There are many ways that people come to know the Catholic Church. In eastern Tennessee it is at a doctor’s appointment.
The doctor — Sister Mariana Koonce, a Sister of Mercy — doesn’t like to separate the “healing” of the body from the “ministry” of the soul. She is evangelizing in Appalachian communities where the Catholic Church has never had a presence.
Since 2014 she has been managing a mobile health clinic in the Diocese of Knoxville that offers free, primary medical care. Traveling to sites in rural Tennessee on a biweekly and monthly basis year round, Sister Koonce treats everyone who seeks health care from the nonprofit clinic, regardless of religious background. The only requirement is that patients must be without health care insurance and unable to afford coverage.
The custom-made, three-axle, 40-foot-long diesel van — called St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic — has two exam rooms, and Sister Koonce drives it herself. Based on an initiative by Knoxville’s Bishop Richard Stika, its mission is to extend the Church to impoverished areas that have low health standards and little exposure to Catholicism.
Catholics make up only 3 percent of the population in east Tennessee, and many people are wary of Catholics. “There is a lot of prejudice against and suspicion of the Church,” Sister Koonce said. “The mobile clinic allows us to show the face of the Catholic Church in a nonthreatening way, providing a service that people need.”
As a faith-based, health care provider, Sister Koonce has established a network of 70 volunteer medical professionals to assist her in treating patients.
They serve five communities — Crab Orchard, Washburn, Decatur, Athens and Rutledge — three of which have no Catholic church.
The mobile clinic treats patients in counties where about 20 percent of the residents live in poverty and all of the patients they see are at or below the poverty line. Its mobility is particularly important since transportation is such a huge barrier for the rural poor and many live far from other clinics and hospitals.
At the beginning, people were reluctant to use the clinic. Unfamiliarity with the Catholic Church and the diocese — and a diminutive sister wearing a habit and stethoscope — led to reticence. But Sister Koonce’s perseverance has broken down these walls.
Emblazoned across the van are the words, “Extending the Healing Ministry of Jesus to East Tennessee.” When patients enter, they see messages of hope and images of Jesus and Pope Francis.
“Many people haven’t ever met a sister or even a Catholic,” Sister Koonce said. “So it’s a great way to show them what the Catholic Church is all about. We are here for them.”
In the first two years of operating, Sister Koonce has treated 800 patients, and she expects to see 600 this year. The main focus is on managing chronic diseases and educating patients. She particularly wants to alleviate and prevent ailments such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension, influenza and allergies — conditions that are particularly serious for those without regular health care.
In addition to running St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic, Sister Koonce directs the diocesan Office of Health Services. Previously she was a senior medical officer with the Navy for more than seven years, and she was deployed overseas twice.
In 2015, through the Health Ministry Initiative, Catholic Extension approved a grant to hire a full-time nurse to help the clinic.
Sister Koonce said that patients often say, “Thank you. I have never been treated so well.”
She added, “Our patients have many problems that we cannot solve, but one of our biggest roles is simply to uplift their sense of dignity, so they leave our clinic knowing that they are valuable because they are a son or daughter of God.”
Watch this video to see Sister Mariana Koonce's ministry in action.