The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas have served in East Tennessee since coming to Knoxville in 1896
By Dan McWilliams
The retirement of the last two Sisters of Mercy of the Americas in the Diocese of Knoxville ends a tradition of more than 120 years of the community’s service in East Tennessee.
Sister Patricia “Pat” Soete, RSM, the pastoral associate at St. Jude Parish in Helenwood since September 1994, retired to Mercy Convent in Nashville in late November. In spring of this year, Sister Yvette Gillen, RSM, pastoral associate at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Alcoa, retired to Nashville.
Several Sisters of Mercy have retired in recent years, ending a long run of service that began in 1896 when the first Sisters of Mercy came to East Tennessee to teach at St. Mary School, next door to Immaculate Conception Church in downtown Knoxville. The Sisters of Mercy founded St. Mary’s Hospital in Knoxville in 1930 and served there during its more than eight and a half decades of operation.
Sister Pat has helped serve Appalachia’s poorest of the poor in the Helenwood area of Scott County. As she was preparing for retirement, she was gearing up for the annual Christmastime toy and clothing drive that St. John Neumann Parish in Farragut sponsors for St. Jude Parish.
“The parishioners there give us numerous toys and clothing, brand new. I can’t sing their praises enough,” Sister Pat said. “We’ve been so blessed to have them give us these things. The room is filled with these gifts. Just to see the faces of these people just does something to you. We’ve been doing that for 26 years now. St. John Neumann has been God’s gift to us in a very real way.”
St. Jude is one of the diocese’s smallest parishes, but its parishioners have big hearts when it comes to serving those less fortunate.
“We get a lot of calls here for helping people with their rent and utilities, with clothing and other odds and ends, people who are in dire need,” Sister Pat said. “We’ve been fortunate here at St. Jude’s. There have been a lot of people who have given over the years to help the poor.”
As well as her holding the St. John Neumann drive, Sister Pat sets up a gift-giving tree for those with extra needs.
“We take a small tree and put it in our vestibule here,” she said. “The people who call and ask for special help, I make a paper ornament with the mother’s name. I give them pants, coats, shoes, socks, underwear, and a toy. The people in the parish take the tag off the tree, and then they fulfill whatever is on the tag.”
The need never ends.
“We had a lady just today call me,” Sister Pat said. “She has two children who are like 12 or 14, and the third one is an adult child who is 34 years old and is special-needs. We have to get things for her that will kind of fit the phase she’s in. We had a lady who found her daughter dead in bed. They’ve really been struggling. That’s a very heavy burden to carry.”
Sister Pat said that “God is good—I’ve been able to do what I’m doing. Right now it’s going to be very hard to leave St. Jude’s. It’s the people in the parish and also the people in the community who have touched me. Their being present in my life has been God’s gift to me. When these people touch my life, I keep them in my prayers. I lift these people up who have touched my life. That’s a gift that we get throughout our life. When you get feedback on that, it gives you the strength and the courage to do whatever God is asking you to do. It’s not about the words. It’s about learning the presence, to meet the Lord in one another, how to be present to one another.”
Next year will be a special one for Sister Pat, whose first profession was in 1954.
“In 2021, I’ll be 70 years in the convent,” she said. “I entered in 1951.”
Sister Pat, a native of Cincinnati, was a teacher early on in her vocation.
“In those first years, I taught second, third, fourth, and sixth grades for 12 years,” she said. “Then after that I think I got burned out, so I asked to go into nursing, so I took classes for a practical nurse. I served in Springfield, Ohio, when I got the degree. That was another nine years. After that I had to leave nursing because I had an injury to my back. I had two back surgeries. That was in 1977.”
Then she came to Knoxville and St. Mary’s Hospital to serve as a chaplain.
“Sister Marie Moore—we entered together in the same class. She was at the time the president of St. Mary’s Hospital. When she found out I was changing my direction, she asked me if I could come to St. Mary’s,” Sister Pat said. “I was at St. Mary’s for 15 years. Each one of those ministries prepares you for the next one. I live in the now, and so the now is very important to me and what I do with it.” Sister Pat reflected on being the last Sister of Mercy to retire.
