Church of Divine Mercy, Helenwood are newest sites for diocesan health-care ministry
By Bill Brewer
Tan Nguyen of Ho Chi Minh City and Brenda Jones of Cleveland have at least one thing in common despite being a world apart culturally. They both want to be a part of the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic.
Their dedication to health care and serving those who lack access to quality medical treatment brought them together Aug. 1 as they took part in the Legacy Clinic’s newest site at the Church of Divine Mercy in West Knoxville.
Mr. Nguyen, who emigrated with his family from Vietnam to the United States three years ago, was a physician in his native country and is volunteering to assist the mobile medical clinic as it serves Divine Mercy’s Vietnamese community, many of whom are uninsured or underinsured, lack access to health care, and speak limited or no English.
Ms. Jones, who has a Ph.D. in nursing, is an assistant professor of nursing at Lee University in Bradley County and coordinates the college’s family nurse practitioner track. She was observing the mobile clinic in action in preparation for assigning some of her nursing students to work with the clinic as part of their training.
Mr. Nguyen and Ms. Jones like what they see.
“I’m very impressed with St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic, with the executive director, with Dr. [Mary Lisa] Renfer. I’m also very impressed with the nurses and the volunteers. It’s amazing what I’ve seen here. The caliber of excellence and professionalism also is amazing,” Ms. Jones said as her visit was wrapping up.
“I especially like it here because they only see patients who do not have insurance, and it is faith-based and we’re a faith-based university. I sought this out because part of my job is to find clinical sites for our students. I work as a family nurse practitioner one day a week at our health clinic at Lee, so I see patients, staff, and employees, too,” she continued.
Ms. Jones was meeting the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic administrators and volunteers on the first day of the Divine Mercy location to establish a clinical affiliation agreement between Lee and the clinic.
She said it is a win-win situation for the mobile clinic and for the Lee University nursing program.
“It’s a legal contract that our family nurse practitioner students can come here and serve and see patients along with the providers,” she said. “Our students have to have so many clinical hours. In our program, it’s 550 clinical hours in different specialties. But this is especially important to us because of the type of clinic this is. It’s mobile, so they can go to several different sites and see the populations they really don’t get to see in doctors’ offices or hospitals or other types of clinics.”
St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic was first blessed by Bishop Richard F. Stika and introduced to East Tennessee in September 2013. Since then, the mobile medical van has made nearly 500 weekly visits to Crab Orchard, Washburn, Rutledge, Decatur, Athens, and Gatlinburg.
When the van made its maiden voyage in January 2014 to Crab Orchard in Cumberland County, founding physician Sister Mariana Koonce, RSM, prayed that through God’s will, along with determination and hard work, the feet and hands of Jesus—the clinic staff and volunteers—would make sure the clinic is successful.
Now, Sister Mariana’s successor, Sister Mary Lisa Renfer, RSM, is continuing that legacy of ministry, serving as the mobile clinic’s medical director since July 2020. And as the clinic van approaches 70,000 miles of operation, a fundraising drive is underway to replace it with a newer model in 2027, or after 14 years of service. The mobile clinic generator has provided more than 2,800 hours of power for patient care.
As the clinic approaches its ninth year on the road, Sister Mariana’s—and now Sister Mary Lisa’s—prayers have been answered in abundance. It’s something St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic executive director Martin Vargas describes as a modern-day example of Jesus and the loaves and fish.
The mobile clinic serves scores of patients each month at the now seven sites, which is soon to be eight when the mobile clinic begins serving Scott County at the Helenwood Pregnancy Help Center operated by Catholic Charities of East Tennessee later this year.
The mobile clinic has a staff of five plus a list of volunteers who visit the rural areas of Washburn and Rutledge in Grainger County, Crab Orchard in Cumberland County, Decatur in Meigs County, and Athens in McMinn County in addition to Gatlinburg in Sevier County.
“This is like the loaves and the fish. We are the fish and the loaves, and He divides us to feed His people. It’s tremendous how He utilizes us to be His hands, and fish in this case, in the healing ministry of Jesus Christ,” Mr. Vargas said. “On the back of the mobile clinic, it says we’re compelled by the love of Jesus Christ. That is how we get the job done. We deliver His healing ministry here in East Tennessee. And it’s by His blessing that allows us to raise the funds, recruit the volunteers, and serve His people.”
He explained that after giving pulpit talks about the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic ministry, it was able to recruit new volunteers, with seven new helpers coming from the Church of Divine Mercy, which is a 10 percent increase in volunteers just to serve the Divine Mercy location.
“It’s truly a blessing that allows us to serve the immigrant community and existing patients at Divine Mercy,” he said, further explaining that the mobile clinic’s mission is to serve the uninsured and underinsured in rural areas of the diocese. Knoxville does not fit in this service area because there are so many health-care resources in the Knoxville area. The same applies to the Chattanooga area and the Tri-Cities.
The Divine Mercy site is specifically for immigrants, Divine Mercy parishioners, and existing patients.
As the new clinic sites roll out, the ministry also has brought on an executive assistant, Brianna Vinyard, and Sister Celeste Mary Poche, RSM, a nurse practitioner. They join the clinic’s other fulltime employees, Mr. Vargas, Sister Mary Lisa, who is a doctor of osteopathic medicine, and nurse manager Beth Ann Arrigo, who is a registered nurse.
The Legacy Clinic has received a grant from the Tennessee Charitable Care Network, which is the state’s network of nonprofit clinics and programs that provides free or reduced-cost health-care services to those in need. The $105,000 TCCN grant pays for the executive assistant and nurse practitioner positions.
“God provided us two new locations, the two new employees, and the funds to achieve that mission. We are grateful,” Mr. Vargas said, pointing out that Sister Mary Lisa is a finalist for Catholic Extension’s Lumen Christi Award. The award is Catholic Extension’s highest honor given to people who radiate and reveal the light of Christ present in the communities where they serve.
