Community braces for St. Mary’s closing  

Betty BeanFeature

The lights of St. Mary’s are still shining, sort of. There are a couple of tree shapes in white lights on the hospital roof, probably placed there in remembrance of the dazzling shows of holiday color that used to light up the North Knoxville sky at Christmastime. It’s a brave little display up on Oak Hill Avenue, now that Tennova’s ax is poised to fall on the hospital that has been the center of this community for 88 years.

Eleven months ago, I wrote this column.

It was a response to the “news” that Tennova was going to keep components of the former St. Mary’s Hospital open. While it was not exactly a heartfelt thank you, it was an acknowledgement that at least parts of the old hospital would continue to serve the people of this city.

That, of course, turned out to be a false hope. A lie.

Tennova, you jerked us around for years before delivering the kill shot.

St. Mary’s dies on Dec. 28.

Employees report that homeless camps complete with campfires have begun cropping up in the cavernous parking garages, although this will probably be a short-lived use of the property because the city hopes to put a new home for the police and fire departments there in the near future. It’s not a done deal yet, but since moving KPD is a necessary component of the plan to accept Jim Clayton’s offer to build a children’s museum at the Safety Building site, smart money says this deal’s going down.

Most everyone hopes so. And yes, I’ve used the word hope in consecutive paragraphs. It springs eternal, hope does.

But right now, the landscape is bleak.

Last Sunday, heart surgeon Richard Briggs walked the halls of St. Mary’s. They were empty. This had been his primary work home for 25 years, and he is proud of the team he was part of and of the culture of caring established by the Sisters of Mercy, who took the lead in building the hospital in 1930 with the permission of the Nashville Diocese.

He remembers stuff like Peyton Manning’s first big TV commercial with Sister Maris Stella, a tiny, elderly nun who had plenty of game (and was a champ at branding).

“I walked through every floor, remembering. I sat down in the surgery lounge where I sat when I came here in 1991, waiting for Charlene (Minnefield, the nurse who ran the surgery unit) to get my cases ready. It was really tough.

“An employee approached me and asked, ‘Can I help you? Are you lost?’

“Lost … I worked there for 25 years, and served on the board.”

(Note: Briggs was not one of the physicians who wanted to move to West Knoxville, a factor that Tennova officials have cited as one of the motivations for the move.)

Jazz singer Nancy Brennan Strange lives about three blocks from the hospital. She was friends with the nuns, who offered her a job there in 1973, singing to patients in Tower Four – the in-patient psychiatric unit. It was a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility then and has been open continuously since.

She describes her job as “mental health worker, occupational therapist/secretary,” but says it mostly came down to the music, which was a big part of the Tower Four treatment plan.

“They would always hire me because I could play guitar and play with them,” she said.

The soon-to-be-vacant Religious Sisters of Mercy convent on Oak Hill Avenue

She’s sad that the remaining Sisters of Mercy are moving to Nashville and devastated that the hospital is closing.

“Tennova also bought the convent, and now the nuns are having to move and the daycare center is closing, too.”

Update – the daycare is NOT closing, according to board treasurer Scott Griswold. He said parents took over management of Little Oaks Academy in June 2015 and have operated it since. “Tennova is our landlord, but we’re not closing.”

After the state closed Lakeshore Mental Health Institute, Tower Four became the last option in the city for those who needed in-patient care. Brennan Strange worries about what will happen to them now. She worries about her neighborhood, too.

“I think I’ve been in denial. Now that we’re coming down to it, it makes me sick. This shouldn’t be happening.”

The hospital has been a part of Karen Scott Bright’s life since childhood – she was raised in its shadow in Lincoln Park. Her mother worked there as a CNA, and her aunt worked on the switchboard and then in the linen room. Her children were born there – she remembers Sister Assisium presenting new mothers with gifts of tiny, beribboned baby bonnets.

“It was just the sweetest thing. The nuns were just so involved with the patients and employees.”

Bright is a graduate of St. Mary’s School of Nursing, class of 1980, and worked there for 14 years after she became an RN. She is a graduate of Lincoln Park Elementary School, Christenberry Middle School and Fulton High School. She worries about her home community.

“I just don’t know what the older people are going to do. This is just such a shame.”

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