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.
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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.