Before St. Mary’s closes for good, staffers say goodbye to the community that founded the medical center
By Dan McWilliams
The St. Mary’s Hospital community bid a formal farewell to the Sisters of Mercy at an appreciation reception for them Dec. 16, only 12 days before the 88-year-old North Knoxville medical center closed its doors for good.
Special guests included Sister Martha Naber and Sister Albertine Paulus, the last two sisters living in Mercy Convent at the hospital, known in recent years as Physicians Regional Medical Center, founded by the sisters’ community in 1930.
Also present for the reception were East Tennessee residents Sister Yvette Gillen of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Alcoa and Sister Pat Soete of St. Jude Parish in Helenwood. Coming in from Nashville, where they have retired, were Sister Margaret Turk, Sister Janice Brink, and Sister Thomasetta Mogan, all of whom served at St. Mary’s. They were joined by doctors, nurses, hospital employees, and priests. Some 200 people attended in all.
The reception offered an opportunity to view photos of current and former Sisters of Mercy, see a hospital 60th- and 75th-anniversary historical display, and enjoy a sisters’ oral and written history project.
When Sister Martha and Sister Albertine retire to Mercy Convent in Nashville in February, it will mark an end to the Sisters of Mercy’s service in Knoxville after 123 years. The sisters first came to the city to serve at St. Mary School at Immaculate Conception Church downtown.
“It is the end of the era,” Sister Albertine said. “It’s the Sisters of Mercy leaving Knoxville, which is this hospital right now. There was a time when we were the only act in town. We had the schools that were Catholic we taught in. The Catechism up and down the highways, we taught on Sundays, we went to Upper East Tennessee—that was all us. This period is over now, just like so many eras of history. This one is over.
“We came here in 1896 to staff St. Mary’s School up on the hill, and we’ve been here ever since. The sisters came right in the middle of the Depression and built a hospital, which is magnificent. There are those who say it was one of the finest evangelizing moves in the history of East Tennessee.”
Sister Albertine added that “I’m so grateful that we’re here, and I’m so grateful that, just as the sisters were here in the beginning, we’re here to close it up. I’m very, very grateful, and so is Sister Martha. We’ve tried real hard to keep the standard high, to give the example, to be as caring as we ever were, because the people who are in this hospital today need our caring help just as much as the first ones did, and that’s what’s important to us.”
Sister Martha found joy in the sad farewell reception.
“It reminds me of [Sisters of Mercy foundress] Catherine McAuley’s saying that our life is joys and sorrows combined,” she said. “That’s what I’m experiencing today: a lot of joy in the experiences that so many of our employees and physicians and volunteers and community people have had as a part of St. Mary’s. That brings me great joy, to know how God has been such a part of this hospital for over 88 years.”
Many people at the reception greeted Sister Martha, who has served at St. Mary’s for more than four decades, and the other sisters.
“It’s almost like ‘This Is Your Life,’” Sister Martha said. “Over 46 years of relationships with people—it’s just almost overwhelming, a great blessing.”
Sister Margaret said that the “history” of the sisters who have “gone before speaks for itself, and the impact on the community has been a marvelous thing. That’s what I’d like to say. It’s just good that we had a vision and managed.”
She began at St. Mary’s with the community services department in 2002 and then transitioned to hospital visitation before retiring in 2016.
“Loved it, every minute,” Sister Margaret said.
Sister Janice Brink, the founding principal of St. John Neumann School in Farragut, came to St. Mary’s in 2003 and served until 2013, bringing comfort to patients and taking care of the chapel.
“It’s difficult to see it go,” she said of the hospital. “I just really feel sorry for Sister Martha and Sister Albertine, who are still living here. They’re trying to get ready to move in with us at Mercy Convent in Nashville. It’s a wonderful place to live. We have people coming for spiritual direction. It’s really good.”
She said she misses her service at the hospital “very much.”
Sister Thomasetta served from 1998 to 2006 at St. Mary’s, starting in the community outreach program to the elderly and then visiting patients throughout the hospital.
“It’s a sad day that they’re closing the hospital,” she said. “We’re in an area where there’s no one to replace the care that the sisters and the staff have given. There’s no other place that would help the poor. That’s one of our charisms, helping the poor and taking care of them.”
