Nun celebrates 50 years of faith

Sister Connie Fahey faced pain and found purpose in January 1954 while sitting on a back pew at a friend’s funeral.

She was saying good-bye to Franciscan Sister Elise Moellering, stolen by death in a car wreck.

“Her funeral really impressed me,” Sister Fahey says. “Everyone was talking about all the good she had done in her life. She was caring and compassionate, and I felt I needed to be like her.”

So as grief brought Sister Fahey to tears, her heart told her what she must do — become a nun.

On March 1, the nun celebrated 50 years as one of 157 women in the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, a religious congregation within the Catholic Church.

“I had to follow my star,” says Sister Fahey, who is 67. “God was calling me. And when God calls, you respond.”

Heeding God’s voice for the sister has meant stepping into leadership roles and manning the reins to ensure the work at hand gets done by people with a heart to help.

In the autumn of 1980, she spearheaded the charge of establishing Mercy Hospice of Horry County. Her guidance has helped it grow from three staff members and six volunteers serving about 30 patients to 28 employees and 75 volunteers caring for about 400 patients.

“When I think about Mercy Hospice, I think about Sister Connie first,” says Tim Browne, president and chief executive officer of Loris Healthcare System and hospice board member. “She is really the lifeblood of that organization. She is a unique person who has a unique spirit. She is committed.”

Since January 1995, Sister Fahey has been executive director of Mercy Hospice, sponsored by Loris Healthcare System, Grand Strand Regional Medical Center and Conway Medical Center.

“Mercy Hospice just isn’t a job for her,” says Becky Zdybel, president of its community board. “She has made it a ministry.”

Sister Fahey testifies to that truth.

“All the volunteers and employees are mission-minded,” says the sister, who started the Children’s Grief and Loss Program. “They are doing God’s work. They want to make a difference, and my job is to make sure they can.”

Where her heart is

While morning is still cloaked in darkness, Sister Fahey gets out of bed and trods into her kitchen to brew coffee.

After a cup, she goes into her bedroom, lit by a single pillar candle, and prays for at least 45 minutes while lying back in a recliner in the corner of the room.

She does this in silence. Her eyes are closed.

She wears her glasses, and her salt-and-pepper hair still is perfectly coiffed when prayer time is over.

When she first became a nun, she wore a white habit while working at St. Mary’s Hospital in St. Louis.

The habit covered her hair and all else except her face.

But after the Second Vatican Council, in which the church underwent three years of institutional soul-searching beginning in 1962, many habits came off. Some sisters left the order. Others married. Some never quite fit in. Sister Fahey always knew she belonged, and she stayed put — although she wanted to lose the habit.

“It wasn’t that comfortable,” says the sister, who stopped wearing her habit in 1964 while at Cardinal Glennon Hospital for Children in St. Louis.

As changes within the church caused some nuns to rethink their mission, Sister Fahey cemented her health care roles, which allowed her to do everything from developing diagnostic tests in pediatric medicine to managing eight hospital CEOs as a regional vice president of her order’s health care system.

“I think Connie has always been described as a visionary person,” says Sister Sandy Schwartz, who Sister Fahey recruited to work for Mercy Hospice. “She sees beyond the possibilities. She is quiet, an introvert. But she is always thinking all the time.”

Her mind was on fast-forward in 1980 when she learned Horry County had no hospice program. She was working at McLeod Regional Medical Center in Florence, where in less than three years she had established a hospice and launched a medical technology program.

“I think the service of caring for people at the end of their lives is extremely important because, in those moments before we die, we need a compassionate, healing presence,” Sister Fahey says.

And that’s exactly what Charles Byers of Windy Hill says his wife, Zola, received when staffers and volunteers from Mercy Hospice of Horry County cared for her for two months before she died Jan. 18 of pancreatic cancer.

“I don’t have the right words to say,” Byers says. “The whole outfit was fantastic. I would hear my wife laughing from the bathroom. She and one of the hospice workers would be telling each other jokes.”

For Carol Luse, Mercy Hospice of Horry County has allowed her some relief from the constant care of her father, Verness. He is 87 and has congestive heart failure.

“My father gets good care, and it is a relief,” says Luse, who lives in Socastee. “It is obvious that the people of Mercy Hospice care. You can tell by their attitudes.”

Luse, who also cares for her 84-year-old mother, says without Mercy Hospice, she and her husband would be at a loss.

A music teacher who wasn’t

Nuns were always near Sister Fahey.

She lived across the street from St. James convent as a girl growing up in Madison, Wis.

They worked at St. Mary’s Hospital there, and she attended Edgewood High School, a Catholic school, where she immersed herself in music.

“I was always very religious, and I was very involved at school,” she says. “I was in the choir, and I did orchestra stuff. I’d play the piano and sing in the church choir. I thought I would grow up and be a music teacher.”

The organ and cello also were part of her repertoire.

But when she landed a job during her freshman year at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, aspirations of life in music were replaced by a desire for a life lived in service to God.

Sister Moellering was her model.

“She was an excellent nurse, and she always paid attention to all the little niceties,” Sister Fahey says. “She was careful about how she did everything. The patients’ trays had to be fixed just right, and she knew all the patients by their names.”

The nun’s life and work confirmed what Sister Fahey knew as a child, but she had doubts. Maybe she wanted to marry one day. Maybe she wanted kids. She’d had a crush on a farmer boy, and he knew.

However, some things could not be changed.

“I was in love with God, and it was just like being in love with a guy except it was God,” Fahey says. “And God has always been the center of my life.”

A nun gave her an application at Moellering’s funeral, and Sister Fahey signed up.

“My mother encouraged me, even though she didn’t want to lose her good help,” she says.

As the oldest child of Faith and Paul Fahey, she was expected to assist in nurturing her 11 younger siblings.

She knew God wanted her to foster her faith then and now.

“When you decide to become a nun, you do it for a lot of reasons,” Sister Fahey says. “But in the end, you do it because God gets to you. Nuns pay attention to what God asks us every day. We are just normal people trying to do God’s will. We are not weirdos.”