“It’s awesome. It just dawned on me one day that I’m the last one,” she said. “The last two sisters are both from Ohio [Sister Yvette is a native of Findlay, Ohio]. I’ve been here over half my life. I’m part Tennessean. It’s part of God’s plan. It’s just trying to fulfill whatever the Lord is asking me to do. It’s taking it day by day.”
In Nashville, Sister Pat will find friends who also served at St. Mary’s Hospital.
“There’ll be a few of those sisters there who were at the hospital, so that will be a blessing,” she said.
“It was such a precious time because it was working with people who were ill, who were dying of cancer. I worked in the cancer unit. When you work with people who are dying, it’s a special gift—the Lord is calling them home, and He is calling me to be with them. It’s touching. It just grabs me by my heart. It’s very sad, but it’s a rich gift to be with people who are hurting, people who are in need, people who are suffering.
“We’re just responding to the Lord’s call. The Lord calls us from different places to be with people who are in need. We meet the Lord in the people we are with. I believe the Lord invites us into His life, not just the glories. He invites us to be part of that suffering. It’s something that you carry with you all of your life.”
When she first entered the Sisters of Mercy, Sister Pat said “it was difficult because it was the first time I was away from my family. I was 18 years old. You lived by the rule [in the convent]; you did certain things a certain way. As I grow older, I can look back and learn things from those days. I tried my best to answer the Lord’s call in being a sister, a nun. He asked me to be one with Him and to be His presence among God’s people. I can look back over the years at things that have enriched my life or have challenged me through difficult times. I call myself a survivor who is most grateful to the Lord for the gift of His calling me.”
Two aunts helped lead Sister Pat into religious life.
“I had two aunts who were Sisters of Mercy. Both of them have since died. I was born Catholic, so I went to a Catholic school, and there were a lot of sisters there,” she said. “There was something about being around them, that I guess the Lord goes to work on you. The attraction of doing what they were doing, I wanted to be like them.”
Her aunts “didn’t pull me in,” Sister Pat said. “They let me be who I was. You’ve got to see if this was what the Lord is asking you to do.”
The retiring sister said she has “no idea” what her duties in Nashville will be.
“I know it’s going to be a challenge there. I’ve been living by myself for 27 years. I’m an introvert,” she said. “It takes a while for me to adjust. I have to keep on praying and ask the Lord to help me meet this challenge. At the same time I am grateful that the Lord is taking care of me.”
Sister Pat is still going strong as an octogenarian.
“I’m 87. I’m proud of it. It took me a long time to get here,” she said.
Sister Yvette is well-known in the Our Lady of Fatima community after seven years there, but she became a fixture in Clinton after serving at St. Therese Parish from 1974 to 2013.
Retirement this spring “wasn’t bad,” she said, “because I got a lot of support from the [retired] sisters even after they left, and also I had a lot of friends back in East Tennessee who were supportive. For several years [the sisters in Nashville] were trying to get me to retire, but I wasn’t ready.”
One of the sisters on the leadership team told her when she was at the end of her service in Clinton:
“You’re not ready to retire. You’ve got too much energy.”
After her Clinton assignment ended, Sister Yvette went on sabbatical, volunteered at St. Mary’s Hospital, then was hired by Father Bill McKenzie at Our Lady of Fatima. After two years of volunteering, she went full time at OLOF in 2015.
In Clinton, she served as a volunteer from 1974 to 1985, then went fulltime as the pastoral associate from 1985 to 2013.
Clinton was a special time in her life.
“Yes, it was,” she said, “working with different ministries I enjoyed very much. The first several years I worked with Father Bill Gahagan and the youth. The last several years it was pastoral work with families and RCIA from 1985 on. During that time I worked with many different priests. Father Gahagan—he’s the one that started me there. Really, they were all different.”
