Nurse serves God and humanity at St. Joseph’s

“Do you live in a convent?” “Did you ever wear a habit?” These are common questions that Sister Margaret Mary (Peggy) Fannon hears during her rounds as a nurse educator at St. Joseph’s Hospital of Atlanta.

“I never lived in a convent because Sisters of Mercy is an apostolic community,” said Fannon, RSM, RN, BSN, CDE. “Our members serve people out in the community. Most of us work as nurses or school teachers.

“And I never had to wear a habit because the rules had changed and sisters were wearing navy jumpers and white blouses by the time I entered the community. At work I wear street clothes and a lab jacket, but I always introduce myself as Sister Peggy.”

Much has changed since the Sisters of Mercy founded St. Joseph’s in 1880. Atlanta has grown exponentially since then, St. Joseph’s is part of Emory Healthcare and almost all the nurses at the hospital are lay people. In fact, Fannon is one of only three nuns who work as a nurse there.

Fannon has spent 40 of her 45 years as a nurse working at St. Joseph’s. “I was a nurse first. I had wanted to be a nurse since I was 4 years old, but for me nursing always felt more like a ministry than a job.”

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Fannon grew up in a devout Catholic household where religion was an important part of family life. “My spiritual development has happened throughout my life,” she said.

One of eight children, she attended Catholic schools in Atlanta and graduated from St. Joseph’s School of Nursing in 1968.

“There were many more sisters working at the hospital then, and I thought about a religious calling but my family circumstances changed, so I didn’t act on it.”

Her father died and her mother was diagnosed with cancer while Fannon was in nursing school. She honored her mother’s request to keep the family intact and raise her five younger brothers (ages 11 to 18) after her mother’s death.

“We had very supportive neighbors and family members in Ohio,” she said. “To this day, we’re a very close family. If anything happens, everyone knows within minutes.”

Fannon worked as a charge nurse in the pediatric unit at St. Joseph’s and then with burn patients for 11 years.

“I always felt that the hospital was the place to work because it was where you were going to keep up with the latest procedures and technology,” she said. “When I graduated from nursing school, we still had to count the drops per minute to calculate IV fluids. We didn’t even have dials to measure the flow. Our first diabetes education taught patients how to test their urine.

“I’ve seen a lot of new technology happen here and had wonderful nursing experiences.”

The religious life

When her youngest brother turned 21, Fannon became involved in the Catholic renewal movement and began to consider a religious calling. She left her job and moved to Baltimore to live with members of the Baltimore Regional Community of Sisters of Mercy in 1981. During the first year of her candidacy, Fannon worked in the burn unit at Baltimore City Hospital and participated in community life.

Afterward, Fannon entered a novitiate program and traded her nursing role for a year of prayer and study. At the end of that year she took her first vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and service, and worked part time as a nurse while taking courses toward her bachelor’s degree in nursing.

In 1985, she returned to Atlanta — and St. Joseph’s — and worked on the oncology floor and in neuro/vascular plastic surgery until moving into education. A certified diabetes educator, she teaches patients about their disease and how to cope with it.

In 1986, Fannon took her final vows to become a Religious Sister of Mercy in her parish, Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church in Atlanta.

“It was special to do it there because it meant that people who knew me growing up could come, as well as co-workers and doctors from the hospital,” she said.

As with any nurse, Fannon is paid for her services, but her salary goes to the Sisters of Mercy. She lives on a stipend provided by the religious community and participates in her order’s conferences and missions as time permits.

“I don’t think my nursing changed after I made my vows,” Fannon said. “I never considered nursing a job where you clocked in and out. Sometimes my director will say 'You need to leave,’ but if a patient asks for something, I can’t say 'I’m not your nurse or I’m off duty.’ Sometimes you just clock out and stay.”

At 67, she could retire from nursing, but she has no plans to do so. Her fellow sister/nurses at St. Joseph’s are in their 80s.

“Sometimes, patients respond differently when they learn I’m a sister, but I’m not there to proselytize. I’m just there as an educator and to help them improve, but sometimes patients ask about spiritual things,” she said. “I have always believed in treating patients holistically.”

Fannon has a passion for both of her roles.

“I love being a nurse and a sister,” she said. “It’s rewarding work and I feel very blessed.”

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