By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special to the Bulletin | Published March 8, 2018 | En Español
ATLANTA—A nurse for 50 years, Sister Peggy Fannon, RSM, has lived out her vocation at the bedside of patients facing severe burns, cancer and other critical conditions.
And as National Catholic Sisters Week celebrates religious women, the Sister of Mercy feels privileged to have attended nursing school and served 45 years at Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital. Her order founded the hospital as Atlanta’s first infirmary following the Civil War in 1880.
“In my lifetime there have been sisters in administration at Saint Joseph’s who have done great things” and made progressive health care decisions, she said. “I’ve always loved working at Saint Joseph’s and had many opportunities to expand my nursing career and develop expertise.”
Since the 1960s, she has drawn inspiration from excellent leadership of her fellow Sisters of Mercy, starting with CEO Sister Melanie Courtenay, who quietly integrated the hospital, and CEO Sister Mary Brian Anderson, who led relocation efforts in the 1970s from downtown to north Atlanta. Senior vice president of sponsorship Sister Jane Gerety was “instrumental” in establishing Mercy Care Services to the indigent, which started with elderly sisters providing food and clothing to the poor at the emergency room downtown. Then in the 1980s, staff would “load up tackle boxes of medicines, blood pressure cuffs, stethoscopes and we’d head down to different shelters after work.”
As for her own career, Sister Peggy decided to be a nurse at age 4 after a hospital visit. Later her family relocated to Atlanta from Ohio. She attended Our Lady of the Assumption School, St. Pius X High School and St. Joseph’s nursing school where sisters then staffed each floor. When she was 19 her father died and her mother at 23, which deepened Sister Peggy’s empathy for the suffering, and she took on the responsibility to raise her younger brothers. As she began her career, she prayed deeply and discerned a religious call, already viewing her job as a ministry.
“I know God has always been part of my life,” she said. “It’s always been a wonderful blessing for me and certainly an honor to be a part of people’s lives in their most vulnerable state … and to be with families, to help support them and caring for them and just being there when there’s nothing else that can be done.”
In the hospital’s senior leadership, Sister of Charity of St. Elizabeth Rosemary Smith, a sister for 57 years, serves as chief mission officer and ensures that the Mercy legacy lives on at Atlanta’s only faith-based hospital, an even more critical position since its partnership with Emory Healthcare came to be in 2012.
“I endorse, help us stay on track if the sisters have reason to. We have a lot of wonderful leaders … they work hard to keep our mission vital and are very much in touch with our legacy,” Sister Rosemary said. “We need to be intentional about making sure they understand the underlying reasons and why it’s such a good place to be. I wanted to be here and help them make connections between the foundation of what Catholic health care is about and what they do every day. It’s the commitment to care for people in loving service.”
Sister Rosemary grew up in New Jersey and previously served as senior vice president for sponsorship of the Bon Secours Health System, a hospital system based in Maryland.
“It’s is a vital ministry of the church, and I’m happy to be able to contribute to it in some way. Because hospitals are so large they often aren’t seen in dioceses as part of the work of the diocese,” she said. As for Atlanta “it’s a vibrant church, a growing church. We have wonderful leadership in the archdiocese which makes working with the archdiocese very easy and that isn’t always the case.”
Through her career she has joyfully transferred her skills across fields, working on diocesan staffs, in congregational leadership and at seminaries.
“I’ve had a lot of different things in my life and each one is a new beginning, a new opportunity, a new way of serving and I’m happy to be able to do that as a Sister of Charity. We are committed to service of the poor and teaching and health care, same as the Sisters of Mercy, so this is a very good fit for me. My own congregation has hospitals and schools and colleges, social service agencies mainly in New Jersey,” she said. “What I am, because I am a Sister of Charity, I bring it to whatever I do.”
Still on the front lines, Sister Peggy educates patients and helps them improve quality of life. She recalled meeting with one diabetic man who told her that “every hospital needs a Sister Peggy.” She visited another man with a lung condition several times and was later asked to pray with him by his wife. Months later he told her that he reconnected with his Baptist faith. Never seeking to proselytize or convert, “I was just that ear. His family was thrilled. They said it was because of you,” said Sister Peggy. “The spirit of caring is alive and well and patients tell me that every day; it’s a different spirit here.”