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Lumen Christi Award finalist Sister Mary Lisa Renfer, RSM, DO, from the Diocese of Knoxville, TN
By: Catholic Extension 

What does it mean to say that we behold the face of Our Lord in the poor?

It is not a memory of some picture. It is not a product of our imagination. To see the face of Our Lord in the poor is to experience a dynamic connection, a Spirit-filled activism to which we must give our all.


Care for the suffering

When we see the face of Our Lord in the poor, we know all at once that the wounds of the poor are the wounds of Jesus, calling us to heal our own spiritual poverty caused by isolation and spiritual atrophy. We are compelled to act as Jesus, to stand in solidarity with the suffering and to muster all our own resources to act.

Sister Mary Lisa Renfer learned the lessons of the Spirit early. She was one of seven children and grew up in Detroit. After her sophomore year in college, while attending a mission trip in Ecuador where she encountered abused children, she responded to the call to see the face of Christ in the poor. She joined the Religious Sisters of Mercy, choosing mercy as both her religious profession and the habit of her heart.



Habits of the heart

The order sent Sister Mary Lisa to Michigan State University where she completed her doctorate in osteopathic medicine. This unique fusion of a medical degree and religious vocation prepared her to become the medical director of St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic (SMLC).

The first indication that one is beholding something special is SMLC’s sign: “Extending the healing ministry of Jesus to East Tennessee.” The sign sits on the side of a 40-foot-long, three-axle, 10-wheel, custom-made doctor’s office complete with onboard computers, a treatment room, a health assessment station and a lab.

And that is only a small fraction of what makes SMLC such a wonder. Although Sister Mary Lisa does not yet have her commercial driver’s license (it is on her 2022 to-do list), she is clearly the driver of this mobile ministry to those who have little to no access to health care in the poorest counties in rural eastern Tennessee.

Patients come from the peripheries. Seventy-two percent of them live in extreme poverty. They suffer the afflictions of the poor—diabetes, high blood pressure, liver disease, opioid addiction, and lung disease. Acute vision and dental needs abound.

The vast majority of patients are not Catholic. In fact, their first exposure to the Catholic Church is Sister Mary Lisa, her staff of two and her team of 60 active volunteers. There perhaps could be no better introduction to the Church.

The clinic covers a lot of ground. It has seven practice sites, provides in-person services seven times a month, and will see more than 1,500 patients this year alone. Sister Mary Lisa has assembled a network of 100 health care professionals who lend their medical expertise to the mission.


Guardian angels

Pope Francis said, “Even when healing is not possible, care can always be given.” Sister Mary Lisa exemplifies this by walking with each patient and their unique circumstances. She never separates the healing of the body from the healing of the soul.

She said,

Jesus comes to meet you in each person. Sometimes I can’t fix them, but I have to walk with them. And the more you walk with them, the more you know how to help.”

One woman recently returned from a long incarceration and came to the clinic. She had received no medical care in jail and was diagnosed with liver disease. Sister Mary Lisa prescribed palliative care, but the disease was too far along for treatment. She could not fix the liver disease, but she could walk with her. Sister Mary Lisa told her about guardian angels, to which the woman responded, “You mean, I’m not alone all the time?” As her guardian angel, Sister Mary Lisa made sure the woman was not alone during her last journey to God. Care can always be given.

Sister Mary Lisa sees the face of Our Lord in the poor. It is her habit. Her ministry is a Spirit-filled activism to which she gives her all. Our Catholic faith comes alive when we stand in solidarity with those who suffer. Sister Mary Lisa shows us the way.

Catholic Extension is honored to share the accomplishments of Sister Mary Lisa Renfer, a finalist for the 2022-2023 Lumen Christi Award. Visit this page to read the other inspiring stories from this year’s finalists.

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