turkey Creek Medical Center has increased the number of general medical/surgical beds, created additional operating rooms, and added intensive-care unit beds to accommodate increased and more complex general and cardiovascular surgical cases. Open-heart surgery and neurosurgery services have been consolidated at Turkey Creek. A new cardiovascular intensive care unit is targeted to be complete in spring 2019.
Enhancements are also being made at the Tennova hospitals in Jefferson City, LaFollette, and Newport to strengthen medical services and provide higher acuity care, including recruitment of more providers to practice in the communities.
Many employees and physicians have already transitioned to North Knoxville Medical Center and Turkey Creek Medical Center as the services they provide moved from Physicians Regional, the Tennova release stated. Job fairs are being held to help remaining employees identify positions at the North Knoxville and Turkey Creek medical centers, other Tennova hospitals, or regional providers where their skills may be a good fit.
“Every individual employee and physician at the hospitals is valued for their unique role in caring for patients,” Mr. Benton said. “It is through their commitment that thousands of patients have received compassionate, quality care over the years.”
Winding down Physicians Regional Medical Center and Lakeway Regional Hospital will focus Tennova’s resources on enhancement of North Knoxville Medical Center and Turkey Creek Medical Center and development of new centers for services. Tennova is continuing in its work with local physician partners to pursue opportunities to develop new outpatient care sites, including property on Middlebrook Pike Tennova has acquired. The health system will announce those developments in the future as plans are finalized.
The closing of the old St. Mary’s Hospital will impact many lives, not the least of which will be those of the two Sisters of Mercy who still serve there. Sister Mary Martha Naber, RSM, is the mission representative for the hospital, and along with Sister Mary Albertine Paulus, RSM, visits patients and their families staying at the hospital. Sister Yvette Gillen, RSM, also recently lived in the Sisters of Mercy convent adjacent to the hospital until recently, when she relocated to Maryville to be near Our Lady of Fatima Parish, where she serves as pastoral associate and director of faith formation. They continue the healing ministry the Sisters of Mercy began when St. Mary’s Hospital opened in 1930.
Sister Martha said the closing of the old St. Mary’s will certainly impact the North Knoxville community.
“Unfortunately, there have been many, many people, especially families, who have always come to St. Mary’s and always have continued to call it St. Mary’s, even though we’ve had several name changes,” she said. “That’s a major loss for many families. It’s also a loss for the community in North Knoxville and maybe East [Knoxville]. Many of the homeless and people who were lacking finances frequently come here, and we’ve always cared for them through the years.”
Sister Albertine agreed, saying that the closing will leave “a huge, huge hole, because this is the place where people in this area, so many of whom are in need, this is the place they could come. People have come for so many things. There’s always been a clothes closet and a food pantry, these extra things, and a fund to help employees. Those are the extra things, besides it being an excellent hospital.
“It’s just in the DNA of people in this part of the city, especially families who have been here a long time. I keep meeting people — I met one just this afternoon at the doctor’s office, [who said] ‘It’s not right. What are we going to do? We have to have you around here. We have to have the sisters.’”
The legacy of St. Mary’s Hospital “lives on in the hearts and the experiences of people who have been part of St. Mary’s, from the people who have been served here as patients — many generations of families have been served through St. Mary’s,” Sister Martha said. “And also, of course, I don’t know how many employees who have been here providing wonderful services, the nurses and support services, and certainly magnificent doctors. The legacy lives on in the hearts and the memories of all the people who have ever walked through these halls and have been part of St. Mary’s.”
Those include founding administrator Sister Annunciata Dannaher, RSM, and Dr. Herbert Acuff, Sister Martha said.
“From the very beginning, Dr. Herbert Acuff was the first medical director. He and Sister Annunciata were a wonderful team who worked together, really on the cutting edge of many services. He was recognized even internationally,” she said.
Sister Albertine, also the director of pilgrimages for the Diocese of Knoxville, said the legacy of St. Mary’s is in the sisters who have served there.
“Having known so many sisters who were here, worked here, lived here, ministered here, having lived here myself for close to 30 years, I think the biggest legacy has been in the lives and example of the sisters and the way they showed care and concern for everybody — for patients, for families,” she said. “I’m reminded of Sister Assisium, who said, ‘Every baby is beautiful. There is no not-beautiful baby.’ She would not ever let a baby go uncared for.
“I’m reminded of strong, strong women, like Sister Annunciata Dannaher — marvelous, marvelous woman. God’s gift, because they say that she would walk along the hall and she’d see the dust mite over there that somebody missed. She was also considered the best ‘businessman’ in town.”
Sister Martha said the Sisters of Mercy over the years have provided “wonderful service.”
“I think there have been over 100 sisters who have served here. I feel very privileged, it’s a great honor, very humbled, to be here, along with Sister Albertine, as we kind of close the book on this ministry.”
The original sisters at St. Mary “set the bar very high” from the start, Sister Martha said.
“It was in the middle of the Depression that the hospital opened. The sisters and the staff had a lot of support of the community and the doctors. The doctors were the ones who went to the bishop in Nashville and wanted a sisters’ hospital in Knoxville because of the reputation of Catholic hospitals in other areas.”
