Sisters Leaving 2005

Sisters Says Thanks February 2005

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Poor Servants Says Thanks and Goodbye

February 2005 Sisters Say Thanks and  Goodbye


Sisters Say Thanks As They Leave  St. Mary's Hospital

Sisters share history, thanks
Jodi Deal Staff Writer – The Coalfield Progress - February 17, 2005

Sr. Julia SMG - Photo by Denise Gabriele
Sr. Julia SMG - Photo by Denise GabrieleNORTON -Sister Julia Dennehy recalls a time when a single room at the old St. Mary's Hospital cost just $3 a day, including medication, food and nursing services.

Sister Julia first came to Norton in November of 1956, less than 10 years after Sisters of the Poor Servant of the Mother of God acquired the old Norton Clinic in 1948. Since then, she has seen a lifetime of changes sweep through the hospital, which the sisters renamed St. Mary's.

Sister Julia, Sister Loretta O'Connor, and Sister Mary Coughlan are the last three of the resident congregation in Norton. Thirty-seven sisters have served in Norton since 1948.

St. Mary's was sold in 2002 to the Catholic Bon Secours Health System. Bon Secours sold the hospital last fall to Health Management Associates, a for-profit health care organization. In the coming months, all three sisters will leave Norton for other assignments.

Sister Julia will be the first to go, leaving today for High Point, N. C. The sister’s congregation has run Pennybyrn Maryfield Nursing Home and assisted living center there since 1947.

Sisters Mary and Loretta will leave in the next few months, they say, first for some sabbatical time and then on to other assignments within their congregation. They do not yet know what their next assignments will be.

The Early Days

“The coal ovens greeted me when I came in,” Sister Julia, 93, recalled during a visit Tuesday, referring to the coking ovens that lined Wise County’s hills at that time.

A native of County Cork, Ireland, Sister Julia first came to the U. S. in 1955, to work at a nursing home he congregation began in 1947.

After several years spent as a nurse, Sister Julia was asked to do the job of secretary to the hospital’s administrator. Sister Mary Patrice. The original secretary had gone back to England, Sister Julia says. However, she encountered one problem – she had no secretarial training.

She quickly remedied this problem, enrolling in secretarial course at Clinch Valley College from 1967 to 1969. While there she also studied business and accounting which prepared her for a long career in hospital administration.

Sister Julia served as assistant administrator and secretary to the hospital board of directors for many years. She says her work consisted of taking minutes, writing letters and paperwork, lots of it.
“I never went to computers,” Sister Julia said of the mountains of paperwork she completed during her career. “I wasn’t going to bother my brain anymore.”

The hospital had begun to outgrow the Virginia Avenue building as technology advanced and patient numbers picked up. Plans for the move began in 1975, Sister Julia noted.

Moving from the small hospital on Virginia to its current location in 1981 still stands out in Sister Julia’s mind. The convent in which the sisters now live also was built as part of that project.

“The old building had Virginia in front, and an alley in back. There was no place to spread your wings, even if you wanted to,” Sister Julia said. “It was either go home or build.”


Mountain Home

Sister Loretta, a native Limerick, Ireland, who came to Norton in 1977, recently gave a reporter and photographer a tour of the sisters’ home for the past 25 years – St. Mary’s Convent. The large, three-story brick building sits atop a hill behind the hospital, overlooking the valley below and the mountains in the distance. The building is large enough to house 16 to 18 residents, Sister Loretta says, but many of the spare bedrooms have been turned into offices.

Sister Loretta says she has tried desperately not to get used to the breathtaking view of Norton and the mountains. Every season is beautiful in a different way, she says but her favorite is fall.

A sun porch in the front of the house has a partial view of the valley, but is shaded by large pine trees. Built into the wall of the sun porch next to the convent’s front door, is a little piece of home for the sisters, all of whom are from Ireland. A marble stone bearing a traditional Irish blessing, which translates to 100,000 Blessings,” was brought from Ireland in 1980, Sister Loretta says.


Behind the convent are a brick patio and a small dog run which is the home of Pearl, the sister’s Australian shepherd dog. The sisters have had Pearl for seven years and say they walk her every day along the “Pilgrim Way”, or the road leading to the convent. Pearl gets “visitation privileges” daily when she comes inside the convent at meal times, Sister Mary says. “She’s a very important member of our family.” Sister Mary noted. The sisters have to leave Pearl behind when they leave Norton, and plan to find her a good home.

The sisters start and end each day in the chapel room of the convent. A beautiful room with large windows overlooking the hospital and mountains, the chapel features several pews and an altar.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Father Tim, the priest at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Norton, leads 7:30 a. m. mass for the sisters, members of the church and hospital employees. Other mornings the sisters begin their days with prayers of their own.

Health Management Associates will obtain the convent building as part of the hospital package. Sister Loretta says she is unsure what it will become.


Big Changes

All three sisters have seen the hospital go through many changes. Sister Mary, who came here in 1987 to fill the position of assistant administrator at St. Mary’s recently retired.
Sister Mary, also a native of County cork, Ireland, has seen the hospital through two administrative changes – the Bon Secours shift in 2002 and the current sale to Health management Associates.
Their work at the hospital was only part of the sisters’ service in Norton, Sister Mare noted. In addition to administrative work, patient advocacy and visits, the sisters conducted many programs at St. Anthony’s.

“We’ve all been very involved in church outreach.” Sister Loretta said. The sisters acted as ambassadors for the church, helping during services and conducting Rite of Christina Initiation for Adults classes, for those who wished to convert to Catholicism.

“We focus on the quality of life,” Sister Mary said.

We want the total person taken care of – body, mind, and spirit,” Sister Loretta added.

“Really that was the hallmark of St. Mary’s, good patient care with patient interaction,” said Sister Mary.

Wherever the sisters go, they will still be striving to help care for the whole person, whether or not they are retired.

“We do not retire,” said Sister Mary. “Our retirement comes when we leave this world. We’ll always find a way to occupy ourselves.”

Words of Farewell

“The people here have accepted us and befriended us, and the area has been so much a part of us, “said Sister Loretta.

“The Lord blessed us tremendously on a day-to-day basis.” Sister Mary said of her time in Norton.
“We’ll miss the people,” Said Sister Loretta. “We’ve had close relationships with the staff and parishioners. We’ve become like family with them and them with us.”

“We’ll miss interaction with the patients and their families,” she continued. “We were touched by them and them by us.”

“Our hearts, prayers and good wishes will always be here,” Sister Loretta said. “While we may be out of sight, we won’t be out of mind on either side.”

“We have every confidence that Mountain View Medical Center will carry on the traditions of St. Mary’s Hospital,” she said of the hospital’s future.

While the sisters are not yet sure what their next assignment will be, they promised to contact their friends in Norton, especially at the hospital and church with their new contact information.

While leaving their home and friends in Norton may be difficult, the sisters have support from the other members of their congregation.

“They understand what we’re going through.” Sister Loretta said. “The Lord keeps calling and we keep answering.”


Source of the Information

The Coalfield Progress  2005 - This article and photographs were reformatted and edited for the web by webmaster Denise Gabriele 2012.