East Tennessee volunteers

Bishop Stika, diocese recognize those who make the mobile medical clinic go

By Bill Brewer

By all accounts, volunteers are the lifeblood of the Diocese of Knoxville’s mobile medical ministry.

They get the clinic to where it needs to be each day. They set up and take down the doctor’s office on wheels at each stop, a laborious process that ensures patients are well cared for, whether in Cumberland County, Grainger County, Meigs County, McMinn County, Sevier County, Scott County, or Knox County.

Bishop Stika celebrates a Mass of thanksgiving for St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic volunteers at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Lenoir City on Nov. 9.

And the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic’s volunteer corps makes sure every patient has a positive experience in the face of health issues that affect many uninsured people in the rural Appalachia communities of East Tennessee.

On a day when the diocese recognized the volunteers, Bishop Richard F. Stika celebrated a special Mass of thanksgiving for them at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Lenoir City followed by a luncheon in their honor.

“It’s good to be with you today on this beautiful day that God has given to us,” Bishop Stika said on Nov. 9 to begin the Mass. “You know the word ‘Eucharist,’ which we use, is another word for Mass, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It’s a word that means thanksgiving. We give thanks to almighty God for the ability to reach out to other people through the healing presence of God.”

Sharing with the volunteers that he had just recovered from COVID, Bishop Stika said the illness prompted him to think about health-care workers who selflessly give of themselves to treat the sick.

“I was thinking the other day about all these people in the last few years. So many people risk their lives to care for others. And just in a general way, they give their time to others just as the Legacy Clinic does. So, we give a prayer of thanksgiving to God for them,” the bishop said.

On a day when the Catholic Church was commemorating the dedication of the Papal Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, Bishop Stika said this feast day was a celebration of unity, what unites Christians, Catholics, the diocese, and its parishes.

“There are so many ingredients, but basically it’s what we celebrate today: the Eucharist, the summit of all that we celebrate. There are other things that also unite us. Things that we do. Things that we witness to, Gospel values, beatitudes, caring for one another. Today, at this Mass of thanksgiving as we celebrate the dedication of the Lateran Basilica, we celebrate the unity of reaching out to others: Christian, Catholic, non-Catholic, non-believers, for we witness to Jesus,” he said.

Bishop Stika singled out the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic for how it relates daily to the teachings of Jesus.

“When Jesus entered the city, or town, or village, he always did three things it seems, three things that we know about. He would always teach. He would always feed. And then he would heal, maybe not in that order. The three ingredients that Jesus, I think, was teaching the Church for the generations to come:

  • To preach. And as Francis reminds us, one of the ways to preach is witnessing;
  • To feed. In sacramental ways but also to feed in physical ways like we often do through Catholic Charities and St. Vincent de Paul societies;
  • And to heal.

“Now we can heal in a spiritual sense, in a mental situation, or in a physical way. We know the human condition, the human body, is made up of those three components: the spiritual, the physical, and the mental. And if one is out of whack, the other two could be somewhat distorted as well. That’s why I think the work of the St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation and the mobile medical clinic witness to the values that we see and the gift of life,” he continued.

Martin Vargas, center, executive director of the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic, enjoys a light moment with clinic volunteers Star Lakavage and Bruce Fisher.

“The ministry of the mobile medical clinic and all the volunteers, and all the places that we visit, and all the people who come through its doors, the whole composite of what it means in this particular work, is just a reminder that we’re actually living what Jesus taught. And isn’t that a beautiful thing? To not only allow the words and teachings of Jesus to be in a book but to allow them to touch our lives in such a way that we’re willing to give time, the precious gift of time, to another person so that they might be healed. But also, so that they might witness the Gospel values of the Catholic Church, Christianity, our faith, the teachings Jesus taught, to heal as Jesus healed, to feed as Jesus fed,” the bishop concluded.

Sister Mary Lisa Renfer, RSM, a physician and medical director of the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic, and Martin Vargas, executive director of the mobile clinic, say a key part of what makes the mobile clinic successful is how many of its volunteers live in the communities where they serve across East Tennessee.

As an example, the clinic recently established a new location at Church of the Divine Mercy in Knoxville to serve the church’s Vietnamese community and other immigrant communities in the Knoxville area. Several of the volunteers in this clinic site are Vietnamese.

“Our volunteers provide the care and the healing to our patients throughout East Tennessee. They volunteer in the office. They volunteer in the field at our sites. And another thing they do well is they come from the communities that we serve. We provide care throughout East Tennessee, and many of them are local to the communities that we serve. And that is an important connection because it’s great to see your neighbors come in and help you find health, wellness, and growth through the services we provide at St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic,” Mr. Vargas said.

“One of the challenges in East Tennessee is the rural hospital closure and the lack of medical personnel, so every volunteer who has that background is a gift to us and can provide care to our patients in the remote areas of East Tennessee. We truly love them. We’re grateful for them. And we are blessed to have them and to find them,” he added.

Sister Mary Lisa remarked that it is unusual for an organization to have such a small full-time staff yet have a sizable team of dedicated volunteers.

“Volunteers are really the core of our mission and of what we do. We are very dependent on our volunteers to provide for our patients. They are the front line. They are the ones our patients encounter right away. They set the tone for the clinic. They make the clinic a home for all the patients who come to see us,” she said.

Sister Mary Lisa Renfer, RSM, right, and Sister Celeste Mary Poche, RSM, take part in the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic Volunteer Luncheon in the parish hall at St. Thomas the Apostle.

“They also do a lot of things in the background to keep the clinic going. Some of them will come into our office and help with paperwork and setting things up. There are some volunteers who are more hidden, they come and clean the clinic or clean the warehouse,” she added. “But all of them are so essential to what we do to keep it going. What is unusual and what is a blessing is that we learn so much from our volunteers, and they do it well. They keep it going. They’re so dependable; they’re always there. And they are so devoted to the mission.”

Bishop Stika pointed out that the mobile clinic is such an effective witness to Jesus’ love and healing, even as it drives up and down the interstates and rural roads of East Tennessee. Written in bold letters on the side of the van are the words “Extending the Healing Ministry of Jesus to East Tennessee.”

Asked to describe how he believes the mobile clinic is doing nearly 10 years after it first hit the road, Bishop Stika said, “I think the clinic is going excellent.”

“Just the impact, especially in this day and age when so many hospital systems are closing in smaller places. We go into places that are very small where health care is very much needed,” he noted. “I just think it’s a beautiful ministry, so much so that when we first introduced it Cardinal (Timothy) Dolan was there visiting from New York along with Archbishop (Robert) Carlson from St. Louis. We sparked an idea, and they copied it. So, here in the little ol’ Diocese of Knoxville, they copied what we were doing. That just shows the witness of faith.”

Thinking back on the past decade that the clinic has been serving people of all faiths in East Tennessee, the bishop wanted the clinic staff and its corps of volunteers to know how grateful he and people throughout the diocese are.

“In the name of all those people whose lives you have touched this year, for all the volunteers, I just want to say thank you. Two powerful words, thank you, for they witness to what’s in the hearts of those who assist, the power of opening our hearts to what Jesus taught: that when people see you, they see the face and the hands, the presence of Christ, the presence of God, touched by the Holy Spirit,” Bishop Stika said. “So, in this Mass of thanksgiving, this Mass in which we celebrate the dedication of the Lateran Basilica, this Mass in which we celebrate our faith, I say thank you.”

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