Sister Thomasetta’s blood sister, Sister Maris Stella Mogan, famous for her St. Mary’s TV commercials with Peyton Manning, was unable to attend the reception.
Monsignor Bill Gahagan was the St. Mary’s Hospital chaplain for three stints, including much of the 1970s. Ordained in 1970 and coming to St. Mary’s soon after, he talked about the service of the Sisters of Mercy.
“First of all, ‘blessing’ is a word that comes to me, starting out in my priesthood 50 years ago actually, this coming year, having been brought into the health-care ministry, but especially with the Sisters of Mercy themselves, the care and the love and the devotion that seemed to spread throughout the hospital, through all the employees and the staff,” he said.
“You have your ups and downs as with any organization of course, but truly there was a Holy Spirit presence here with the care of the sick. Insofar as the Catholic community, this was the Catholic Church for me at that time, still is or was, that gave identity of what we are all about, not just Catholics but all Christians, all denominations. That was the beauty of it.”
Monsignor Gahagan recalled a priest and two sisters from his early days at the hospital.
“Father Leo Baldinger was here at that time, a very good friend. He was a terrific man also,” he said. “Sister Mary George I think is probably the first one I remember. [Former hospital administrator] Sister Marie Moore stood out in my lifetime of being here. They all had such charismatic gifts to give to health care, different in style but all loving and caring for the people.”
Kevin Davis was at St. Mary’s in administration for seven years.
The sisters meant “not so much for me, but for the hospital, for the patients, for the community where St. Mary’s existed, they brought a presence and a commitment to caring for the community of Knoxville. I think a lot of people enjoyed working here due to the presence of the sisters. I think during my tenure here at St. Mary’s it was a magical place. [The hospital] did a lot of incredible things for patient care, and a lot of that was driven because of the presence of the sisters.”
Tony Benton, CEO of Tennova, the parent company of Physicians Regional Medical Center, was the first speaker at the reception.
“For almost 90 years, the Sisters of Mercy have provided compassionate health-care services for this community,” he said. “I’m so glad to see such a large crowd here today to celebrate their significant contributions.”
Chaplain Mike Mikels led the opening prayer and read a quote from Nashville Bishop Alphonse J. Smith, who served when St. Mary’s was founded.
“When St. Mary’s had its dedication ceremony on April 22, 1930, Bishop Smith said, ‘All the successful programs of science, medicine, and surgery contribute to the successful building and conducting of a modern hospital such as this. But there is something more: this thing I would call the soul of the hospital. It is genuine understanding and sympathy for those in suffering, to help those in distress. The Sisters of Mercy, who have assumed the burden of conducting the hospital, have but one purpose in view: that is to serve the sick in this community. Love and genuine care are a necessity to be blended with modern technology,’” Chaplain Mikels said.
Mr. Benton took the microphone again.
“Physicians Regional Medical Center, as I’m reminded every day, s St. Mary’s and has served the community for decades,” he said. “And we celebrate today all the healing that has occurred. As I walk the halls here, and as depicted in the photographs, I’m reminded so much of the history. The history of St. Mary’s depicts the evolution of modern medicine, as it is today. It’s evident, that transition, as you see those pictures of how health care used to be delivered.
“The decision to cease operations here was a difficult one, but we know that health care is much more than its building. It is the people. It is the physicians, the nurses, the housekeepers, the pharmacists—it’s the whole team of people who deliver care. I’m excited for the future of Tennova, as our team will continue their special work in our other locations. One very special group of our team has been the Sisters of Mercy.”
Mr. Benton introduced all the sisters present, including Sister Yvette, who served at the hospital from 1976 to 1985 in pastoral care, and Sister Pat, who served from 1977 to 1993 as a chaplain.
Sister Maris Stella served from 1988 to 2006.
“We certainly have a special place here for her,” Mr. Benton said.
Sister Albertine served on the hospital board from 1977 to 2004.
“She’s a magnificent organ player in the chapel,” Mr. Benton said.
Sister Martha served for 46 years in a variety of roles, including the accounting department, the Sister Lawrence Mary community outreach program, and her most recent role of patient, staff, and leadership support.
