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Sisters of Mercy: Mason City residency program welcomes first nuns in its 40-year history

MASON CITY | Sister Mary Lisa Renfer and Sister Maliya Suen count their time in Mason City a blessing.

The nuns are among 18 residents enrolled in the family medicine residency program at Mercy Medical Center-North Iowa, and the first religious women in the program’s 40-year history, said Sharla Wellik, Mercy residency coordinator.

“It’s been a great experience being here,” Renfer said.

The women, who belong to the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan, are also the first sisters within their community of about 100 to serve in the same program at the same time.

The Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan, which is different from the Sisters of Mercy who opened St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Mason City in 1916, take Mother Catherine McAuley as its original foundress, and are dedicated to “reaching out to those in need with the mercy and love of God,” Renfer said.

In their community, the nuns, who take vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and service, serve in various capacities, including as health care providers and educators, around the U.S. and the world.

“There’s just a lot of woundedness in the world today, so there’s plenty of opportunity for us to serve,” Suen said.

Renfer, 30, and Suen, 34, arrived in Mason City for the three-year family medicine residency program in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

“There are good teachers; attendings who are friendly, kind and always willing to teach,” Suen said. “It’s a good environment, and patients are also nice.”

The program, Renfer said, is good preparation for their work after residency because nuns generally serve in rural areas where there’s a need for physicians and family medicine is focused on the comprehensive health of people of all ages.

Their charism, or guiding spirit, of mercy also coincides well with their work, because in health care, physicians often meet people during “life-changing moments,” she said.

“For us, (what we do as physicians) stems from who we are as Sisters of Mercy,” Renfer said.

Sister Mary Benedicta Maier, Religious Sisters of Mercy vocation director, said nuns receive stipends for their work at a rate determined by the local diocesan based on the local cost of living.

“Because a sister voluntarily takes a vow of poverty, a sister typically does not receive a paycheck in her name, but instead the check is made payable to the religious community,” she said in an email to the Globe Gazette. “Sisters do not usually have their own personal bank accounts, but partake of a common fund in which they ask for permission for their necessary expenditures.”

According to data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the total number of nuns in the U.S. has fallen from about 180,000 in 1965 to about 50,000 in 2014.

Renfer joined the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan, eight years ago, and Suen joined five years ago.

Renfer, a Michigan native, remembers considering religious life when she was in junior high, but it became clearer to her during her junior year at Franciscan University of Steubenville, a small Catholic university in Ohio, that it was what the Lord was calling her to do.

The summer after she completed her junior year of college, she visited the Motherhouse of the Religious Sisters of Mercy in Alma, Michigan, and two months later, she joined the community.

“When I came and actually made the choice, there was just so much peace and joy with that, so I knew that this was what I was meant to do,” she said.

Suen, an Australia native, was attending medical school at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney, Australia, when she felt called to religious life.

“At first I wanted to get married, go into mission work, but after lots of prayers, I had the excitement and the desire to serve the Lord with my whole life, not just a couple years, not just part-time, but with entirety,” she said.

Suen joined the community after graduating from medical school.

After joining the Religious Sisters of Mercy, the women spent two years at the Motherhouse in Alma, Michigan, where they didn’t attend school or work outside the convent.

“It’s kind of a special time to really get to know the community,” Renfer said.

Renfer was then sent to a convent in the Lansing, Michigan, area, where she completed her undergraduate and medical school at Michigan State University before arriving in Mason City. Suen, who had finished medical school in Australia, prepared for her medical licensing exams.

The nuns live together in Mason City, and in addition to praying and studying, they enjoy completing puzzle, cooking, baking and visiting local parks when the weather allows. When they have two days off together, they visit the nearest convent in Jackson, Minnesota.

Renfer has a year and a half left in her residency, while Suen has two and a half years left, and after they complete the program, they’ll be sent wherever they’re needed.

And where that might be? They don’t know.

“That’s kind of the mystery of our lives,” Renfer said, adding the decision is made by the community’s superior general and her council. “It’s an adventure.”

But what the sisters do know is they’re grateful — grateful for the opportunity to serve God and others at Mercy Medical Center-North Iowa.

“It’s been a blessing,” Suen said.

Protesters picket home of Iowa Senate leader

SHELL ROCK | Union and Democratic activists picketed the home of Iowa Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix Saturday to protest what they called his anti-family and anti-worker agenda.

