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Posted by on December 2, 2012.

Though few in number, nuns make a big impact at St. Joe’s

Sister Rosemary Smith, left, and Sister Valentina Sheridan, right, at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

It would be an understatement to say Sister Valentina Sheridan is a people person.

Known to most as Sister Val, Sheridan can almost always be found walking the halls at St. Joseph’s Hospital, visiting with patients or meeting with volunteers and staff members.

She knows few strangers, stopping to talk to families waiting in the lobby or offering a smile and a kind word to a tired employee.

And when she leaves, she doesn’t go far. Sheridan is one of three nuns who live in a convent on the campus of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Sandy Springs.

“What gives me life is walking into this hospital every day,” Sheridan said. “There’s a spirit here. The people I work with, they give me life.”

St. Joseph’s was founded by four nuns who traveled from Savannah to Atlanta in 1880 to establish a hospital. They came with almost no money, but were on a mission to care for the sick.

“It was the first hospital in Atlanta. There was no free standing hospital before that time,” Sheridan said.

Though more than a century has passed since the nuns established the hospital, the sisters still play an important role at St. Joe’s.

St. Joseph’s CEO Scott Schmidly said the sisters reinforce the feeling that the hospital’s work is about a higher calling of service.

“I think one of the aspects that does set St. Joseph’s apart is the level of involvement of our sisters and what a joy they bring day in and day out to our patients, their families and our staff,” Schmidly said. “It’s a pleasure to serve St. Joseph’s because of the culture they’ve helped develop and certainly helped sustain.”

Sister Rosemary Smith recently came to St. Joseph’s from New Jersey to serve as the hospital’s Chief Mission Officer. She said just as a Chief Financial Officer is devoted to overseeing the finances of an organization, her job is to make sure the hospital is keeping with its charitable mission.

“That’s my role – to keep an eye on the mission. What’s thriving? What are the challenges?” she said.

Sheridan said a big part of what the sisters do is work to foster a compassionate and welcoming environment, from the top surgeons to the housekeeping staff.

“We believe that each person is sacred,” she said. “We are to treat each person with dignity and respect. Not just the patients, but one another.”

Greg Pocock is one of four full-time chaplains that work at the hospital. He works the overnight shift, and though he interacts mostly with people in the midst of crisis and death, he said it’s his dream job.

Visiting the convent on a chilly fall day, Pocock and Sheridan talk about what they describe as the “spirit” of the hospital and the work they do with patients and hospital staff.

The convent is a large brick building which takes on characteristics of both a home and a church. The walls are adorned with crucifixes and religious art. A small chapel with pews and stained glass windows occupies part of the ground floor. But the convent is also cozy. Down the hall from the chapel is a living room with a television, worn-in sofas and a newspaper on the coffee table. A back porch overlooks a pond and the raised beds of a vegetable garden.

“I think our ministry is a ministry of presence — being present to listen to people,” Pocock said. “You know God is so present there at the time you are with them.”

Though the sisters are very involved in the spiritual side of the hospital, they are also involved in things like administration and community outreach.

“That’s a piece of everything we do. However, the mission is bigger than the spiritual side,” Sister Rosemary said.

The role of the sisters has changed over the years.

In the past there have been as many as 20 sisters at the hospital, Sheridan said. In the early days, sisters cleaned, served as nurses, and held just about every position within the hospital.

But as the sisters age, the hospital isn’t seeing young nuns coming in to replace them. “We don’t have young women who are entering religious life,” Sheridan said.

That’s not unique to St. Joe’s, either. Women are now more interested in volunteering in their parishes rather than taking a vow to enter a religious order, Sheridan said.

The pastoral care department has great reverence for the sisters, Pocock said. Pocock refers to Sheridan as his “dream maker,” recalling the way she encouraged him during his time as a volunteer at the hospital and led him to take on his role as a chaplain.

“Obviously we don’t have the number of sisters we once had, which is why we cling so desperately to the ones we still have,” Pocock said. “We are all the legacy of the sisters. They taught us what it meant to have a servant’s heart. The sisters have been our inspiration. What they have instilled in us remains.”