Walking in Faith for 60 Years: Sr. Mary McNally Celebrates Milestone with the Order of Franciscan Sisters of Allegany
Thirteen years ago, someone encouraged Deborah Rivard to apply for a job as manager of Faith Community Nursing at St. Anthony’s Hospital. She wasn’t interested. She and her husband were making plans to serve as missionaries in Ecuador.
But then she met Sister Mary McNally, OSF, the hospital’s vice president of mission integration. “At the end of our three hours, Sr. Mary said to me, ‘You have been praying for a mission field and I have been praying for a mission-focused nurse’,” Rivard said. “I accepted the job on the spot without knowing anything else.”
That’s the way it is with Sr. Mary. She has a quiet persuasiveness that can lead those around her to do things that they never thought possible.
She often talks with the neighbors around St. Anthony’s, especially when a construction project is underway, to help them get involved. She works with St. Anthony’s team members and shares their voice among the hospital’s leadership. You might even see her in the annual Leadership Christmas Parade, dressed in a fun costume to bring a smile to team members’ faces during the holidays.
This year, Sr. Mary is celebrating 60 years of service as a Franciscan sister, a calling that has led to her being an educator, a counselor and a health care leader. To mark the occasion, a special reception is being held in her honor at St. Anthony’s on Tuesday, Sept. 26 from 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. in Classroom C. All are welcome to attend.
For Sr. Mary, God and family come first. But St. Anthony’s is next.
“The reason I love it here is the people,” she said. “They're leading by their compassion, by their commitment to our patients and each other. I hope that I lead by example in that way.”
No Epiphany Before Entering the Order
Mary Angela McNally grew up in Huntington in Long Island, N.Y. She was the fourth of eight children.
“We grew up doing a lot of things together,” Sr. Mary said. “We lived by the water. It was swimming in the summer and ice skating in the winter.”
She attended a Catholic grammar school and a public high school where she was involved in student council, sports and the Future Teachers of America club. As far back as she can remember, she wanted to be a teacher. She also wanted something more.
“I actually checked out colleges and all,” she said. “But in the back of my mind, I always wanted to be a sister.”
Her interest came more from her family experience than some mystical experience.
“I didn't have any great encounters with God or anything,” Sr. Mary said. “I just loved God and wanted to help people. My brother was in the seminary at the time. My uncle was a Franciscan priest.”
She took some advice from her uncle to contact some of the different religious orders including the Allegany sisters. She did and liked what she saw. At 18, she officially decided to become a nun.
“I never met any of them until the week before I was entering. And so, it was really more of the journey. I was just walking with God. And I've never regretted it my whole life.”
Sr. Pat Shirley, OSF, and a BayCare board member, has shared in Sr. Mary’s journey. She entered the Order of Franciscan Sisters alongside Sr. Mary.
“We spent four years together in what was called Formation, discerning our individual calls to religious life,” Sr. Pat said. “During those years we shared prayers, work assignments and study. It was a thoughtful, exciting and serious time of discernment, learning and preparation for mission.”
After that time, they each were sent on their individual missions where studies continued while experiencing opportunities for ministry. It would be eight years before Sr. Mary would make Final Profession, of her final commitment to being a religious sister. Sr. Mary’s parents gave her their support – up to a point, she said.
“The only thing I remember my dad saying to me was that he didn't want me to go on foreign missions,” she said. “He thought that would be difficult and that the family wouldn’t see me.”
Becoming a Teacher – and Beyond
Sr. Mary followed her dream to become a teacher. She left New York heading south to Winston-Salem, N.C. She served at a school for Black students in the late 1960s. These were times of racial riots and boycotts. The teacher felt she learned a few lessons.
“It was a great experience for me. I think I had two takeaways from that time. The first was the realization that the way we were going to resolve this whole issue of a racial divide in our country was by living together in neighborhoods where we get to know each other and see that we really share many of the same values, interests and goals in life,” she said. “The second was that an equal education was going to make a difference for everyone.”
Sr. Mary brought her teaching skills to Florida in 1967, first in Lakeland and West Palm Beach before coming to St. Petersburg as a guidance counselor in 1970. In 1982, she became administrator of the Franciscan Center, a spirituality and retreat center in Tampa.