The doctors went to the bishop, and he approached the Sisters of Mercy, as far back as 1919. North Knoxville resident Daniel Dewine got the ball rolling on the hospital project in 1926 when he donated his Oak Hill property to the Diocese of Nashville, which then covered the whole state. Mr. Dewine died in 1927, but surviving daughter Lillian Dewine Harris contacted Bishop Alphonse J. Smith insisting that the hospital be established in memory of her late sister, Mary Joseph “Mamie” Dewine. The bishop agreed, calling the new entity St. Mary’s Memorial Hospital.
The Sisters of Mercy enlisted the help of Mrs. Guy (Blanche) Darst, and fundraising efforts were begun. Five sisters were withdrawn from school and sent away for professional preparation: Sister Mary Annunciata Dannaher for business and administration; Sister Mary Magdalen Clarke for X-ray; and Sisters Mary Celeste O’Rourke, Rose O’Keefe, and Bernard Fleming for nursing.
Groundbreaking was held Feb. 24, 1929, and the dedication Mass was held April 22, 1930, at the entrance doorway by Father J. Wilson Cunningham, first chaplain of the new hospital. The new hospital had 75 beds, and a crowd of 40,000 attended the dedication and open house.
At 10:30 p.m. on the evening of its dedication, St. Mary’s received its first patient, 6-year-old Lillian Howell. The next morning, Dr. R.L. McReynolds removed her tonsils. By the end of 1930, St. Mary’s had admitted 1,484 patients, performed 931 operations, and delivered 160 babies.
St. Mary’s School of Nursing, under the direction of Sister Mary Celeste, graduated its first class of 12 in 1933. In 1937, Knoxville’s first tumor cancer clinic was opened at St. Mary’s to serve East Tennessee and the surrounding area. The East Wing was built in 1939, bringing the total number of beds to 125. In 1946, the city block facing the hospital was purchased for the School of Nursing.
In 1952, an outpatient department opened for the needy, sick, and poor. The hospital celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1955. In 1957, Mercy Hall (later named Celeste Hall) School of Nursing and residence opened on Emerald Avenue, accommodating 150 students. Open-heart surgery was performed for the first time at St. Mary’s the same year. In 1958, the Marian Wing opened, adding 80 beds.
Sister Annunciata died in 1963, the same year Knoxville’s first intensive-care unit opened at St. Mary’s. In 1968, East Tennessee’s first cardiac care unit opened at St. Mary’s. Sister Marie Moore, RSM, was named administrator in 1971.
In 1972, Magdalen Clarke Tower opened, only a few days after the death of its namesake, Sister Mary Magdalen. In 1976, St. Mary’s Memorial Hospital changed its name to St. Mary’s Medical Center to reflect its widening range of services.
In 1980, St. Mary’s marked 50 years with more expansion, including a new Central Wing, professional office building, and parking garage. L. Lynn Nipper was appointed president in 1983, the first layperson to hold the position. St. Mary’s Health System was formed in 1984. The School of Nursing closed in 1988, graduating its final class of 20. St. Mary’s celebrated 60 years in 1990 with a series of special events.
In 1994, St. Mary’s became one of the first hospitals in the state to be directly connected to the Internet. In 1999, St. Mary’s Residential Hospice opened in Halls, as did the St. Mary’s Ambulatory Surgery Center at the main campus, and the St. Mary’s Health & Fitness Center in Powell, which is across Dannaher Drive from Tennova’s North Knoxville Medical Center.
In 2000, LaFollette Medical Center joined St. Mary’s Health System, and St. Mary’s Villa at Halls, a HUD housing complex, opened. In 2004, St. Mary’s North (now North Knoxville Medical Center) opened in Powell.
The original hospital held a 75th anniversary birthday party, Mass, and gala in 2005, among many other events. Knoxville Bishop Joseph E. Kurtz was greatly involved in the proceedings.
St. Mary’s Health System and Baptist Health System merged in 2007. In January 2008, St. Mary’s Health System President and CEO Debra London announced that a new umbrella organization, Mercy Health Partners, would govern the merged systems. Tennova then acquired the merged operation in 2011.
Becky Dodson, vice president of Tennova Healthcare who has been with the hospital for more than three decades, shares the Sisters of Mercy’s sentiments.
“It has been an honor to support the healing ministry at St. Mary’s hospital over my 33-plus-year career. I have worked with so many wonderful physicians, leaders, and dedicated employees over the years and we have all had the privilege of walking with patients and families during very spiritual moments — from the first breath to the last breath of life,” Mrs. Dodson said.
“I am particularly grateful to the Sisters of Mercy who have provided both strong leadership and compassionate ministry. They are a beloved gift to not only the Catholic community but to all of East Tennessee.
“Though the season of St. Mary’s is coming to a close, the many fond memories and commitment to meeting the health-care needs in our community will continue on,” she noted.
What does the future hold for Sister Martha and Sister Albertine?
“As soon as our work is done here, we will stay through finishing up and making sure that all the religious and the sacred [artifacts are properly disposed of], and whatever we can do to support individuals during this time,” Sister Martha said. “We anticipate probably sometime in February moving to Nashville to Mercy Convent.”
Meanwhile, in her last days at the hospital, Sister Martha takes strength from a framed statement on her office wall.
“The Tennova mission statement says that we’re grounded by our faith in God, and we take that very seriously,” she said.