With fewer sisters, face of health care changing

By Lisa Haefs | For The Compass | February 19, 2015

Declining number of sisters means transitions for Catholic hospitals

Second in a three-part series.

ANTIGO — Langlade Hospital, similar to Catholic health care facilities across the Green Bay Diocese, is anticipating a future without women religious, but officials stress that even if their physical presence is gone, their heartbeats will continue to be felt.

Srs. Adele Demulling, Dolores Demulling and Jean Bricco stand outside the Three Sisters Cafe, located inside Langlade Hospital in Antigo. The cafe is named in honor of the three Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph. (Dick Meyer | For The Compass)
Srs. Adele Demulling, Dolores Demulling and Jean Bricco stand outside the Three Sisters Cafe, located inside Langlade Hospital in Antigo. The cafe is named in honor of the three Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph. (Dick Meyer | For The Compass)

Since its opening in 1933, the hospital has been staffed by a cadre of sisters from the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph. But with Srs. Dolores Demulling, Adele Demulling and Jean Bricco decades past the usual age of retirement, administrator Dave Schneider said it is inevitable that change is approaching.

“The three sisters have continued working long and hard here after most other people have long since retired,” Schneider said. “They know it is time to relinquish nursing and management responsibilities.”

Sr. Dolores admitted the loss of sisters “is a future reality which is very difficult to articulate” but stressed that the healing ministry will continue.

“The work of every Catholic health care facility is essentially God’s work, not ours,” Sr. Dolores said. “We are only the instruments.”

Similar stories can be found across the Green Bay Diocese, which is home to hospitals operated by varied religious orders:

  • The Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity Sponsored Ministries is the parent of Holy Family Memorial in Manitowoc as well as facilities in Ohio and Nebraska.
  • The Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother — which started with a single facility in Oshkosh and grew into the 15-hospital Ministry Health Care — operates Door County Memorial Hospital in Sturgeon Bay and, under its Affinity Health Systems banner, Mercy Medical Center in Oshkosh, St. Elizabeth Hospital in Appleton and Calumet Medical Center in Chilton. Affinity and Ministry are both part of St. Louis-based Ascension, the nation’s largest Catholic non-profit health system.
  • The Hospital Sisters of St. Francis, based in Springfield, Ill., operate St. Vincent and St. Mary hospitals in Green Bay and St. Clare Memorial Hospital in Oconto Falls.

“The ministry is not our ministry, it belongs to the church,” said Sr. Laura Wolf, president of Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity Sponsored Ministries. “It is the job of the sisters to facilitate that ministry.”

At one time, all of the hospitals were staffed by legions of women religious, handling duties ranging from nursing, cooking and cleaning to administrative responsibilities. For example, at Holy Family in Manitowoc, they grew vegetables in the hospital garden. St. Mary’s Hospital sisters cared for unwed mothers and their babies and operated a nurse training school.

“In 1962, there was a sister in every department in the hospital,” said Sr. Lois Bush, senior vice president for mission and culture integration for Ministry Health Care. But by the early 1980s, those numbers had dwindled from two or three in each hospital to 15 or fewer throughout the system today.

Sr. Annice McClure, a learning specialist for Hospital Sisters Health System-Eastern Wisconsin Division’s People Services Department, said that when she entered the religious community in 1951, St. Vincent had about 50 sisters.

“Now I’m the single one in the whole division,” she said. “For most of my colleagues, I represent what the community is.”

The religious orders realized years ago that there were not enough sisters available to staff existing facilities, with fewer women taking up vocations and those who do tilting toward other ministries or mission areas in South America, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

“Today there are fewer than 200 sisters,” Schneider said. “And the congregation has gotten older.”

“The reality of sisters being at the bedside ended many years ago,” Sr. Laura noted.

While sisters are moving away from their traditional caregiver missions, Holy Family Memorial and other hospitals operated by the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity continue to have women religious in many roles, Sr. Laura said, including in management and governance.

“All of our facilities have at least one, sometimes two sisters,” said Sr. Laura, explaining that the emphasis is on placing them in roles that allow them to have an influence on the overall values of the system.

“You always live in the faith the Lord is going to send some people,” she added, noting that the day may come when “we will be finding a situation where we will not be able to find replacements.”

The numbers are sobering.

Although the nation’s Roman Catholic population has surged over the last 50 years, the number of sisters has dropped 72 percent, from 180,000 in 1965 to 50,000 today, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

In 1968, sisters or priests served as chief executives in 770 of the country’s 796 Catholic hospitals, according to the St. Louis-based Catholic Health Association. By 2011, that number had declined to eight in 636 hospitals.

Recognizing those demographics, Catholic facilities began decades ago to take steps to enshrine their values in changing times.

Next week: Laity preserve mission of Catholic health care.

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