Sisters of Mercy reach 135 years of care at Saint Joseph’s

The Rocco family found themselves huddled together in a recovery room at Emory Saint Joseph's Hospital a little over a year ago.

None of them lived in the metro Atlanta area or even Georgia. The patient was Carisa Rocco, 33 at the time, and living in New Jersey. Her parents resided in Ohio. Carisa’s older sisters lived in Las Vegas. But in doing their research, the Rocco family decided Saint Joseph’s was the best choice for a complex, robot-assisted heart procedure.

When the family first arrived, they didn’t know the hospital was founded in 1880 by four Sisters of Mercy from Savannah, and that there were four nuns currently on staff. But it didn’t take long for the family to feel the spiritual presence woven into the fabric of this hospital, celebrating its 135th anniversary this year.

Inside the recovery room, shortly after Carisa underwent surgery to repair a hole in the wall between the two upper chambers of her heart, Sister Valentina Sheridan, often called simply “Sister Val,” made a visit. Sheridan, a tall woman with white wavy hair and a warm smile, seemed to almost float into the room.

“My daughter was just coming out of anesthesia and was drowsy. Sister Val got close and said a small prayer with us. My daughter responded. Sister Val was typical of a marvelous nun,” Henry Rocco, who is a retired orthopedic surgeon, said by phone recently.

The surgery was hailed a success. Carisa quickly resumed her busy, active life without any limitations. But today, as the family looks back at the care and their experience at the hospital, they laud the kindness of the nuns as much as the good care from the doctors and nurses.

“Nuns are like the healing angels that provide that peace and serenity and encouragement,” Rocco said.

In 1880, after witnessing the wounded and dying of the Civil War, four Sisters of Mercy nuns from Savannah left their convent, and with just 50 cents in their collective purse, they set up a medical facility in a small house on the corner of Courtland and Baker streets. Saint Joseph’s, Atlanta’s oldest and only Catholic hospital, moved to Dunwoody in 1978. Four years ago, Saint Joseph’s formed a partnership with Emory Healthcare. Under the partnership, Emory Healthcare obtained a 51 percent ownership stake in Saint Joseph’s, but Saint Joseph’s retains the final say on the ethical and religious rules governing clinical practices within the hospital.

Today, only four sisters remain at the hospital. With their ages ranging from 60s to 80s, the sisters play key roles in everything from patient advocacy and patient education to chief mission officer.

Coleen Wells, a registered nurse at Saint Joseph’s, said she has always found the nuns’ presence calming and reassuring. She said if she is having a tough day, maybe a patient isn’t doing well or she’s just feeling tired from a long 10- to 12-hour day, the sisters will put their arms around her and dole out encouraging words.

“They will tell me I am doing a great job, your patients love you, almost at the end of the day or week, and it’s just so calming. We all love the sisters.”

She said the staff is able to “buy into the mission of the sisters” regardless of their religion or beliefs. The same goes for patients. Approximately only 10 percent of the patients identify as Catholics.

Wells said the mission statement is something instilled in her when she started several years ago, and she keeps a copy of it folded inside her badge.

Furthering the healing ministry of the Sisters of Mercy, Saint Joseph’s Hospital gives tangible expression to Christ’s merciful love by providing compassionate, clinically excellent health care in the spirit of loving service to those in need, with special attention to the poor and vulnerable.

She also looks forward to daily inspirational messages from Sister Rosemary Smith, who sends them via email first thing every morning to the entire staff.

The four remaining nuns know they will retire, one by one, and likely won’t be replaced since so few nuns are entering the ministry.

“People are so concerned about what will happen when the sisters aren’t here,” Sheridan said. “And we tell them if they really hold the mission up as something that they aspire to, then they have to live it and if they continue living that spirit, they don’t have to worry about whether we are here or not. It’s going to carry forth and this is what we are hoping for. … I tell them, if they want their children to have certain values and to live those values, the best way to do it is by example.”


There are only a small number of Sisters of Mercy remaining in metro Atlanta. Three of the four work at Emory St. Joseph’s Hospital, along with a nun from the Sisters of Charity.

Sister Valentina Sheridan, director of mission integration: Sheridan is a steady bedside presence to many patients and families in her role at Emory Saint Joseph's. Sheridan, a former teacher, principal and superintendent of education for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, started working at the hospital in 1994.

Sister Denis Marie Murphy, a patient advocate: She helps families navigate the health care system and follows up on patient concerns. Murphy has worked at Emory Saint Joseph's for nearly 24 years.

Sister Peggy Fannon, a nurse educator: A nurse for 46 years, Fannon has worked at Emory Saint Joseph's for more than 40 years.

Sister Rosemary Smith, chief mission officer at Emory St. Joseph's (she is a Sister of Charity, not a Sister of Mercy): Smith is responsible for making sure the hospital is keeping with its charitable mission. She is also co-chair of the Emory Saint Joseph's Ethics Committee, which addresses ethical conflicts and dilemmas related to caregiving. She is also one of only a small number of women in the Catholic Church to hold a doctorate in canon law, which is the study of the laws of the Catholic Church.

Sister Angela Ebberwein, vice president of Mission at Mercy Care, which provides care for homeless and uninsured people: In her role, Ebberwein works with volunteer medical staff to ensure the Mercy mission to provide compassionate care is carried out. Although she does not work at Emory Saint Joseph’s, she is a Sister of Mercy and lives at the convent on the hospital campus.

About the Author