By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published November 12, 2015
ATLANTA—Sister Valentina Sheridan’s blue eyes gleam behind her glasses as she talks about her 21 years of ministry at Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta and the spirit of her religious order, the Sisters of Mercy.
Sister Val, as she is known, retired Sept. 10 as the hospital’s director of mission integration.
“It really gives me life,” said Sister Val about her work at the hospital. “I can be so tired … and there’s a welcome; there are smiles.”
Although she is officially retiring at 84, she won’t be a stranger to the sick. She will continue to visit them when called upon and will explore other ways to serve.
“I don’t have anything set,” she said. She will live a golf cart ride away from the hospital at the Sisters of Mercy convent. Since retiring, she has been to visit friends in Philadelphia and Ocean City, Maryland.
It might be said that there are at least three chapters in the religious life of Sister Val, a Macon native who, since coming in 1967, has served on a continuing basis in the Atlanta Archdiocese longer than any other sister, for 48 years.
Sister Valentina was a teacher and principal at Our Lady of the Assumption School, in Atlanta; superintendent of Catholic schools in the Atlanta Archdiocese and a leader for other independent schools; and then a full-time pastoral assistant at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Alpharetta. She was the first female parish administrator in the history of the archdiocese, named to that role at Sacred Heart Church in Atlanta in 1990.
The love and warmth she experienced in her childhood, she said, set the foundation for what she has shared with others since entering religious life when she was 18.
Named Mary Theresa at birth, she was the youngest of four children and the only daughter of Valentino and Theresa Sheridan. Her father managed a clothing store and affectionately called her “Little Shug,” short for Sugar.
She turned often to her older brothers for guidance early in life, and later it was a role reversal with them turning to her. She is the last surviving member of her immediate family.
Her maternal grandfather, Papa Cassidy, would take her with him when he visited the sick and shut-ins doing works of mercy. She lived next door to St. Joseph Church in Macon, and she and her grandfather would first light candles for the people they would visit and place money in the poor box. Afterward, he would treat her to ice cream.
“Papa’s deep faith was manifested by the way he lived it,” Sister Val said in an autobiographical account she wrote. “As I have reflected on it in later years, I have come to realize the tremendous impact Papa had on my early faith development.”
Just weeks before Theresa Sheridan died, her daughter posed a question about her happy moments, and her mother answered, “When I was told I had a baby girl and you were placed in my arms.”
Her mother’s answer still moves and inspires Sister Val.
“To know that I entered this world surrounded by family who wanted me and felt happy about my birth is to understand the gift of joy that I have experienced all my life,” she said.
Secret decision to enter the convent
The Sisters of Mercy opened the first hospital in Atlanta in 1880 to tend to the post-Civil War wounded. Four sisters arrived from Savannah with 50 cents to start their endeavor. Their desire was to treat the sick with dignity, respect and compassion. It was the start of Saint Joseph’s Hospital.
“We have tried to continue that,” said Sister Val of today’s Saint Joseph’s. “Everyone talks about the Mercy spirit and how wonderful it is.”
Upon retirement, she has one goal—to ensure that the spirit of their forebearers remains alive.
Sister Val will still take part in the orientation of new hospital employees and will share the spirit and history of the healing ministry of the Sisters of Mercy.
“That’s one of the things I’ve loved the most. I’ve expressed my willingness to do it,” said Sister Val about orientations for new staff.
Alexandra “Sandy” Park, a clinical dietitian at the hospital, said thousands of new employees since 1994 have had the great fortune to meet Sister Val during orientation.
“It is there that employees realize what makes our hospital so special; the mission of the Sisters of Mercy,” said Park. “It is always told in such a beautiful way by Sister Val during orientation. Sister Val is tireless in visiting the sick in our hospital, their families, and always in a special way, touching the employees with her smile, or hug, and twinkle in her eye.”
Walking near the hospital’s History Hall, an exhibit of memorabilia and photographs, Sister Val catches a hug and a greeting from a food service worker passing by. “You look so pretty in your blue,” she tells the woman.
It’s this type of encouragement and kindness that has endeared Sister Val to patients, their families and hospital employees.
Dr. Paul Scheinberg, chief medical officer for the hospital, called Sister Val the soul of Emory Saint Joseph’s.
“She provided spiritual uplift for all of the doctors, patients, visitors and employees. Sister Val was always receptive and would lend an ear to any person to listen to their stresses and provide comfort,” said Scheinberg.
In addition to leading orientations, Sister Val has presented talks to Serrans and other groups and said she just tries to be herself and encourage others to be open to God’s calling,
“Right now there’s a wonderful book—‘Jesus Calling,’” noted Sister Val. “It is calling us to the presence of God in our lives. I’m 84, and it’s touching me now like never before.”
