Retired Nun Brings Comforting Touch To St. Francis NICU

Sister Loretta Mann might have retired, but she hasn't left the life of service to which she made a vow in 1948 when she entered the sisterhood of St. Francis.

Sister Loretta, 85, spends three days a week in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of St. Francis Hospital in Hartford cuddling premature and sick infants while their parents or nurses can't be there.

"Mothers who have grown kids or have other responsibilities, they can't be here, but I can," Sister Loretta said, saying that when babies need months of care their families often need to resume their lives, go back to work or care for other children.

While the babies are being treated, she reads, sings and rocks them to sleep. But before she even picks up an infant, she says a prayer over each of them, she said.

"I say 'Dear God, please take care of him, take care of her, please bless her and care for her,'" Sister Loretta said.

When Sister Loretta entered the convent at age 19 a year after finishing high school in her hometown of York, Penn., she knew she wanted to work with children, but she was almost assigned to be a nurse.

"When we were told to report to a hospital the next morning I knew they wanted me to be a nurse, but I wanted to be a teacher. So I went up to the Reverend Mother and said 'I can't be a nurse because I'd run off with the first doctor that asked me.' And she said "What makes you think he'd ask?" But sure enough the next morning I'd been reassigned to education."

After two decades as a teacher in Pennsylvania, Sister Loretta was sent to Catholic University to get a master's degree in administration. She wasn't too happy about the change, but she said that she took the transition calmly because "I always believe that God puts you where he wants you."

For six years Sister Loretta was the principal of a Catholic school in Media, Pa., where she had been a teacher. In 1978 she moved to the Hartford area where she was the curriculum coordinator for the archdiocese and she eventually became the assistant superintendent until her retirement in 2008.

"Did I want to retire? No. But I knew it was time. And do you know what? I was at the St. Francis NICU the very next day as a cuddler," Sister Loretta said.

Dr. Jose Arias-Camison, the director of the NICU, said that for many years doctors and health care researchers have understood that cuddling and affectionate behaviors from mothers are beneficial to infants.

"As we know, for many years when the mothers come and touch and hold their babies, their vital signs improve. Sister is not their Mom, but it has the same effect," Arias Camison said.

Arias-Camison said doctors and nurses can see the infants' heart rates go down when Sister Loretta cuddles them, saying that the nurses and parents appreciate her willingness to be there for their children when they can't be.

"Sister Loretta has an aura of kindness," Arias-Camison said.

Many of the infants in the NICU suffer from drug withdrawal because their mothers are addicted to opiates. Arias-Camison said that the number of babies going through withdrawal from cocaine, crack and heroin has remained steady in recent years, but he has seen an increase in mother's who are addicted to pain killers such as Percocet and Codeine.

Because of this and other issues several infants who stay at the NICU go to foster families when they leave.

"There are always red flags. Some moms don't have any care, they are homeless, or they are living in hotels up until nine months of pregnancy. We want to help them, but in some cases there is no way the baby will go home," Arias-Camison said.

Mann said one of the reasons she volunteers her time as a cuddler is to make the babies feel loved, regardless of the situation they were born into.

"They need to know they're loved," Sister Loretta said.

For Sister Loretta, the sisterhood was a way to do service and work with children. Entering the convent has become a less popular path for young women — when she entered in 1948, she was one of 45 women who joined the order of St. Francis. This year only two women were professed. Sister Loretta said she isn't concerned about the declining numbers because it represents a shift in opportunities for women.

"I wanted to be a sister and I wanted to be a sister who taught children. Most women in those days went into nursing or secretarial positions, but today you can be anything you want to be. There just weren't the opportunities in my day," she said.

But Sister Loretta has never second guessed her vows of service, poverty and chastity, because they presented her the opportunities work with children — her passion.

"I have loved every job, every ministry I have been in," she said. "When I gave up teaching I thought that was the best job in the world, but then I came here."