Originally created 08/08/99

Doctor leaves his practice for 'higher calling'



Soon it will all disappear -- his 26-year career in medicine, his home and most of his possessions. But in its place, Dr. John C. Markham III of Augusta will have a new life and in four years will have a new title: the Rev. John Markham.

Dr. Markham saw his last patient Friday, and by Aug. 31 he will report to Pope John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass., to begin studying for Catholic priesthood.

Oddly enough, he is one of three former physicians in his class of 25 and will room with a former vascular surgeon from Boston.

The declining number of men seeking the priesthood has begun to swing back up in recent years, in part because of men like Dr. Markham who choose to leave their secular careers for a spiritual life.

Nationally, about 20 percent of those slated for ordination as priests this year had advanced degrees, including 3 percent who were lawyers and 1 percent who were doctors, according to a survey by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Oh definitely, second career is the trend right now," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the conference. "Sometimes, it's the is-that-all-there-is syndrome. Or people have thought about pursuing this before but couldn't pursue it until now."

In Dr. Markham's case, it built up over time. Born a Southern Baptist, he became a Presbyterian while at Duke University and discovered a love for religious studies, in which he earned his undergraduate degree.

"That really whetted my appetite, so to speak," Dr. Markham said. In medical school and his later internships and fellowships, there was little room for studying anything but science and medicine.

"But the seed had been planted (back then), and now it's bearing fruit," Dr. Markham said.

Working at St. Joseph Hospital since 1973, and later serving on various administrative boards and as chief of staff, exposed him to Catholicism and with the sisters and priests who work there.

"I was certainly very moved by working with them on a day-to-day basis at St. Joseph Hospital," Dr. Markham said. As the years went by, "without my being aware of it I had become a `Roman Presbyterian,"' he said.

It was the tragic loss of two wives, however, that helped steer him down the path, first to Catholicism and then to the priesthood. His second wife, Cindy, was struck by breast cancer just 1 1/2 years after they married and fought the disease for 10 years before succumbing in October 1995.

She was treated at St. Joseph, and the care from the sisters and priests touched Dr. Markham.

"I learned through my wife's illness and the way she dealt with that and what an example she was for everybody that there can be redemptive value in suffering," he said. "And that fundamental lesson that healing is possible when cure isn't. That realization is what, more than anything else, cemented the drive toward the priesthood."

After her death, he returned to the leadership at St. Joseph and took comfort in the Carondelet Systems' annual meetings and bioethics seminars.

"I told people, `Be careful what you pray for; you just might get it.' What I prayed for after my wife died is that I would find something I would be really passionate about," he said. And he found it in those meetings: the call to help preserve Catholic health care.

"And over time, the call became clearer, and I made the decision after I was received into the church in October 1996," he said.

It wasn't until he read an insert in a church bulletin, however, that he discovered there are programs for older men who already had a career to become priests.

In May 1997, he made his decisions and went through two years of interviewing and soul-searching. He got the final word June 28 and had to get his affairs in order to report by the end of August.

He must give up his practice to become a priest -- "you can't do both," he said -- but he is hoping to take a dual track in bioethics and study at the nearby National Catholic Center for Bioethics in Boston.

Part of his passion for the priesthood is motivated by the excesses of medicine and lack of morality.

"What I've come to realize and the reason I felt such a passion for the preservation of Catholic health care is society needs to understand that it is only the church that is defending without compromise life at the extremes, meaning from the point of conception to the point of natural death," Dr. Markham said. "(It is) ironic that you might have a situation in the same medical school library on the same shelf you've got a textbook that talks about all the technological advances and how we can do life-saving procedures on the fetus in utero and right next to it is a volume on how to do partial-birth abortions. That's pure infanticide."

It will be up to the bishop what Dr. Markham does after he is ordained, but he is training as a parish priest who would likely return to the Savannah diocese.

Having worked with physician-hospital organizations at St. Joseph, he could also be a resource for the bishops on what to do with the health care systems as they face the growing influence of managed care and mergers.

It is ironic that one of the reasons St. Joseph is losing him to the priesthood is the example it provided him of spiritual life.

"As much as we hate to lose him -- and it will be a loss for us locally -- I really believe our loss will be Catholic health care's gain," said J. William Paugh, president and CEO of St. Joseph. "It really is a higher calling."

Cynthia Ritt of Aiken has been Dr. Markham's patient for 15 years, and though she hated to lose him, she was not surprised by his decision to devote his life to the priesthood.

"Of course, I hate to see him leave, but at the same time it's wonderful that he's starting a new career, one that I think will be very successful," Mrs. Ritt said.

"He is just the epitome of what one would describe as a fine Christian gentleman and physician," Mr. Paugh said.

Tom Corwin covers science and medicine for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3213 or tomc@augustachronicle.com.