Mary Immaculate Health/Care Services celebrates 150 years

LAWRENCE -- A window in the multi-purpose room of Mary Immaculate (MI) Nursing/Restorative Center in Lawrence is covered in handmade birthday cards. Colorful and decorative, the cards seem to glow from the light pouring in behind them. It's not a typical birthday the cards are celebrating, however. It's the 150 anniversary of MI Health/Care Services, and the cards are wishing the organization well.

Founded in 1868, only 23 years after the founding of the city of Lawrence, MI Health/Care Services was originally begun as "the Protectory." It was the idea of Father H. D. Taafe, an Irish Dominican priest who, years earlier, built a nearby church. Father Taafe saw a need to care for orphans, destitute invalids, the sick, and Civil War Veterans, and, after acquiring funds to build an orphanage and hospital, appealed for sisters to the Superior General of the Grey Nuns of Montreal in Canada. Five sisters staffed the Protectory when it opened its doors in 1868.

Over the years, the Protectory grew and changed focus, switching from a hospital and orphanage to a nursing home, restorative center, day and health center, and residential community. Mary Immaculate Health/Care Services was chosen as the umbrella name of the complex that holds all of its services.

Now serving hundreds of people on any given day, MI Health/Care Services employs close to 400 individuals, making it one of the largest employers in Lawrence. While it is no longer under the direction of the Grey Nuns, it still maintains a connection to the sisters, and puts its Catholic heritage front and center.

"We pride ourselves on the fact that we are Catholic, and we promote our Catholic identity," Debbie Scionti, Director of Mission Integration for MI Health/Care Services, told The Pilot March 6.

In addition to her role as Director of Mission Integration, Scionti is a chaplain. The organization employs two full-time chaplains, she said, and regularly holds Masses for the people it serves.

"We look to take care of spiritual needs as well as physical ones," she said.

Most of the organization's clients are elderly, Scionti said. There is the MI Nursing/Restorative Center, which specializes in skilled and restorative nursing care; the MI Residential Community, which provides hundreds of elderly and handicapped residents with independent and assisted living, and includes HUD subsidized housing; the MI Adult Day Health Center, which provides daytime care to elderly; and the MI Social Day Center, that allows the elderly to experience a warm, social environment. The organization also has its own transportation service, which provides specialized transportation to the elderly who participate in the organization's programs.

"At any point we can have 600 elders, with the residents and the participants," said Scionti.

MI Health/Care Services maintains strong connections with both the city of Lawrence and surrounding organizations, Scionti explained, including Merrimack College and St. Augustine School in Andover.

Students in the Austin Scholars program at Merrimack regularly perform community service at the organization, helping out with the residents' and patients' meals, transportation, and activities. In return, said Scionti, the students learn "how to apply the abstract of theology into everyday life."

A number of students from St. Augustine School also spend time with residents and patients, Scionti said. Last summer, dozens came to volunteer as part of the school's community service program. So many of the young students enjoyed it, Scionti explained, that a number of students now regularly come on Sundays to chat with the elderly at MI and spend time with them. Both the students and the elderly seem to love it, Scionti said.

The birthday cards, the ones colorfully acknowledging the organization's anniversary, were collaboratively made by the students and elderly, Scionti said.

The cards were not the only way MI has been celebrating its anniversary, however.

Last month, residents, patients, and staff were invited to take part in a "birthday party" for the organization, one complete with cake, banners, and festivities. Masses were held, as well, and prayers were said. The party was also attended by a number of Grey Nuns, who came from Montreal for the celebration.

A Mass to be celebrated by Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley is scheduled for Sept. 30, with residents, patients, and staff encouraged to attend. The Mass will be celebrated at the nearby St. Mary of the Assumption Church and will be open to the public.

Olive O'Brien is a patient in MI's long-term care. At 91, she's been a patient of MI for a number of years, and, speaking to The Pilot March 6 at Mary Immaculate (MI) Nursing/Restorative Center, said "everyone has treated me wonderfully here."

A protestant, O'Brien attends the protestant services, and tries to stay active. She plays bingo, card games, and reads, she said, adding with a laugh that "they always have something for us to do and to keep us busy, which we need."

"There's a lot of good people here," she said of her fellow patients. "I wheel around and talk to everybody."

For Scionti, the MI Health/Care Services complex "is like an oasis in the midst of the city," something she hopes her residents and patients feel, too. Surrounded by grass and trees, "you don't really know you're in the city" at the complex, she said. "You just feel safe."

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