Award finalists receive $10,000 to support and enhance their ministry. Then, from among the finalists the Lumen Christi Award recipient will receive a $25,000 grant along with an additional $25,000 for the nominating diocese.
Catholic Extension president Father Jack Wall, referring to the nominees, said, “These humble heroes of our Church are sources of hope for us and our country…. They remind us that faith is still a relevant force in our society and culture. They remind us that there is so much energy and generosity in our Church. They remind us that there are people willing to sacrifice for the good of others.”
Mr. Vargas said Sister Mary Lisa’s selection as a Lumen Christi finalist is a “tremendous reflection on her and her ministry as a Sister and as our medical director here at St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic.”
“She just does phenomenal work here and in the community. She also is the superior for the local Sisters of Mercy. She has more hats that she wears to get work done in a day. It’s just amazing. A Sister’s work begins at 4 in the morning. They pray. Then she’s in the office by 8 a.m. She runs a full day. Then, when she gets back to the convent, she attends evening prayer, takes care of the superior duties she has, then more prayer before bed. Then she wakes up and does it again. She does that day in and day out,” Mr. Vargas said.
“Her leadership is indispensable to us here at the clinic. The fact that she’s a DO is a tremendous advantage. She’s able to provide direction to all of our medical personnel, and, most importantly, through our new staff members. This includes working with Lee University in our new relationship to educate the next generation of health-care providers. We also have a similar relationship with the University of Tennessee, which provides us with two student nurses every semester who are integrated into our ministry,” he added.
Mr. Vargas asked for prayers from East Tennessee parishioners because the changing economic environment in the country is creating more need for the mobile clinic’s services.
“We are seeing more new patients. The need is exponential. As economic conditions worsen, the need goes up,” said Mr. Vargas, who thanked those who fund the mobile clinic and the volunteers who make the clinic work. “Without them, we couldn’t do it. We could not provide the care we have without them.”
One of those volunteers is Dylan Carroll, who is a pre-med student at Clemson University. Dylan graduated from Knoxville Catholic High School in 2021.
Dylan’s goal is to attend medical school and become a physician. Toward that goal of learning as much about medicine as he can, Dylan already has earned credentials as a certified nursing assistant and has worked as a CNA at University of Tennessee Medical Center. He now is offering that service to the mobile clinic.
Dylan is assisting the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic physicians like Sister Mary Lisa and the nurses in treating patients. Mr. Vargas said Dylan is especially helpful with Hispanic patients because he can speak Spanish.
“When I’ve worked as a CNA, you really see what the world of medicine is like and the vulnerability of these patients. The compassion required to become a doctor is through the roof,” Dylan said.
As he discussed the vital role of volunteers, Mr. Vargas specifically noted the role of volunteer drivers of the mobile clinic van, which requires a commercial driver’s license (CDL) showing they are licensed to be behind the wheel of large, multi-axle commercial trucks.
“We are volunteer driven. Literally. The clinic van stays in the garage if there is not a CDL driver to take it to our sites,” Mr. Vargas pointed out, noting that the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic currently has three volunteer drivers with commercial driver’s licenses, and it needs more.
Drivers aren’t the only volunteers needed.
“Really, if you’re a CDL driver, we need you. If you’re an administrative person and you have talents in that area, we need you. If you’re a medical provider, we need you. If you have a smile, we have a place for you to be one of the many hands of Jesus that provide the care that we do,” he said.
Volunteers aren’t the only people associated with the mobile clinic that Mr. Vargas singled out.
“I want to say a personal thank you to all our donors for all the treasure that you share with us to help this ministry go forward. Without you, it would not be possible. We have a tremendous cadre of donors who provide us individual contributions that enable this ministry.”
Donations and grants also are funding two new team members: a volunteer coordinator and a community outreach coordinator.
Mr. Vargas said he welcomes the opportunity for the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic to partner with nonprofit and for-profit organizations who would like to help the mobile clinic. He said there are companies like Walmart that provide local grants at the suggestion of customers. And there are companies like Pilot Corp. and Clayton Homes that have a significant philanthropic impact locally.
“I want to stress that your funding stays locally. You make a difference locally. You move the needle locally. The care that we provide comes from and stays in East Tennessee. All money goes directly to things that sustain our mission. We have a staff of five people. We have a very lean mission. We look forward to growing a little bit. We rely solely on our 70-plus volunteers to deliver the care that we offer,” he said.
Mr. Vargas doesn’t worry about the growth in need outpacing the growth in ability to serve that need.
“The Lord will always provide for us. I don’t worry about that, but I do pray that He continues to give us the strength and grace and talents to hit His mission. I do not think that He will allow the need to outpace our ability to meet it,” he said.
Mr. Nguyen, with his medical background, is helping the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic meet that need. He and his sons assist the clinic’s physicians and nurses in communicating with the Divine Mercy patients.
Mr. Nguyen’s three sons — Paul, 17, Tai, 16, and An, 15 — attend Farragut High School.
There is a secondary reason Mr. Nguyen is making clinic volunteerism a family affair, one that Dylan Carroll can relate to.
“My family wants to volunteer here because my son would like to be a doctor in the future,” Mr. Nguyen said.
Paul Nguyen said he has had an interest in medicine since he was a young child and would visit his father’s clinic in Vietnam.
Paul was interacting with patients, helping them to translate from Vietnamese to English, and then translate for the volunteers from English to Vietnamese.
“We want to help some of the people understand and to not be afraid when they see a doctor. I have a friend who has lived in America for six years, but he’s very afraid to meet the doctor, so he never sees a doctor. Me and my sons want to learn more so we can help in these situations,” Mr. Nguyen said.