By Maureen SMith JACKSON – When Sister Ann Brooks, SNJM, finished medical school she joined a program through which she could pay back her school debt by working in a community in need of medical service. The intrepid Dr. Brooks knew she wanted to stay in the South, but had no specific place in mind, so she grabbed an atlas. “I wrote letters to the mayors of all those towns. One town answered me. That was Tutwiler, Mississippi,” said Sister Brooks. “I had never even heard of it.” In August, 34 years after she opened Tutwiler clinic, she packed up and moved to a retirement home for religious just outside Albany, New York. “One of the hardest things I ever did was leave the clinic in Tutwiler,” she said. When Sister Brooks first visited she found a shuttered clinic in need of some work. The town council offered to purchase medical equipment and she was in business. Within a year she called her friend, Sister Cora Lee, to join her. The two had worked together at a clinic in St. Petersburg, Fla. “When I came, they were surprised. There were no Catholics on the board at that time,” said Sister Brooks. “They came to realize my focus was taking care of people. I was not there to make everyone Catholic, but to take care of people and teach people how to take care of themselves,” she added. “When you look back, there weren’t many Catholics in Tallahatchie County and none in Tutwiler. It’s been a journey for people to see what these two women have done for the community without asking for anything in return. It’s been an education,” said Cindy Herring, co-director of public relations for the clinic. Both Sisters insist that the exchange has been mutual. They both speak about how they have learned as much from the people of Tutwiler as they have taught. Sister Cora Lee is still in Tutwiler serving as the clinic director. She said the mission to educate remains central and she has seen the impact. “I think the community has gotten healthier. When we started, people came in with acute situations, signs of stroke, heart attack, dehydration. We went from that over time to having patients with chronic illnesses coming in earlier,” said Sister Cora Lee. She said the staff concentrates on teaching people to manage their own health and get to the root of their problem rather than just treating symptoms.
“Health is more than just coming to the doctor. Health is more than just medicine. Health is a way of life,” said Sister Cora Lee. Once the two got settled, they realized the people of Tutwiler needed more services than just medical care. They put the word out to their community, the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, for a community organizer or social worker. Sister Maureen Delaney answered the call and opened an office in the back of the clinic in 1987. Her goal was to listen to the community and help them answer their own needs. Her mission grew so much it spun off into a separate entity, the Tutwiler Community Education Center. The Center relocated to a building in the tiny downtown of the tiny Delta town and continued to grow. Today, TCEC continues to offer senior programs, a summer program, teen mentoring, music lessons, the now-famous quilting group and more. Sister Delaney took on another ministry in 2015, but a lay staff continues to operate the center. Seeing TCEC thrive – one of the signs of improved overall community health – is one of Sister Brooks’ great joys. “I think Dr. Brooks would have liked to have worked herself out of a job. To have people take care of themselves, she would love that,” said Sister Cora Lee. The clinic had a brief moment of fame in 1990 when the CBS broadcast magazine 60 minutes featured the work being done there. A reporter returned in 2012, calling Sister Brooks “a saint with a stethoscope.” Sister Brooks celebrated 60 years of religious life earlier this year with Mass and a reception at Clarksdale Immaculae Conception Parish. She broke her elbow in 2016 and remains in a brace. That, coupled with the demands of running the clinic – where the staff saw more than 8,500 patients one year, started weighing on her. She and the staff started looking for someone to take over. Tallahatchie General Hospital was looking to expand its community presence and a partnership was born. “When they came to visit, they got excited so I started to get excited,” said Sister Brooks. The hospital took over operations in 2016, retaining the staff, but upgrading the computers and equipment. “The partnership is one of the reasons Dr. Brooks felt comfortable retiring,” said Herring. “She was convinced the mission could continue since the mission of the hospital and the mission of the clinic were already very close,” Herring added. The clinic works with patients on the cost of their care, helping them find coverage, using a sliding scale and taking donations to offset costs. Sister Brooks is trying to stay active, she said she is writing a history of the clinic, praying for her friends and reflecting on the blessings of decades of service. “What’s important is I was able to care for patients – and what a privilege that was.”