Vivid memories linger for sister who prayed over Martin Luther King just after his death

Jan 12, 2024


Even more than 55 years later, Sr. Jane Marie Klein can flash back to detailed memories of the night when she prayed over Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. just after his death.

"It's like it was yesterday," says Sr. Klein, recalling how on April 4, 1968, she joined two other sisters in prayer beside the slain civil rights leader in the emergency room of Saint Joseph Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. He had been mortally wounded hours earlier by an assassin's bullet as he stood outside his motel room.

Along with her vivid memories of what happened in the hours just after Rev. King was rushed to Saint Joseph, Sr. Klein also harbors a lingering question: Why was the heralded Baptist minister brought there, especially given that there was a large Baptist hospital among the other options in Memphis?

Tragic day
Sr. Klein reflected on Rev. King's death and enduring legacy during an interview last year. At the time of the slaying, she was 29 and early in what is now a more than 66-year vocation with the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration, founders of the Franciscan Alliance health system.

In April 1968, Sr. Klein was running the business office at Saint Joseph. What was the hospital's campus is now part of St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital not far from the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis. The hospital itself was eventually razed.

On the day Rev. King was shot, Sr. Klein remembers that the news had spread across the nation before she and others at the hospital were even aware. She recalls being paged as she was out for a walk with two other sisters. "After the third page, I said to the sisters, 'I better see what they want,'" she says.

When she got on the phone, a sister at the hospital asked if she wanted to take a call from California. She asked who was calling and what they wanted. She was told that the caller was inquiring about Rev. King, who Sr. Klein knew had come to Memphis to support a strike by sanitation workers.

"I said, 'All I know is he's talking in town tonight,'" Sr. Klein recalls. "And she said, 'Sister, he's been shot. He's in our emergency room.' I said, 'No, I don't want to take that call.'"

Prayer, then riots
Sr. Klein and her two companions began working their way to the emergency room, which was at the opposite end of the hospital from where they were. At every corner, she says, they were met by armed guards. In addition to a heavy law enforcement presence, the National Guard was on site.

"They were everywhere, every entrance, every fire escape, all the way up to six floors, all armed guards at any conceivable entrance," Sr. Klein remembers. "The FBI took over our switchboard."

Once the sisters made it to the ER, they waited outside while doctors spent hours trying to resuscitate Rev. King. When the lifesaving effort failed and the ER grew quiet, a guard asked the sisters if they wanted to go into the room with Rev. King's body.

"We said yes, we'd like to pray with him," Sr. Klein says. "So they let us in as long as we wanted to be there, and we did stay a while praying with him."

Sr. Klein recalls that riots seemed to start immediately after word of Rev. King's death got out. In the days that followed, the hospital turned to caring for the besieged community, keeping its doors open throughout the unrest even as a nighttime curfew made it hard for workers to come and go.

Meeting Coretta Scott King
It wasn't until 30 years later that Sr. Klein was able to share with a member of Rev. King's family the story of being at his side the night of his death. Coretta Scott King, Rev. King's widow, spoke at CHA's Catholic Health Assembly in Orlando in 1999, and afterward she agreed to meet with Sr. Klein and Sr. Anna Marie Hofmeyer, another of the sisters who had been in the Saint Joseph ER that night.

Coretta King told the sisters that when she learned her husband had been shot, she went to the Atlanta airport to fly to Memphis. At the airport, she was told he had died. "She said, 'I couldn't do anything for him anymore in Memphis and I had three little kids at home,'" Sr. Klein recalls. "So she went home to be with her kids and I think the next day went to pick up his body."

Until her meeting with the sisters, Coretta King had been unaware that the sisters had gathered around her husband in prayer just after his death. "I think that she was surprised, amazed and I think grateful to know that somebody was there with him, somebody that would be there praying with him," Sr. Klein says.

Unanswered question
Sr. Klein says that like so many others, she had been an admirer of Rev. King. "He was certainly doing God's work and working for the most unprivileged of people and trying to bring justice in our world," she says.

"I saw him as a great promoter or prophet of peace, peace among people and peace in communities. He was all about peace and nonviolence. And I think his legacy lives on in that regard."

To this day, she continues to be at a loss about how she became a small player in American history for ministering to one of the nation's icons.

She learned after Rev. King's death that he had specifically asked that if anything happened to him in Memphis, he be brought to a Catholic hospital and that aides of his had toured Saint Joseph, the city's only Catholic hospital, in advance. In bringing him there after the shooting, she says, his rescuers sped past other hospitals, including a much larger Baptist one.

"Why would he ask to be taken to a Catholic hospital, such a powerful Baptist minister?" she wonders. "We'll never know, this side of Earth, but for some reason he wanted it."

Short of a definitive answer, she believes Rev. King's request was a testimonial to the quality of care provided by Catholic hospitals.

Continuing her mission
Sr. Klein continues to champion that care. Over the decades, she rose within the Franciscan Alliance system to become its president. She stayed in that role for 30 years, until stepping down in August and becoming chair emeritus of the 12-hospital system based in Mishawaka, Indiana.

She now has a new position as chair and president of the board of the Franciscan Alliance Foundation, the system's charitable arm, and continues to be in her office daily.

"God never takes us where He doesn't give us the grace to carry on, and He has blessed me with many wonderful and supportive people in my life, and He still does," she says. "I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue serving people, though in a more limited way in my senior years, as together with all our health care providers we continue Christ's ministry in our Franciscan tradition."