Sr. Mary Jean Tague serves wherever the need is greatest

July 1, 2014

At age 76, Sr. Mary Jean Tague, DC, could savor the memories of an adventuresome clinical and administrative career dedicated to easing the plight of the medically underserved at home and abroad. But she's not ready to reflect; there is too much work to be done in the immigrant settlement near the Mexican border in Texas where she teaches diabetics about their medications and practices community nursing through a ministry sponsored by the Daughters of Charity.

Sr. Tague has been an educator, a pharmacist, a nurse and a health care administrator. As a missionary, she has helped to elevate the skill set and role of women in nursing in countries where women have traditionally gotten little professional respect. Throughout her career, colleagues said, she's enthusiastically embraced every opportunity to go where she's been called to serve the poor.

Summing up her life's work, Sr. Tague said, "I was sharing in the healing work of Jesus, using medicine to try to figure out how we can help people." For all her contributions to the ministry, Sr. Tague is being honored with CHA's Lifetime Achievement Award.

Clear mind, strong resolve
Sr. Louise Gallahue, DC, visitatrix of the Daughters of Charity Province of St. Louise, said of Sr. Tague: "She always has gone out to the people in need. Today, she shares her gifts with the needy as she ministers on the Mexican border."

Dr. Stuart G. Marcus is president and chief executive of St. Vincent's Health Services in Bridgeport, Conn., where Sr. Tague has served on and off for 25 years. He said Sr. Tague "has accomplished so much simply through clarity of mind, an ability to cut through bureaucracy, a unique ability to unify people and all with a remarkable sense of humor."

Marianne Laska, a retired St. Vincent's nurse, began volunteering as a parish nurse in 1992 when Sr. Tague launched the parish nursing program at St. Vincent's Medical Center of Bridgeport. Laska said Sr. Tague encouraged the volunteer parish nurses to follow where they were led by the needs they encountered. When Laska told Sr. Tague parish nurses wanted to provide meals for some families and give in-home assistance to a dying older woman, Sr. Tague replied: "'Great idea, Marianne. What can I do to help?' With her kind of incredible support, we were able to do so much."

Today, Leonardo Trevino sees the same spark in Sr. Tague as she works with immigrants at Proyecto Juan Diego, a Daughters of Charity-sponsored health, education and social service ministry in Cameron Park, a very poor colonia, a community near Brownsville, Texas. Trevino and his wife, Maria Guadalupe, help run a St. Vincent de Paul chapter from the ministry center. In addition to educating diabetic patients, Sr. Tague counsels people in need and refers them to Trevino and other members of the chapter.

"She is so openhearted to the people. She listens so patiently to all their problems," he said. "Her faith in God shows in how she wants to help. She can speak their language. She's been a natural in this job since the first day."

Religious vocation, missionary calling
Sr. Tague grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., and attended elementary and high school at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception downtown, which was staffed by Daughters of Charity. She signed up to attend nursing school, but altered that plan after one of her teachers asked if she had ever considered religious life.

Fresh out of high school, Sr. Tague entered the Daughters of Charity community at Emmitsburg, Md., in 1954. Her first assignment was teaching second grade at a parish school in Greensboro, N.C. Two years later, the congregation asked her to study pharmacy at St. John's University in New York. She made her first vows in 1960. After graduating from St. John's, she became pharmacy director at St. Mary's Hospital in Troy, N.Y.

In 1967, she volunteered to serve as a pharmacist at a mission hospital under construction in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in the Andes Mountains. "I thought, 'I can do this.' I wanted to work with people who are really poor. I wanted to help them," she said.

She took an intensive course in Spanish in Bolivia, where she worked until 1983, not counting two years back in the U.S. to earn a degree in nursing. She returned to Elizabeth Seton Hospital in Cochabamba and worked as a nursing supervisor, pharmacology instructor and director of its school of nursing. She mentored student nurses, and, in so doing, helped raise nursing standards throughout the developing country. Her multiple skills also took her farther up the mountains to village clinics, where she sometimes diagnosed illnesses and prescribed treatments on her own.

"In that setting, you have to be a generalist," she said.

She endured some adrenalin-pumping moments "of the sort that you don't tell your parents about." In one mining village, she escorted union leaders out of town so they could escape the soldiers stationed around the outskirts.

On the move
Sr. Tague returned to the states and worked as a visiting nurse in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Boston before she was assigned for the first time in 1989 to St. Vincent's in Bridgeport, where she is known as "MJ." She worked in discharge planning and earned a master's degree in community health administration from Long Island University.

In 1995, the Daughters asked her to go to Balombo, Angola, to help reestablish a hospital with Catholic Relief Services after 20 years of civil war. She was chosen because Portuguese, the main language in Angola, is similar to Spanish. She took a quick course in the new language before heading for Africa.

Even after serving in the Andes, Sr. Tague was shocked by conditions in Angola.

"So many people suffered from poor hygiene and nutrition. The nurses had sixth-grade educations. Sick babies were dying every day," she said. "Sometimes, we couldn't help but cry."

Sr. Tague and her associates set about improving the skills of the hospital staff. She said one challenge in Angola was knowing where to begin.

Always say yes
She returned to Connecticut three years later to work in St. Vincent's St. Joseph's Family Life Center clinic in Stamford. As she built the parish nursing program in Stamford, she also worked as a nurse in a health system-sponsored program at a public housing project. In the early 2000s she returned to Bridgeport to oversee the parish nurse program there and in Stamford.

"I know these nurses have saved lives," Sr. Tague said. "I was very happy with the good they do for people in need."

When the call came last year from the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, asking Sr. Tague to work in their ministry on the Texas border, she didn't hesitate to say yes.

Bill Hoey, vice president of mission at St. Vincent's Health Services, clearly remembers her response: "Without a hint of regret, she looked right at me and said, 'Bill, I made a solemn vow. If I'm asked to go somewhere in service to the poor, I always say yes. How can I possibly say no this time?'"

"This missionary thing can get in your blood," she said from Brownsville, where she moved in July of last year. "I was very comfortable with my work at St. Vincent's. But there is so much to do, if you really want to make a dent in the world.

"I was happy in Bridgeport, and I'm happy with my work here," she said. "I am not ready to retire. I may have knocked an hour off my work day, but now I'm aiming for my 80s. I am grateful to be able to help."


Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.