About 100 protesters carrying signs and banging drums marched on the snow-packed sidewalk and street in front of Dix's family home for nearly an hour.

Local law enforcement agencies barricaded the street. A few neighbors watched from a nearby deck as protesters gave speeches and chanted "Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Bill Dix has got to go."

"I think having a hundred people in front of Bill Dix's house on a five-degree day is a sign that people have had enough of Bill Dix," said Jesse Case, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 238, which organized the event.

"We have people that carpooled locally," he said. "We have people that drove from Des Moines, southern Iowa, Quad Cities and Cedar Rapids."

The Teamsters were supported by Butler County Democrats, who hosted a chili dinner at the nearby Boyd Community Center and planned to distribute fliers around the community later in the day.

Those at the picket criticized the Republican legislative agenda, which they called harmful to working families, veterans, education, health care and seniors.

"Stop the attack on Iowa families," Case said. "It's not acceptable to attack our veterans, our teachers. He's cut funding for nursing home inspections. He's cut funding for child abuse and elderly abuse."

Many also voiced criticism of Dix due to a $1.75 million settlement from a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Kirsten Anderson, who was fired as the Iowa Senate Republican Caucus communications director in 2013 after lodging a sexual harassment complaint against the Senate GOP caucus, which Dix leads.

Anderson attended the picket where she spoke out against Dix and the GOP leadership.

"We're tired, we're fed up, we're mad, we're embarrassed at this so-called leadership in our state," Anderson said. "(Dix) has taken a retaliatory approach for years. I reported four times. The fourth time I was shoved out the door."

Dan MacDonald, an Army veteran, blamed the GOP for cutting veterans benefits, adding that more than 36,000 military veterans work in public sector jobs that saw their bargaining rights cut in the last legislative session. He said cuts to mental health care are also harmful to veterans.

Toby Paone, a member of the Iowa State Education Association who traveled from Davenport for the picket, said the GOP was turning Iowa in to a "Third World state."

"The agenda Bill Dix and the majority party have in Des Moines is wrong for Iowans," Paone said. "All they do cut, cut, cut. They cut schools, they've cut hospitals, they've cut nursing programs. We need to turn that around."

Dix was not at home during the picket and could not be reached immediately for comment. He previously told the Des Moines Register residents have a right to protest.

But Republicans of Black Hawk County issued a statement saying they were "outraged" by the unusual step of protesting at a lawmaker's private home.

"If you disagree with Sen. Dix or his policies or actions that is fine," the group said. "Call his office, make an appointment at his office, send him an email or even visit him at the Statehouse. However, to bus people in from who knows where and to go to someone's home and protest/picket outside their front door is beyond the pale."

Dave Mansheim, chairman of the Butler County Democrats, said he felt the local protest was appropriate, suggesting many of neighbors in Shell Rock aren't always hearing the truth about what Dix is doing in Des Moines.

"They don't know that he's voting against their interests," Mansheim said. "Bill Dix's agenda in Des Moines is not pro-working family.

"They have taken away rights of collective bargaining for employees. They have actually reduced the minimum wage for about 60,000 people. They've reduced Medicaid. They're not supporting education."

Iowa Legislature  


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Officials: We want your ideas on repurposing Mason City mall

MASON CITY | North Iowans with ideas for businesses to locate in Southbridge Mall — or to repurpose the mall — are invited to a brainstorming session.

The session is 5 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 23, in the storefront formerly occupied by C.J. Banks at Southbridge.

The event will be "drop-in" in nature to solicit ideas for potential tenants, said Robin Anderson, executive director of the Mason City Chamber of Commerce, one of the organizers.

Co-sponsor is North Iowa Corridor Economic Development Corporation with assistance from Main Street Mason City and Cindy Boender, Southbridge manager.

"Malls across the country are being repurposed from traditional shopping centers to everything from entertainment centers to medical offices, satellite college campuses, micro-apartments, and churches," Anderson said. "We know we’ll be adding an ice arena/event center and performance venue to our downtown mall. It will be interesting to hear what our citizens believe will complement these plans."

Chad Schreck, president of the Corridor organization, agreed. "This will be an opportunity for people to step forward and share what they’re thinking and hearing, and we’ll do our best to help bring those ideas to fruition," he said.

Anderson said in order for the financing package related to the Iowa Reinvestment Act project to work, Southbridge must remain in private hands and must find tenants with the ability to pay rent and formulate a successful revenue stream.