Sister Paula Marie Phelan, who went from not even being sure what the term “medical technology” meant to founding the Mercy Medical School of Medical Technology and teaching scores of students who made the field their career, died Sept. 12 at Mercy Springwell, the Mount Washington retirement home for the Sisters of Mercy. She had celebrated her 105th birthday July 7.
“Her efforts and dedication to her students resulted in many professionals who worked at Mercy,” said Dr. Edgar L.C. Alonsozana, chair of the Department of Pathology at Mercy. “Her greatest gift to Mercy was her students, who went to practice in the field of medical technology. She led the lab forward in this increasing era of technology.”
Sister Helen Amos, executive chair of the board of trustees of Mercy Health Services and one of only two Sisters of Mercy still living at the hospital, agreed that her students and the standards she set for them are Sister Paula Marie’s greatest legacy. “She had such high standards,” Sister Helen said. "She had the patience of a scientist — her students knew they had to get things right.
“So many of the people she trained went on to work for Mercy,” she added, praising Sister Paula Marie for instilling in so many of her charges “an affinity for the place where they trained. They wanted to work here.”
Margaret Mary Phelan was born at Mercy Hospital on July 7, 1914; her father, Patrick Phelan, was a stockbroker, her mother, Mary J. Peach Phelan, a homemaker. After completing the first grade at St. Ann’s in downtown Baltimore, she moved to Woodstock, to live with her grandmother, where she attended Little Flower School. She eventually returned to Baltimore, attending Mount St. Agnes High School on a scholarship.
It was while a student at Mount St. Agnes that the teenage Margaret Mary Phelan decided she wanted to become a nun. At age 16, she entered the Sisters of Mercy order in Mount Washington. She was given the name Paula Marie, after requesting she be named for St. Paul, a favorite among the saints she had studied.
As a member of the order, Sister Paula Marie taught elementary school in Baltimore and Columbus, Ga., where she became known for being especially skilled in managing a classroom, occasionally being called to help other teachers “get control over the children, even the unruly boys,” according to an obituary distributed by Ruck Funeral Homes.
Sister Paula Marie returned to Mercy in 1942, assigned to its new medical technology school. Not sure what exactly a medical technologist did, she asked her medical-student brother, Patrick, about it. “He told me, ‘Oh, you’ll love it. It’s a very interesting and upcoming field of medicine,’ ” Sister Paula Marie told the Catholic Review, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, in 2014, on the occasion of her 100th birthday. “That’s how I got the idea of what it was.”
Sister Paula Marie would remain on the staff at Mercy for 48 years, retiring from the pathology department in 1990. “The sisters asked her to study medical technology," Sister Helen noted, “and she stuck with it for over four decades.”
Medical technologists work with physicians in diagnosing patients, using the latest in technology and laboratory techniques, and require a wide range of medical expertise, Dr. Alonsozana said. Sister Paula Marie’s legacy, he noted, includes “how her students went about their work, how they placed patient care at the top.”
Added Sister Helen, who knew Sister Paula Marie for more than 60 years, “She established the medical technology program. That really gave us strength in our clinical laboratory.”
The late Ann C. Scott, who spent more than 40 years as a medical technologist at Mercy, spoke glowingly of Sister Paula Marie and her exacting standards. In an interview recorded before her death in 2005, Ms. Scott told her children: “She gave me the kick in the pants I needed. Sister P.M. recognized me as an adult and expected me to perform as one. She helped me develop confidence so that I could handle the work, and I pushed myself to live up to her expectations.”
After her retirement, Sister Paula Marie continued to volunteer at the hospital. Beginning in 1970, she also served as convent coordinator for the nuns who lived at the hospital. She left Mercy in 2006, moving to the Mercy Villa retirement home. She remained active even into her second century; in 2014, she participated in a charity 1K walk at the villa, quipping that it made sense for her to finish the walk first, since she was born first.
A year ago, Sister Paula Marie and the other retired Sisters of Mercy moved from Mercy Villa, on Bellona Avenue, to Mercy Springwell.
She remains a constant presence at Mercy, where a conference room in the pathology department was named in her honor. “She’s with us all the time,” Dr. Alonsozana said.