How nun and I helped save
Providence Health Center

Thomas E. Turner

One of Waco's greatest blessings recently celebrates its 100th birthday — Providence Health Center, a monument to Catholicism.

It is another reminder that God does work in mysterious ways. Providence is alive and prospering, in great part because of a saintly little nun named Sister Austin, and in small part to a hard-nosed fifth-generation Methodist reporter. That's me.

You talk about an unholy alliance working for good.

After all these decades I think I can be pardoned a bit of pride as a reporter in this drama. And it is probably safe now to relate how the sister and the reporter went from a strained connection to a fond and respectful one. During the latter phase I used to kid Sister Austin about running off to Tahiti with her, but that our marital vows protected her — my vows being to Francis Turner and hers to Christ.

In 1947 I was dispatched from Dallas to Waco to reopen the Dallas Morning News' Central Texas bureau, closed during World War II. In the late '50s I was tipped that Providence was struggling financially, and that the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent DePaul were seriously pondering closing it down.

I aired out Providence's precarious future in a series of news stories, much to the dismay and the disgust of newly arrived administrator Sister Austin Cusimano.

She had been dispatched to Waco by the daughters, I was advised, to decide what to do with Providence. She was, understandably, pretty upset by my premature revelations in Texas' largest paper.

It was the only time I ever saw a frown on her angelic face. Serenity was all that I ever saw otherwise.

It was in the days when the sisters still wore ankle-length habits with the big winged head-dresses that looked as though they would be a hazard in a high wind.

My stories lit a fire under Waco's stung and irate civic leaders. Together with Sister Austin, they launched a campaign to keep Providence open and in Waco, similar to today's effort in behalf of the V.A. facilities. It had the strong editorial support of the Waco Times-Herald, and of my paper.

It was in the beginning of the revolution in American medicine — with the old family-friend-doctor disappearing, along with house calls, corner drugstores and cheap insurance. It was before the government and Medicare and HMOs fouled up the world's greatest health system.

With Waco rallying behind the indomitable Sister Austin, Providence was saved and grew to the splendid center it is today.

My lone son was born there, and I've been a patient there on occasion.

Sister Austin and I became great pals. Behind that lovely countenance and trim figure (I guess) was a razor-sharp mind and a backbone of steel. She headed Providence from 1961 to 1975. Now she's retired and residing in New Orleans, I'm told.

Several lessons are inherent in this true tale. First, the Catholic Church as been scarred by many a great crisis in its long history — the worldly intrigues of early popes, the Inquisition, its dealings with Nazism and the cover-ups of priestly immorality. But all of that is offset by the church's role in preserving and spreading Christianity.

The early explorers of America and Texas and Mexico were accompanied by priests. The explorers might have been seeking riches, but the priests were mostly seeking souls. What we call the Alamo was the chapel of a fort.

When I think of the Catholic Church, it is not of scandals, but of noble servants like Sister Austin and Monsignor Mark Deering, the pope of Waco.

Another lesson I learned is what a good newspaper can do for a community, when it does not sell its editorial soul to partisan politics and selfish projects. My DMN alerts and the Waco paper's rallying the troops saved Providence. Coverage of which I'm proud also did the same thing later for the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor at Belton, by airing out a plan to let it flounder and move it back to Baylor in Waco.

Mainly though, as I think of Providence's big observance, I remember that gracious lady Sister Austin. I hope that the years have dealt more kindly with her than they have with your humble correspondent here.

She forgave me for all the trouble I caused her — a great illustration of Christ's teaching.

Thomas E. Turner Sr., who died in 2007, was a longtime columnist for the Tribune-Herald and a Baylor University administrator.

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