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A Century Of Service

March 16, 2014, 10:05 PM by Brittany Larson

A Century Of Service

For more than a century, Catholic sisters throughout the region have been providing a healing touch to those in need.

The health ministry of the Benedictine and Presentation sisters, which is rooted from the gospel, is the foundation of Avera Health.

"I'm Sister Mary nice to meet you, I hear we are treating you well," Senior Vice President of Remission, Sister Mary Thomas said.

Even in a patient's darkest hours, a friendly greeting from Sister Mary Thomas can lift spirits high.

"The very fact that they are sick or someone they love is sick puts them in a vulnerable place. So we have to attend to them in that place of vulnerability as we try and serve them physically of course, spiritually, emotionally and attend to their needs as they emerge," Thomas said.  

"How often do you come for treatment?" Thomas said.
"Every Tuesday, I've have eight down and four to go," Perry Raman said.

It's Sister Mary Thomas's desire, along with the other sisters in her order, to fill a need that goes beyond medication and connects with people personally.

"My role is to communicate, whether I'm walking down the hall or in a meeting. I am very grateful for their presence and that they have chosen to work with us," Thomas said.

The sisters' commitment to serving  stems all the way back to the late 1800's when Bishop Martin Marty heard there were Benedictine sisters in Missouri and asked four of them to come to Dakota Territory.

"Our community goes back in health care to 1897 and that was when the first hospital was built in Yankton," Sister Mary Kay Panowicz, Order St. Benedict.  

Sister Mary Kay Panowicz today serves the sisters' mission from behind an administration desk. When the Sacred Heart Hospital first opened its doors in Yankton, it was primarily staffed by sisters who were trained as nurses.

"One of the chapters is the rule of St. Benedict is on the care of the sick, and in there it says before and above all things care is to be taken of the sick," Sister Mary Kay Panowicz, Order St. Benedict.

The women have lived by that rule and have been committed to improving rural health care and serving the people of rural areas.

"We had a health system called the Benedictine Health System of Yankton and the Presentations had the Presentation Health System, and we were both serving primarily in eastern South Dakota. And we thought, rather than competing with each other, it made so much more sense to come together and really form a strong Catholic health care presence primarily in eastern SD, because that's where our institutions were," Panowicz said.

In January of 1911, construction began on another hospital. Almost a year later, the new Avera McKennan was dedicated to Sioux Falls.

"When my dad used to talk about it 75 years ago it was a ministry and it still is a ministry," Dr. Pat McGreevy.

Dr. Pat McGreevy has more than 40 years of experience practicing in the health care industry.

"Their philosophy... it still permeates. They still have the final word and they are crucial to what the ministry and the mission of this system is all about," Dr. McGreevy said.

He's seen first-hand how the sisters' mission to serve has had a positive impact on people and their health, because it has been guided by their Christian values.

"To watch that never-ending juggling act between being true to your ministry and your mission and at the same time operating a successful business, because in a sense it is a business. And I think they have done a great job and I hope it continues," Dr. McGreevy said.

It continues a legacy of helping others without expecting or wanting any recognition.

"The sisters do not brag and sometimes they have been criticized for that, speak up tell the world what you are about and what you do but they don't. They go about their mission and they go about their ministry but they don't necessarily shout it from the rough tops."

Which is why anyone who has met any of these sisters knows every one of them can make people feel better with a lot more than a contagious smile or a comforting hug.

Today, the sisters support services and maintain care at more than 300 locations in eastern South Dakota as well as surrounding Midwest states.

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