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Sisters Celebrate 125 Year Anniversary

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Poor Servants Celebrate 125th Anniversary

Saturday - March 25, 1995


Sisters Celebrate 125 Years and 50 Years at St. Mary's Hospital


Poor Servants of the Mother of God 125th Anniversary

By Steve Neill of the Catholic Virginian – April 10th - 1995

A generous portion of the community, predominantly non-Catholic, turned up in church on a sunny Sunday morning to pay tribute to the sisters who have staffed Sl. Mary's Hospital in Norton for almost 50 years.

Bishop Walter F. Sullivan was principal celebrant of the anniversary liturgy March 25 at St. Anthony's Church in Norton. With him on the altar were Bishop Wilham G. Curlin of Charlotte and Bishop Anthony O'Connell of Knoxville.

The mood was joyous as the visitors who live in the coal mining region of far southwest Virginia signed the guest book on entering the church. Then many ran to embrace the sisters most of whom are originally from Ireland. Among them was Sister Kathleen Clarke who "came home" to southwest Virginia from England where she is on her community's governing body.

"The story of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God does not begin in Virginia, but in England in 1870." Bishop Sullivan said in his homily. He explained that the foundress of the community was Fanny Margaret Taylor, born in l832 in England and the youngest of 10 children whose father was an Anglican priest. At 16 Fanny joined a community of Anglican sisters and became a nurse. In 1854 with the outbreak of the Crimean War she went to the battlefield and served as a nurse under the supervision of Florence Nightingale.

Before Fanny returned to England she became a Catholic. According to a history of the Poor Servants, "she explained her change of mind solely to the sacrifice and inspiring example of the Catholic Nursing Sisters; and the Catholic chaplains and to the experiences she witnessed in nursing so many sick, wounded and dying Irish soldiers. She felt that the religion which meant so much to them had so much more to offer her than the faith she had up to then held good as it undoubtedly was."

Fanny Margaret Taylor became Mother Magdalen Taylor and founded the Congregation of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God Sept. 24. 1869. The community received many applicants and opened new convents in England. The first convent in Ireland opened in 1875, followed later by communities in Italy; France; Scotland; The United States; Venezuela and Kenya. Their first community in the United States was established in High Point. N. C. in 1947 with Sister Anne Christina O’Sullivan, who is still at the Norton hospital. Among the pioneers, Father Joseph Dean, a Glenmary priest, asked the sisters to take over a small clinic in Norton, which they did in July. 1948. The following March the name was changed to St. Mary's Hospital.

"You of Norton and southwest Virginia know better than I the story of the sister; the past 47 years:' Bishop Sullivan said, "You know the love and care to thousands. Their reaching out to the poor, their healing mission in the invitation of Christ...what a blessing their continued presence has been."

The sisters moved to the present St. Mary's Hospital in October. 1981. Gary Del Forge in now administrator of the facility which has 133 beds. The present community, in addition to Sister Anne Christina, consists of Sisters Julia Dennehy, Bridie Reid, Mary Coughlan, Gabriella Hogan, and Loretta O'Connor.

Pointing out that the liturgy celebrated the Feast of the Annunciation-the call of Mary to be the Mother of God, Bishop Sullivan said the sisters "imitate Mary who said yes to God's invitation and accepted at the consequences of that 'yes:

The sisters see in Mary, the exemplar of discipleship, what it means to be a believer, one who trusts in God - one who follows in Christ's footsteps in reaching out to the poor and less fortunate, and who brings physical and spiritual healing to the sick. They give meaning to life and even meaning to death," the bishop said. Bishop Curlin, in remarks at the end of the liturgy, said he was grateful to the sisters who had taken in an elderly priest to the nursing home they operate in High Point, N.C. after others had told him there was a long waiting list and there was little hope for the priest to gain entrance.

In a more humorous vein, Bishop O'Connell; a native of Ireland who speaks with a strong brogue as do many of the sisters, said that when he became bishop of Knoxville he went to the sisters to learn how to speak in an Appalachian dialect to better identify with the people he was to serve in east Tennessee.


Source of the Information

The Catholic Virginian 1995 - The pages and photographs were reformatted and re-edited for the web by webmaster Denise Gabriele 2012.