The Sisters of Mercy, founded in Ireland in 1831, were often called “walking nuns.” Instead of staying cloistered, they walked the streets, caring for the poor. Today they “walk” the world, including Atlanta, where in 1880 four Sisters of Mercy founded Atlanta’s first hospital, known for years as St. Joseph’s Hospital, currently Emory St. Joseph’s.
Though the hospital is now secular, the Sisters of Mercy have long held leadership roles. One of them is Sister Jane Gerety, Ph.D., who was senior vice president at St. Joseph’s for 17 years (1992-2009) before leaving to serve as president of Salve Regina University in Rhode Island.
Last year, she retired from academia and answered the call to return to Atlanta as chief mission officer of Mercy Care Atlanta, a network of community healthcare centers offering comprehensive care for the poor.
“I didn’t want to retire-retire,” she said. “Atlanta had been home for me, and I had friends here. It seemed natural to come back.”
It was also natural for her to join Mercy Care, as it had been part of St Joseph’s Hospital during her tenure there.
Incorporated as a nonprofit in 1985, Mercy Care was an outreach of St. Joseph’s that sent teams with tackle boxes of medical supplies into the streets to treat the homeless. Since 2012, when St. Joseph’s joined Emory Healthcare, Mercy Care has paid its own way with funding from Emory Healthcare; public and corporate grants; private donations; and patients, who pay on a sliding scale based on their income.
Despite having to regroup and build its own internal systems from scratch, Mercy Care has grown into 10 primary care locations throughout metro Atlanta, including six freestanding locations, four mobile clinics and multiple Street Care teams. It offers services for both children and adults, including primary, specialty, mental, vision and dental care, along with financial counseling, pastoral and recuperative care and much more.
Like God’s mercy, Mercy Care is for everyone. In 2018, 75% of its patients were uninsured and living below the Federal poverty line; 67% were homeless. Medicare, Medicaid and most insurance plans are accepted.
Mercy Care Chamblee, which opened in 2017, is an amazing 45,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility at 5134 Peachtree Road that I was privileged to tour recently. Notable in the lobby is a large plaque listing the donors who made it all possible. Many of the names are familiar to us all.
Everything at this location is exemplary, from the abundant natural light to the colorful furniture and walls, spotless floors and cheerful, welcoming staff. Many fancy Atlanta clinics could take lessons!
As chief mission officer, Sister Jane is responsible for keeping everyone on mission — which is compassion, commitment to the poor, excellence, integrity, justice, stewardship and reverence for the dignity of each person.
“I’m involved with employees as they’re carrying out the mission,” she said. “I give them structures for seeing their work as sacred. It’s God’s work, whatever their religion.”
One of her “structures” is the daily reflection she sends to everyone. She’s also learning how to address the “compassion fatigue” that affects people “surrounded by so much challenge and sorrow.”
“I’ve never seen so much joy at serving as I’ve seen at Mercy Care,” she said. “Part of my role is to listen and help them find balance and boundaries without giving up their heart.”
And then, there are the patients.
“I’ve never been so close to people who have so little,” she said. “I want to listen, learn and be close to them.”
With only four Sisters of Mercy in Atlanta and the numbers of religious dwindling everywhere, she feels her ultimate goal is “keeping the flame lit” among the lay people.
Unlike the nuns many of us remember from childhood, Sister Jane wears normal street clothes. Though she wore a traditional habit for eight years after joining the Sisters at age 17, she no longer owns one.
“The old habit was off-putting,” she said. “Dressing as lay women makes us more accessible.”
Like lay women, she lives in her own apartment in Brookhaven, very near the three other Sisters of Mercy, one of whom lives in an apartment across the street and the other two in the convent behind St. Joseph’s Hospital. They “live in community” by meeting several times a week for dinner and caring for one another..
“We’re a virtual community,” Sister Jane said.
Mercy Care accepts both financial and in-kind donations. For information, go to mercyatlanta.org.