“We’re really going to miss Sister Martha and Sister Albertine when they retire to Nashville this spring and join the community at the Mercy Convent,” Mr. Benton said. “It’s been an honor for me to serve beside the sisters for the past year and a half. I’m grateful for their support of me and their dedication to our employees, physicians, and patients. I’m looking forward to taking this strong legacy of compassionate care to the future of our North Knoxville Medical Center and our Turkey Creek Medical Center.”
Mr. Benton acknowledged the presence of state Sen. Richard Briggs, a former cardio-thoracic surgeon at St. Mary’s.
Dr. Doug Leahy, immediate past chair of the Tennova board, followed Mr. Benton.
“I was born here in 1948,” he said. “My mother had the first air-conditioned room in this facility. I had renal failure and was saved by this hospital. I started working in the kitchen for 63 cents an hour back in the early years of 1964. I have to mention the motive I had: if things went bad in medicine, perhaps I could get my job back in the kitchen.”
He said that “it’s very important to realize what the Sisters of Mercy have meant. . . . What you have is a long line of people who really cared about the sick and the suffering and the ability to take care of those folks. . . . [Hospitals like St. Mary’s] are built on a foundation of the good Lord and Jesus’ mercy, and we need to remember that is the important essence of this hospital.”
Dr. Leahy said, “St. Mary’s had the first cancer clinic. They had the first ICU. They had the first open-heart surgery.
“It’s important to remember how important [hospital foundress] Sister Annunciata was. She was the cornerstone, along with the Dewine family. Basically she was the brains behind it.”
Dr. Leahy continued: “At one point, Sister Annunciata went into a room to see a patient, and so they later went back to inquire, ‘How did your stay go at the hospital?’ and she said, ‘I was visited by St. Mary.’”
Dr. Leahy spoke of Tennova’s “move into this new role of a different hospital system” and how “we need to look back on it as a sunset
. . . . As long as that sunset lives within your heart, and you keep preserving it and you don’t neglect it, it’s always part of you.
“We need to preserve what was the essence of this hospital, so that in the future going forward we remember how important it is and be sure we preserve the sisters’ essence of what they meant, and if we do that, we will honor their memory and most importantly will preserve what they did for us.”
Dr. John Burkhart represented the medical staff at the reception.
“As a young boy, 10 years old, my father, who grew up a half a mile from here, watched the construction of the original wing of this hospital,” he said. “In 1950, he admitted his first patient at St. Mary’s and was later joined on the medical staff by all three of his sons and his daughter-in-law. I have literally been here all my life.”
Ninety years ago, Dr. Burkhart said, the Religious Sisters of Mercy accepted a call to establish a new hospital in North Knoxville.
After much prayer and planning, they opened St. Mary’s on April 22, 1930. This was a massive leap of faith in the middle of the Great Depression, but they succeeded,” he said. “Over the next eight decades, the physical facilities, the staff, and the services rendered expanded many times, but the mission never changed. The sisters intended to deliver care with caring, and they did it.
“If these walls could talk, just think what they have witnessed. How many thousands of patients have been treated here? How many births? How many deaths? How many lives have been made better? How much suffering relieved? How much comfort given? How many thousands have given direct patient care, and how many more have worked behind the scenes to make that care possible?”
There have been “many changes over the years,” Dr. Burkhart said. “But the presence and the leadership and the care and the service of the sisters has been constant and continuous. It has been a remarkable, wonderful, rewarding 88 years. So as this chapter closes and another begins, all of us here today say thank you, sisters. God bless and Godspeed.”
Sister Albertine was the next speaker at the reception.
“I think my role is to be here for all of the sisters who have ever been here, for all the ones who came early, for Sister Pauline and Sister Mary Thomas, who helped form the original plans with great help from many, many Knoxvillians,” she said. “And for the [original hospital] sisters who went away to be trained, for Sister Annunciata, ‘the best businessman in Knoxville,’ I understand. . . . She was up to anything, everything from a scrap of paper on the floor to the greatest need of the senior medical person.
“Then there was Sister Assisium, for whom there was never a baby who was not beautiful, who would do anything, anything, for a baby and its mother. Her presence in maternity was here for 50 years-plus
. . . . She’s just grinning from ear to ear today. By the way, they’re all here. The next world is right here with this one—we just can’t see it. So behave.”
Sister Albertine remembered former St. Mary’s mission representative Sister Elizabeth Riney, “in most of our memories very much a beautiful part of all that this hospital has meant for so many years. What a great loss her sudden death was.”