As a young person, Sister Val considered the vocation of marriage, but at the end of her junior year in high school she began listening to God in prayer, instead of speaking. She had aunts who were Sisters of Mercy, and her teachers were nuns. Her “Aunt Maggie,” Mother Francis de Sales Cassidy, was a Sister of the Visitation and the foundress of the Monastery of Our Lady of the Visitation, in Snellville.
After she made the decision to enter the convent, Sister Val kept the news to herself. Her father died unexpectedly of a heart attack without knowing.
“The reason I didn’t tell anybody was I didn’t want anyone to talk me out of it,” she said of her friends.
After 13 years in education, pastoral work beckoned
She was drawn to the Sisters of Mercy because of the emphasis on and embodiment of the works of mercy.
“These values are so wonderful. One is respect for each person,” she said.
During orientation, Sister Sheridan prepares employees for dealing with sick patients who are upset or families who might be testy. She teaches them not to view it as a personal attack but an opportunity to practice mercy.
“We’ve got to be forgiving as Jesus was forgiving of us,” she said. “This ministry is God’s work.”
Sister Valentina began her religious life in education, teaching in Maryland, Alabama, and Macon and Augusta, Georgia, before coming to Our Lady of the Assumption School in Atlanta, where she became principal. The goal for her first five years at OLA was to work for accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
This experience led to her being asked to serve in the Office of Catholic Schools for the archdiocese in 1972 where her responsibilities evolved from director of special programs to associate superintendent and ultimately superintendent in 1976. She formed the Archdiocesan Parents’ Organization and was president of the Georgia Association of Independent Schools. Altogether she spent 13 years as a leader in Catholic education in the Atlanta Archdiocese, stepping down in 1980 to begin a new chapter in her religious life.
An interest in pastoral ministry led to a position assisting Msgr. Daniel O’Connor, who was beginning a new parish in the Roswell and Alpharetta area, St. Thomas Aquinas Church.
“That was a whole new thing for me,” said Sister Val. “I just mingled with the laity and became so involved with their families.”
At the parish level, she encouraged members to become involved in the Cursillo movement, assisted with marriage preparation, spiritual counseling, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, and visitation of the sick.
“That was enriching. They accepted me so well. I just felt part of everything,” she said.
Later, Sister Val rejoined Msgr. O’Connor on the staff at Sacred Heart Church, Atlanta, in pastoral work. When he was needed in another parish, Archbishop James P. Lyke, OFM, asked her to become the parish administrator.
“I learned so much from him,” she said of her friendship with Msgr. O’Connor.
While serving in the Peachtree Street church, visitations at downtown hospitals became a major part of her work. She also became very involved in ministry to persons suffering with AIDS.
“True north” during hospital transition
Eventually, Sister Val was asked to join the pastoral care team at Saint Joseph’s Hospital, becoming director of the pastoral care department and then director of mission integration. She has been grateful for the opportunity to work with the hospital staff.
“I was touched by their love for the Mercy spirit and their desire to live the Mercy spirit,” she said.
Heather Dexter, who officially became chief executive officer of Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital Oct. 23, has worked alongside Sister Valentina for 17 years in a number of positions.
“She’s an amazing lady. I feel so honored to have known her,” said Dexter.
It was just recently that Dexter realized just how much fun Sister Val managed to have as a nun.
“She’s got life in her that’s just vibrant,” said Dexter.
Beginning her own career at Saint Joseph’s Hospital in 1998 as an administrative resident, Dexter said she “fell in love with the people and the culture.”
For her, it’s hard to put a handle on what the Sisters of Mercy mean.
“It’s more what the sisters have taught all of us,” said Dexter.
In 2011, Saint Joseph’s Hospital began a prolonged search to find a health care partner, ultimately culminating with an agreement with Emory Healthcare.
Dexter said during that difficult search Sister Val was a “true north,” offering unwavering guidance during negotiations with potential partners. While passionate about safeguarding the Catholic identity of the hospital, Sister Val was also open to ideas to keep the hospital thriving and providing quality care to all, she said.
Dexter served as executive project manager during the joint operating company process between Saint Joseph’s Hospital and Emory Healthcare. Dexter said Sister Val would often offer a prayer when talks got tough with other potential partners.
Teams on both sides of the table would stop when she spoke.
“She has always been a guide and a mentor,” said Dexter.
In the event of a crisis or unexpected event at the hospital, there’s a protocol in place for how to respond and to offer counseling in the event it’s needed. But the initial step is to find their most trusted advocate.
“Our first thought is to call Sister Val,” said Dexter, adding the nun always emphasizes that life goes on.
“That’s what I keep focusing on. She has given us the gift,” said Dexter.