By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published July 10, 2014
ATLANTA—In 1939, Savannah was the only diocese in Georgia, and its bishop, Gerald P. O’Hara, welcomed two Hawthorne Dominican Sisters, Mother Mary Rose and Sister Mary Angela, to open a home for the terminally ill in Atlanta.
Seventy-five years after the sisters’ nighttime train trip from New York down South, their successors continue to provide care at no cost to patients with incurable cancer—witnessing to the sacredness of life until its end.
As traffic piles up on Atlanta’s downtown connector, and baseball fans gather for another Braves home game at Turner Field, the sisters next door go about their daily work cheerfully at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home on Pollard Boulevard, SW.
The home accepts patients who cannot afford nursing care, regardless of their faith background. Some have just weeks or months to live, and the sisters are helping them to patiently wait on God’s call.
“We’re all children of God,” said Sister Damien, who serves as the home’s director. “Life is sacred.”
A Hawthorne Dominican for 35 years, Sister Damien has been in Atlanta for six years now.
“I wouldn’t trade this,” she said of the work. “We’re just very grateful. Over all these years … it’s a miracle.”
Sister Martha, retired from delivering care, lives at the convent at the home. She gets around with a cane, and still helps by combing patients’ hair or doing their nails.
“I go over and visit the patients every day,” she said. “I love it. I love the people.”
Sister Martha was a caregiver for Sister Mary Angela, who had helped Mother Mary Rose found the Atlanta home. By that time, Sister Mary Angela was in her 80s and handicapped.
“She was very gentle. She was precise,” said Sister Martha of her charge.
“Mary Angela told me about the prejudice,” said Sister Martha, who added that in the earlier days of the Atlanta home, the sisters were urged to only allow black people to enter the home by a back or basement entrance. “You can’t let humans come in that way,” was Sister Mary Angela’s response.
“I think of her often,” said Sister Martha. “She was a beautiful woman.”
Sister Martha shows an impressive display of black and white, and color photographs, and newspaper articles about Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home, compiled and organized by Sister Damien. The pictures depict smiling nuns and patients in work that Sister Martha describes as getting people well and sending them off to eternity.
Sister Martha, who has served at OLPH two separate times, recalls most of the patients’ names without difficulty, including a young girl with spina bifida who had been abandoned.
“Some of them you will never forget,” she said.
Patients sometimes do not have family members visiting or have difficult or broken family situations. “That’s why you have to show them kindly recognition,” said Sister Martha. She added that the patients also help the nuns not to stagnate spiritually. “It’s a two-way,” she said. “I haven’t had a bored day. You have to keep doing.”
A doctor’s conversion
Dr. John “Jack” Read, who practices with Kaiser Permanente, is the volunteer medical director at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home.
He became acquainted with the nuns’ work through a nurse but admits he used to lump all nursing homes together as places one didn’t want to go.
“I was absolutely overwhelmed,” said Dr. Read about his initial visit to OLPH. “They have a real hands-on approach.”
Dr. Read and his wife, Joan, parishioners at St. Thomas More Church in Decatur, were among those attending the 75th anniversary Mass of thanksgiving for Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home June 7 at St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell.
“They are uncommonly caring. They are really amazing,” said Dr. Read about the Hawthorne Dominicans.
The patients enjoy celebrations and activities when able such as a Fourth of July party with “Elvis” and sparklers, or quiet time to themselves.
“For some it’s the best place they’ve ever been,” said Dr. Read. He makes rounds at the home twice a week.
Dr. Read was not Catholic when he began volunteering there, but he converted.
“It has a great deal to do with it. In ways I can’t describe, it’s changed me. It’s very moving for me,” he said.
Recently, Dr. Read was named a 2013 David Lawrence Community Service Award Winner, presented to 14 individuals or groups from Kaiser Permanente nationwide. Each winner receives a $10,000 grant for the nonprofit organization of his or her choice, and in this instance Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home receives the grant funds.
“I will be doing it as long as I can,” said Dr. Read.