Longtime administrator Sister Marie was recalled.
“She worked in the School of Nursing,” Sister Albertine said. “Her whole life, much of it, was spent here, and her last years of service were here. She didn’t want to give up. . . . She made massive strides in this hospital when she was administrator: buildings, programs, all sorts of things.”
And those are “just a few of the most well-known of the sisters,” Sister Albertine said.
“You can’t say that one was more important than another. . . . With all of them and with the sisters who are here, my task is to say thank you to the vast group of people who came, who wanted this hospital, the doctors who asked for a hospital with sisters, and who went to the bishop in Nashville and said, can you get us a hospital,” she said. “And the bishop went to our community, the Sisters of Mercy, and said, would you take this on, and the sisters said yes, and we did.
“And the thing is, we couldn’t have done it by ourselves. Look at all of you who are here. How many of you in this room have been part of this grand enterprise in the last 88 years? You’ve been in all kinds of roles, and every role mattered, all the way through, from the chief surgeon to the chief administrator, the chief money man, to the chief housekeeper, to the lowest, least person in his or her own opinion, who was just hired. Every person mattered, and everybody’s job was important, and everybody was held to the same standard.”
Sister Albertine’s voice showed her emotion as she continued.
“In the name of all of the sisters who have gone before, thank you to you and all those who went before you, who made this all possible, because without you we couldn’t have done it,” she said. “At our next gathering, which I think will be in the next world, just think: won’t that be a bash? We’ll have all the people who aren’t here anymore and all the people who are here now in the world but couldn’t make it, and all those who will follow on in the same tradition, the same ideals, the same everything. And we’ll all get together and we’ll tell stories, and there’ll be no end to it.”
The biggest thing she wanted to say was “thank you,” Sister Albertine said.
“The fact that everybody was important: every patient, every baby, every nurse, every housekeeper, every doctor, every everybody. And in the sisters’ minds, nobody was better than anybody else. They had different jobs, yes, but nobody was more important. And I think that does continue to this day. We’re so grateful that all these days, each day, each one of you and your predecessors helped us to continue that wonderful healing ministry of Jesus.”
Sister Martha offered a prayer of thanksgiving at the reception.
“As I look around the room and think, what an amazing family gathering this is: thank you so much for coming, to honor us and to honor what we have shared together,” she said. “In 1930, at the dedication of St. Mary’s, Bishop Alphonse Smith prayed, ‘May the blessing of God descend upon St. Mary’s Hospital. With a real heart in its work, with a genuine love for others, with a real sympathy for those in distress, and a desire to help those in suffering, may St. Mary’s and all connected with it start out today to do whatever good it can.’”
On the day of the reception, “here today, God says to each and every one of us: well done, good and faithful servant,” Sister Martha said. “You and thousands of others have worked alongside the sisters doing good, doing God’s work, with a heart of compassion, with dedicated service, and a genuine love for all.”
Becky Dodson, vice president of mission for Tennova, spoke on behalf of the employees and volunteers. She asked among the large group who had served St. Mary’s for five years, 10 years, and so on at five-year intervals until she reached 45 years, upon which one person raised her hand.
“I think that one of the things that makes this so special is that people stay here: they’re dedicated to the mission,” Mrs. Dodson said. “It’s an honor to work beside these [sisters], and we promise we’re going to continue to honor you as we carry that spirit forward. A quick comment about this building as we leave it: as I tell people, the old girl is showing her age like I am these days. And it is time, and there is sadness about it. . . .
“There are people in this room who have left this building and some of us who will be leaving it in a few days, and there is sadness in that. But this place raised us. It’s where we learned how to be nurses or social workers or whatever our role was. It’s where we learned how to care for people. It raised us, it formed us, it’s where we had great celebrations, like our pre-Christmas meal or picnics in the courtyard or slumber parties when there was snow and we couldn’t go home and had to take care of our patients—all kinds of special celebrations here.
“When we go to our new homes, or if we have already, I know I hear people say, I’ve moved on, but there’s just no place like St. Mary’s, and we’ll always remember it with fondness. . . . We’re going to close, and we’re going to leave this old home in a few days, but we’re always going to take her with us, and she’s going to be our childhood home.”