In 1988, Sr. Mary was elected to leadership of the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany. Part of her responsibilities was to be on all the hospital boards including St. Anthony’s and St. Joseph’s hospitals. During that time, she was involved in the formation of BayCare. She was named St. Anthony’s vice president of mission integration in 2009.
It was in Florida that Sr. Mary and Sr. Pat found themselves working together again.
“Sr. Mary was on the boards of the hospitals and I held different positions at both St. Anthony’s and St Joseph’s hospitals,” Sr. Pat said. “During those years we remained friends and supported one another as we ministered to God’s people. Mary was always compassionate, kind and a great companion on the journey. I can only be grateful for the ways we have journeyed together and supported one another all these years.”
Working in and with the Community
When he became St. Anthony’s president in 2016, Scott Smith already knew Sr. Mary. The year before, they, along with other BayCare leaders and Franciscan sisters, made a shared pilgrimage to Assisi, home of St. Francis, the patron saint of the Franciscan sisters.
As he’s worked with her through the years, Smith has seen her quiet, calm persuasion in action.
“I have always been moved by Sr. Mary’s commitment to St. Anthony’s and protecting the Catholic identity and the identity of the Franciscan sisters,” he said. “This plays out in a number of ways in direct operations such as her support for Pinellas Hope, her work directly assisting team members here at St. Anthony’s and her work on various boards in the hospital and in the community.”
It's through that community work that Sr. Mary has met many people who start as fellow committee members and then become friends.
About 15 years ago, Sr. Mary contacted the St. Petersburg Police Department (SPPD) to determine if an officer could be a part of the hospital’s Mission Integration and Community Affairs Committee. That group of community leaders works with the hospital to provide a community perspective on a wide variety of topics.
“I was a brand-new lieutenant at the time, and it was decided I would be a good fit,” said Michael Kovacsev, who is now an SPPD assistant chief. “When I first met Sr. Mary, she welcomed me with open arms and was extremely happy that we were bringing law enforcement into the fold for the hospital to utilize as a collaboration.”
Over the past 15 years, “she has been the bedrock of St. Anthony’s and the partnership with the police department,” Kovacsev said. “Sr. Mary has gone out of her way to ensure we work together and find ways to be innovative, and to weave the two organizations together for the better of the citizenry.”
Sr. Mary has worked with homes in the area that help victims of domestic violence. And she has been instrumental in helping to bring health care to Pinellas Hope, the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg’s facility for unhoused people. She continues to encourage St. Anthony’s team members to support Habitat for Humanity.
“My interest has always been in helping people and bringing assistance to them,” she said. “I think it’s important to meet people where they are.”
Being Present Every Day
Kovacsev says that while he has enjoyed working with Sr. Mary, their personal relationship has flourished as well.
“I had a personal loss three years ago with the passing of my mother,” he said. “Sr. Mary assured me that she was comfortable in her final days and had everything at her disposal. My family is indebted to her kindness, and the hospitality of the dedicated workers at St. Anthony’s.”
Among her many duties at the hospital, Sr. Mary visits with patients and families to provide the spiritual connection that St. Anthony’s was founded on.
“I was in the cafeteria recently and had a person come up to me to thank me for visiting with her father,” Sr. Mary said. “That was like six years ago. I like meeting our patients and providing them with spiritual healing as well as the medical care that they receive.”
Sr. Mary knows about that care at St. Anthony’s because she has twice been a patient. She is a breast cancer survivor and had a pacemaker implanted a few years ago. She has a different name for the medical device.
“I had my peacemaker – I refer to it as my peacemaker – implanted,” she laughs. “Sometimes, I will share my story of being a patient because it helps patients who may be feeling apprehensive feel a bit more at ease. I share the importance of it and how you can live perfectly fine with it.”
Deborah Rivard, who Sr. Mary hired 13 years ago, now is the BayCare Faith Community Nursing system director. She said she learned a special lesson from Sr. Mary her first day on the job. Sr. Mary was going to take Rivard on a tour of the hospital.
“It took us almost a long time to get from her office to the information desk which was less than 100 steps from her office,” Rivard said. “Every single person who came by to talk with her during that short trip, she stopped, looked them in the eye and gave them her total attention. She made every single person she spoke with feel as though they were special, important and valued.”
For Sr. Mary, that’s just the way she has lived her life every day since she took her vows 60 years ago. “The reason I love it here is because of the people,” she said. “I do what I do because they continue to inspire me.”