Sisters Leave

Sisters Leave After 57 Years

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Sisters Leave Norton in 2005

Sisters Leave Norton after 57 Years In Service and Sale of St. Mary's Hospital

Poor Servants Photo Courtesy of Denise Gabriele - St. Anthony's Catholic Church

Seated - Sr. Julia Dennehy;  Left - Sr. Loretta O'Connor, Sr. Mary Coughlin, and Sr. Gabriella Hogan


Sisters Leave after 57 Years - March 2005

By Kathleen Nowacki-Correa - Special to the Catholic Virginian

Next to the front door of St. Mary's Convent, Norton, a marble stone encased in the wall is Inscribed with the Gaelic legend, "100,000 Blessings," derived from the Irish prayer for "100,000 blessings at your door."

The convent is home to the Sisters of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God, an Irish order that came to Norton in 1948 to run St. Mary's Hospital.

For over half a century, the sisters showered the community with what many who have known them describe as "abundant blessings of compassion, incomparable care, and evangelization."

Last July St. Mary's Hospital and convent were bought by Health Management Associates, a for-profit health care group based in Florida. This sale follows the 2002 incorporation of St. Mary's within the Bon Secours Health System. The hospital is now Mountain View Regional Medical Center.

By March 31, the last two sisters remaining at St. Mary's will depart, ending an era of service that many testify to being "extraordinary." In an area where people were once suspicious of Catholics, the original group of sisters who arrived in 1948 is regarded as pioneers, not only in top hospital care, but in evangelization.

"They educated people here by their presence as missionaries of mercy and charity towards all," said Bob Isaac, a member of the Knights of Columbus Glenmary Council 7853, told The Catholic Virginian. A parishioner of St. Anthony Church, Norton, Mr. Isaac has known the sisters since 1948, and served on St. Mary's Hospital Advisory Board from 1978 to 2002.

"At first, because of their long black habits, people who had never seen nuns before thought they might be witches," he said, adding, "but they turned the opinion pro-Catholic pretty fast --St. Mary's was known for taking excellent care of people who couldn't pay --all people."

The Poor Servants were founded in 1869 by Mother Magdelene Taylor, who prior to religious life, had served with Florence Nightingale's nurses In the Crimean War. The order, based in London, provides health services in England and Ireland and religious, educational, and health services in the United States and other countries.

An article published on August 5, 1948, in The Appalachia Independence relates that by 1947, a group of sisters had arrived in High Point, N.C., to operate a nursing home that they still maintain as a retirement community today.

A Glenmary priest, Father Joseph Dean, who had come to Norton in 1945, petitioned the Mother General for a few sisters from High Point to run The Norton Clinic, a privately owned 50-bed hospital that was for sale.

At that time, Norton was located in the Diocese of Wheeling, W. Va., led by Bishop John J. Swint, who helped the order purchase the clinic on Virginia Avenue, less than a block from St. Anthony Church. Seven sisters operated the not-for-profit clinic that soon became known as St. Mary's Hospital.

The hospital served the people of Wise, Lee, Scott, Dickenson, Buchanan, and Russell Counties. At the time It was the only one built in southwest Virginia with 42-inch doors that allowed hospital beds to be wheeled through so that patients did not need excessive handling between their hospital room and the operating room.

St. Mary's moved to its present location on N. E. Third Street In 1981 and today is a 133-bed state-of-the-art acute care center.

Although 37 sisters have served the hospital since 1948, only four remained this year.

Last in residence are longtime president of the board of directors and nurse, Sister Mary Coughlin, and Sister Loretta O'Connor, a surgical nurse who also served on the board.

Sister Mary, a native of County Cork, Ireland, joined the staff in 1987; Sister Loretta, who is from Limerick, Ireland, arrived in 1977. They will return to London for sabbatical and then reassignment.

Sister Julia Dennehy, 93, also a native of County Cork, left last month for the North Carolina retirement community.

She came to St. Mary's as a nurse in 1956, but when the hospital's original administrator needed a secretary, Sister Julia enrolled in Clinch Valley College where she studied secretarial, business and accounting courses.

She was the hospital's first purchasing agent and was assistant administrator and secretary to the hospital's board of directors. She worked side by side for 44 years with one of the original administrators, Sister Anne Christina O'Sullivan.

Earlier this year, Sister Gabriella Hogan left St. Mary's to start a mission as director of the order's Kenya project, where she is living in a remote and desolate area, helping the residents and training novices. She had been at St. Mary's since 1986.

Father Timothy Drake, St. Anthony's pastor, told The Catholic Virginian, "They have been precious to us in their vital Catholic presence --their loving service in bringing Christ to others. They take nothing with them, but leave a lot behind."

Although the sisters are renown for their hospital work in administration, nursing, patient care and advocacy, Father Drake said that they were an invaluable part of the parish, too.

Mass celebrated at the convent chapel was open to parishioners twice a week. The sisters led house-to-house Rosary hours, prayer services, and helped during liturgies. They served as directors of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, instructing those who wished to enter the Catholic faith.

Glenmary Council Grand Knight Anthony Willis entered the Church in 2000 at 58 years of age, and credits the sisters "for leading him along the way like a mother hen, guiding her chicks."

Sister Mary, who he describes fondly as sweet, firm, and very reverent, was the RCIA Director.

"All the sisters are very special to me," he said.

On February 14, the Glenmary Knights of Columbus paid special tribute to the sisters at their 20th annual dinner honoring clergy and religious. D. Bruce Shine, a Kingsport, Tenn., attorney and longtime friend of the sisters was guest speaker.

Mr. Shine, who lives in Abingdon, had written an article for the Kingsport Times-News in which he lauded the dedication and accomplishments of the sisters.

In his testimonial at the dinner, he referenced Mother Teresa's maxim that "we are but God's instruments who do our little bit and pass by." He reiterated his written praise, stating that in the age we live "it is comforting to know there are those who quietly and without drawing attention to themselves serve their Savior daily by doing God's work."

Mr. Willis spoke for all attending the dinner when he stated that there are no words to describe how much the sisters will be missed. He read an Irish Blessing that ends with the wish, "May you always have the courage to spread your wings and fly."

He told The Catholic Virginian, "That's the thing when dealing with the Sisters, you have to let them go --to fly."

Mr. Willis said that St. Anthony parish plans to design a plaque that will be placed in the church to honor the sisters' 57 years of service as "a memorial to them and a reminder to all of how blessed we were to have had them walk among us."

An article in Feb. 15 edition of The Coalfield Progress quotes Sister Loretta as telling a crowd of well-wishers, "We have truly been blessed. We are privileged in passing on our dream of healing and hope."


Source of the Information

The Catholic Virginian 2005 - The pages and photographs were reformatted and re-edited for the web by webmaster Denise Gabriele 2012.