By Joe Lee
MADISON – A book you may have missed during the pandemic is the excellent biography of Sister Anne Brooks, The Power of One (University Press of Mississippi, 2020). Penned by Sally Palmer Thomason and Jean Carter Fisher, this brief but powerful read dives deep into the culturally transforming work a devoted Catholic nun did for the people of poverty-stricken Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, for over three decades.
That’s merely part of the story, however. Raised in Maryland by a high-ranking naval officer and an emotionally distant, alcoholic mother, Sister Anne (Kitty, growing up) learned early on that her parents wanted nothing to do with organized religion and even preferred their daughter not associate with neighborhood kids, let alone cultivate friendships.
So how did this young woman, after growing up in such an environment, develop such a deep, abiding faith? What empowered her to thoroughly immerse herself in serving the least among us in places so far from home?
As Sister Anne is still quick to point out, the kindness of people in her formative years can’t be overstated. The family of practicing Catholics across the street in Maryland – with a daughter to whom Kitty discreetly became close – were instrumental in her decision to devote herself to a life of service.
As a young adult, while teaching at a Catholic school and volunteering at a free medical clinic in Clearwater, Florida, Sister Anne was plagued with pain from rheumatoid arthritis. Not surprisingly, she was skeptical upon meeting a doctor who took a holistic approach to medical treatment and insisted he could cure her. But as Sister Anne would come to realize – and apply to her ministry the rest of her life – the holistic approach was very much about building trust.
The death of Emmett Till and the subsequent trial of those accused of his murder, which took place while Kitty Brooks was in high school, was a great motivation for her to serve in Tutwiler, Mississippi (just minutes from where the horrific crime occurred) once the opportunity presented itself in 1983. After relocating and seeing for herself the once-prosperous railroad town dying a slow, torturous death while its mostly black, largely uneducated population lived in squalor, she prayed long and hard for guidance.
The answer she received: it was time to go to medical school. At age forty.
Sister Anne Brooks eventually became Dr. Anne Brooks, DO (Doctor of Osteopathy), and spent more than three decades healing and building trust in black citizens who, when she arrived, still wouldn’t look white people in the eye. As she says, treating the whole person – the heart of the holistic medical approach – absolutely requires listening and earning one’s trust.
Now retired and living with her fellow sisters at St. Joseph’s Provincial House in Latham, New York, Sister Anne Brooks has a story that needs to be heard not just by Catholics, but most everyone in these trying times. Highly recommended.
(Joe Lee is the Editor-in-Chief of Dogwood Press, a small but traditional publishing house headquartered in central Mississippi. He is a regular contributor to Mississippi Catholic.)