By example, they ‘explain’ the Catholic faith
Father Paul Burke has served as chaplain at OLPH for two years and said it has been a wonderful experience. Father Burke said that the words and deeds of the sisters have led many to come into the church.
“No one dies afraid. No one dies alone,” said Father Burke, who celebrates daily Mass in the chapel and brings Communion to Catholic patients and blessings to others at their bedside.
“They are very Eucharistic-centered,” he said, of the Hawthorne Dominicans.
All patients are treated with dignity, irrespective of their beliefs, said the priest.
“There’s no better way to contribute,” he said in urging others to support the home. “Pray first for the work that they are doing.”
Father Burke joined Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Bishop Gregory Hartmayer, OFM Conv., of Savannah in celebrating the Mass of thanksgiving.
In his homily, Archbishop Gregory noted that in 1939 Atlanta had few Catholic residents and many false concepts of Catholicism were bandied about.
“Then there were the Hawthorne Dominican Sisters who arrived and dared to open a ministry that cared for those suffering from cancer,” said the archbishop. “These Catholic nuns prayed each day at Mass and then went about the work of charity that gave flesh and blood to their belief in Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. They have and continue to provide the witness of faith in action that provides the Atlanta community with an unassailable explanation of our Catholic faith.”
Archbishop Gregory said it’s the Mother of God who has protected and advanced the sisters, under the title of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
“… Surely that title and protection has guaranteed the success of these wonderful women and will do so in the days ahead,” he prayed in conclusion.
Auxiliary provides support
Following the Mass, supporters and volunteers joined the sisters in a celebratory reception given by OLPH’s auxiliary members.
Melanie Hardt, parishioner at St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro, has been volunteering at the home for 15 years. Hardt and her mother provide haircuts, and sit and read with patients. They first learned about supporting the home through the auxiliary from a fellow parishioner.
“Everyone is treated like royalty,” said Hardt of the sisters’ care. “It’s how you’d want people to treat you.”
The auxiliary has a spring fling, a holiday bazaar and an auction and luncheon each year to support the sisters in caring for others. The auction of donated items will be held in October at St. Peter Chanel Church.
Founder of order declared ‘Servant of God’
It is a family environment at OLPH including the staff, volunteers, and patients and loved ones, and the sisters. “The main thing is the family unit,” said Sister Damien.
The Hawthorne Dominicans currently have two other homes for cancer patients, Rosary Hill in New York, and Sacred Heart in Pennsylvania.
The order’s founder was Rose Hawthorne (Mother Mary Alphonsa), daughter of author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Mother Mary Alphonsa, who received the title “Servant of God,” is being investigated for sainthood.
“We’re excited about that,” said Sister Damien about the cause for canonization.
They are also looking to the future in welcoming new postulants who they are hopeful will decide to take up the bedside work of these nuns. “We pray for the ones coming after,” she added.
Mother Mary Francis, superior general, also attended the Mass of thanksgiving. Mother Mary Francis reflected upon the journal writing of Mother Mary Rose in first thinking of opening a home in the South as early as 1936.
“She began to seriously consider Georgia,” said Mother Mary Francis.
Mother Mary Rose approached Cardinal Patrick Hayes of New York, who advised her to look in Brooklyn, New York, instead. She obediently pursued his suggestion but still kept Savannah in her thoughts, as she knew Bishop O’Hara was supportive.
“As God always has his way, a suitable place in Brooklyn was never found,” said Mother Mary Francis.
The newspapers in Georgia all welcomed the “badly needed” home, which was originally located in the former Hebrew Orphans’ Home. Although a new building was constructed in 1970, the original pillars from the first home were kept on the grounds as part of its outdoor shrine.
“He has provided us with everything we need,” said Mother Mary Francis in thanking the priests, supporters, volunteers and staff. “We could not do it as well without you. May God bless you abundantly.”
“Today, we can look back on the 75 years and say … ‘Mother Mary Rose, it all did turn out for the best.’”