Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Several weeks ago, during early morning services at St. Mary’s of Sewanee, we celebrated Florence Nightingale’s contribution to the vocation of nursing. Appropriately, Sister Miriam, who is an RN, as well as a member of the Community of St. Mary, read us the biography of Florence Nightingale from LESSER FEASTS AND FASTS. She also read the Florence Nightingale pledge that nurses recite when they graduate from the School of Nursing, which includes a phrase “I will abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous.” When she read this phrase, I couldn’t resist smiling widely since Sister Miriam often flashes a mischievous look my way when she’s supposed to be in “bowed head position” as we begin services. On a more serious note, she read “The Nightingale Tribute,” which is delivered at the funeral of any RN or LPN in Kansas to honor their years of service. It includes a poem praising nurses entitled “She Was There,” a poem that recognizes the omnipresent, dedicated nurse.

The biography of Florence Nightingale Sister Miriam read was short but conveyed the clear message that Florence elevated nursing to a respected profession during her lifetime. She was born in Florence, Italy and trained at Kaiserwerth and Paris in response to God’s call to the vocation, and soon became superintendent of a hospital for invalid women in London. She then served as a volunteer during the Crimean War and introduced sanitation and hygiene methods to British hospitals of Scutari and Balclava, drastically reducing the number of deaths from infections rampant in field hospitals during the early 20th century. Following Florence Nightingale’s war-time service, she was given 50,000 pounds to establish an institute to train nurses at St. Thomas Hospital and King’s College Hospital in the UK where she brought nursing to a high level of professionalism. In addition, Florence Nightingale contributed to public health services in India and authored a much-touted manual entitled NOTES ON NURSING. An Anglican described as “mystical,” she had many spiritual conversations with the prominent church leaders of the day (early 1900’s) and gained a strong reputation as a healer throughout the world.

As Sister Miriam read the short biography, I was reminded of Miss Katherine Avery of Avery Island, LA (home of Tabasco), a public health nurse who was often called “Florence Nightingale of Bayou Country,” for her work during a major flood in Acadiana in 1927, just a few days after Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris, France. As flood waters rose, Katherine assisted refugees into boxcars which transferred the victims to higher ground and served as head of an emergency hospital set up in Cade, LA, eight miles north of New Iberia. Katherine also traveled over Iberia Parish with a physician, helping families re-establish their homes, making certain that they were using proper sanitation practices. She often sacrificed her own funds to see that indigent children received medical care and accompanied a trainload of them to New Orleans so that they could undergo tonsillectomies and appendectomies. She took crippled children, at her own expense, to be treated by an orthopedic specialist at Charity Hospital in New Orleans. I wrote a profile about this remarkable woman in my book entitled THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL, Profiles of Memorable Louisiana Women, a book now out-of-print.

Sister Miriam continues in the tradition of these Florence Nightingales and has served as a nurse for special cases of AIDS, HIV, including babies and children with AIDS/HIV, worked as a psychiatric nurse, as an OB/GYN nurse and formed the first birthing unit in Grand Junction, Colorado (for which she was named to WHO’S WHO AMONG HUMAN SERVICES PROFESSIONALS). Sister Miriam received training in the UK, not to become a nurse but to become a member of the Sisters of Charity. She also graduated from an Ignatian School of Spiritual Direction, completed four years of Education For Ministry, a four-year course called “Equipping the Saints,” and has certification from the National League of Childhood and Parenthood Educators. She completed 400 hrs. of Clinical Pastoral Education in Maryland, graduated from a Hospice training, and was in the ordination process in West Virginia before moving to Sewanee. When the Mother House of the Sisters of Charity closed in West Virginia, approximately a year ago, Sister Miriam and two other sisters transferred to the Community of St. Mary.

Sister Miriam has a crown of curly red hair and often becomes fiery and passionate about justice issues and children. She provides medical supplies and medical attention at a Port au Prince orphanage every year and is the person who inspired me and my friend Vickie to raise money for a water purification system that will be set up for the orphanage in Haiti in November. She’s also the Sister who bade me sit and hold my head down when I experienced an episode of heat exhaustion on July 4 while watching a dog and cat show. It’s refreshing to know someone who has a dual calling in care-giving, particularly one with a streak of wit and a penchant for mischief, both of which are leavening agents in the serious vocations to which she has been called.

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