Being one of the last two Sisters of Mercy to serve in East Tennessee “was very good because I felt like it didn’t matter how many of us were there, I was glad we were there to represent the Sisters of Mercy because the Sisters of Mercy had been in Knoxville for many, many years,” she said.
Sister Yvette taught at St. Mary School at Immaculate Conception in Knoxville for three years. Sister Mary Jude Toben and Sister Yvette were the last two sisters to teach at the school, which closed in 1970 after more than a century of operation.
For two of those three years, Sister Yvette lived at St. Mary’s Hospital, but she recalled living at St. Mary School.
“Oh, I loved it,” she said. “Even though it was in the inner city, I could open my bedroom window and touch the apartment next door. I really enjoyed it. It was my first assignment in Tennessee. That’s when I was teaching.”
After her time at St. Mary School, Sister Yvette said she “went to Memphis for a total of five years. I taught in Donelson for one year.”
Sister Yvette entered the convent in 1961. The most satisfying aspect of serving as a sister is “the people,” she said.
“When I worked in the hospital, I worked on the oncology floor, to help people who were dying and their families. It could be draining at times because you got close to them, but it was rewarding work,” she said. “My work as coordinator of RCIA was my second most satisfying work, preparing people to become Catholic [in Clinton and Alcoa].”
Being back with her fellow sisters in Nashville “is different,” she said.
“The pace is not as busy as it was before, but I have a lot of time to catch up on a lot of things, a lot of people I was in novitiate with or taught school with. I’ve enjoyed it better than I thought I would. I’m busy all the time. We’ve got prayers, recreation. I work up at the front desk answering phones.
“The grounds here are absolutely beautiful. I do a lot of walking. I walk every day. The trees are beautiful, and the birds—I’m a birdwatcher.”
Sister Yvette was influenced by religious life quite early on.
“At a very young age I was taught by sisters,” she said. “As I got a little older, I was at my sister’s recital—I sat on the lap of this Irish Sister of Charity, and I told her ‘I’m going be like you when I grow up.’ In sixth grade, I started praying to God if I had a vocation, but I wasn’t sure because I enjoyed dancing, going to CYO dances and things like that. And I liked the boys.
“I started working at the priest’s house [in Findlay] with the priest’s sister, who was the housekeeper. She said, ‘What about the Sisters of Mercy?’”
The sisters had an aspirants school in Fremont, Ohio, where Sister Yvette went for two years.
“I knew at that time I was thinking of becoming a sister. They closed the school, but I ended up going to another Catholic high school. After that I entered the Sisters of Mercy in Cincinnati, Ohio. That’s when I entered the novitiate, and I made my first vows in 1964. In 1969, I made final vows.”
In 1998, while serving in Clinton, Sister Yvette was featured in an article in the Sisters of Mercy’s newsletter, “Ink-Links.” In the article she referred to leaving teaching behind.
“I’m grateful for the teaching experience,” she said then. “I know that everything I’ve ever done was a steppingstone to the present.”
At St. Therese, the article stated, Sister Yvette visited homes, hospitals, and nursing homes; gave sacramental instructions; coordinated and participated in the RCIA program; attended meetings; and performed a “heap of administrative tasks.” She also served so long in Clinton that she ministered to two generations. “I prepared one little girl for the sacraments, was present for her wedding and at the baptism of her children,” she stated in the article.
Sister Yvette became known for a particular skill over the years.
“When I was working at the hospital, I started roller skating for the Kidney Foundation and the Columbus Home for a fundraiser,” she said. “It was fun. It was a little scary at first because I hadn’t been on roller skates in 21 years. In about five years I made $45,000, and I was known as the ‘Skating Nun.’”
Sister Yvette left Ohio behind when she came to the Volunteer State.
“When I came to Tennessee, I fell in love with Tennessee, and I never went back to do any ministry in Ohio,” she said. “And that was in1967. I’ve been in Tennessee since then. And most of those years I ministered in East Tennessee. I fell in love with the people I ministered to, the sisters, and the mountains of East Tennessee.”