Laity look to preserve mission of Catholic health care

By Lisa Haefs | For The Compass | February 25, 2015

Last in a series

ANTIGO — In a modern Catholic hospital, the only sisters present may be in a photograph on the wall.

But their influence permeates every department.

Sr. Rochelle Kerkhof, director of mission and pastoral care at Holy Family Memorial Hospital in Manitowoc, enjoys lunch with fellow HFM employees. With fewer sisters to serve in health care ministry, religious communities that sponsor Catholic hospitals focus on passing along to lay employees the mission and values that guide their service. (Photo courtesy of Holy Family Memorial)
Sr. Rochelle Kerkhof, director of mission and pastoral care at Holy Family Memorial Hospital in Manitowoc, enjoys lunch with fellow HFM employees. With fewer sisters to serve in health care ministry, religious communities that sponsor Catholic hospitals focus on passing along to lay employees the mission and values that guide their service. (Photo courtesy of Holy Family Memorial)

Decades ago, orders such as the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother, Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph, Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity, and the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis recognized that, with dwindling numbers of women religious, the future of Catholic health care rested in the hands of the laity.

“By the early 1980s, we were concerned because there weren’t very many sisters in the hospitals,” said Sr. Lois Bush, senior vice president for mission and culture integration for Ministry Health Care. “We questioned how our values would be maintained and took a very prescriptive approach.”

The 15-hospital Ministry system, established by the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother, operates Door County Memorial Hospital in Sturgeon Bay and, under its Affinity Health Systems affiliate, Mercy Medical Center in Oshkosh, St. Elizabeth Hospital in Appleton and Calumet Medical Center in Chilton.

Sr. Lois guided efforts that led to creation of a Provincial Council and the founding of Ministry in the early 1980s and more recently to the formation of a Marian board of sisters and laity, which works to ensure that facilities continue to reflect Catholic values.

“When sisters are in a hospital, the place doesn’t have a question about the values,” said Sr. Lois. Those tenets now are reinforced through specific programs within each hospital.

“Every single department focuses on those values and specific applications,” she said. “We have to hard-wire it into everything we do. It’s a very purposeful activity.”

After initial concerns, Sr. Lois said employees quickly emulated the key components.

“People should experience the same compassion and healing within our facilities whether there are sisters there or not,’” she said. “The employees are not wearing the veil, but the experience should be the same.”

At Langlade Hospital, operated by the Montreal, Quebec-based Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph, sisters are continuing to minister to the needs of the sick, poor and dying, while gradually ceding day-to-day responsibilities to others. They have also been instrumental in forming a new mission committee, made up of lay employees and devoted to keeping the ethics of the Catholic institution in the forefront.

“Through the committee, the sisters are focusing even more on keeping our mission alive in the hospital and in the community,” said Dave Schneider, hospital administrator. “They continue to carry out their original responsibilities.”

A key part of those duties is to inspire lay employees.

“The staff sees the sisters as great role models,” Schneider said. “They find these women are just incredible.”

The Religious Hospitallers have affiliated with Catholic Health International to carry on governance in place of the sisters and to “make sure these facilities operate in perpetuity under the philosophy and faith of the Catholic founders,” according to Schneider.

Incorporated under both civil and canon law, Catholic Health International has five partners represented on its board of directors. Sisters are involved at the individual and corporation level wherever possible.

“Our mission at Catholic Health International is to ensure the presence of Catholic values in our corporations,” said Dr. Robert Stewart, president of the New Brunswick-based organization. “The sisters always had a vision. They saw the needs and moved forward, knowing there may come a day when there would be no sisters. Our mandate is to ensure that mission and those values continue well into the future.”

Those pillars of Catholic health care include leadership, integration of values, mission, spiritual care and ethics. Those are areas that are readily apparent when sisters are present, Stewart said, and “that legacy must move forward” once they are no longer active.

“We must keep the mandate that the sisters have brought us,” Stewart said. “We have big shoes to fill.”

Other hospitals, including those operated by Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity Sponsored Ministries, Inc., headquartered in Manitowoc, are active in the St. Louis-based Catholic Health Association, the largest group of nonprofit health care providers in the nation with over 600 hospitals. The association and its affiliates stress the importance of sponsors — members of the laity — in continuing the mission of Catholic health care.

“Religious orders are families and each family responds to things differently,” said Sr. Laura Wolf, president of Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity Sponsored Ministries, Inc., parent of Holy Family Memorial in Manitowoc as well as facilities in Ohio and Nebraska.

“We have three to four sisters in governance at every facility so we can influence, not at the bedside, but at the administrative level,” she said.

Her order also offers significant education in the Catholic mission to administrators and staff members, and encourages everyone to “live the values they have been taught,” she said.

Through its Hospital Sisters Health System, the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis operate St. Vincent and St. Mary’s hospitals in Green Bay and St. Clare Memorial Hospital in Oconto Falls.

Brian Blasco, director  of communications for the Hospital Sisters, said that members of the order realized three decades ago that the number of sisters available to fill the varied roles was dwindling and began a robust mission integration effort.

“It is something they take very seriously,” he said, adding that there should be a seamless transition if the day arrives when there are no sisters.

Sr. Annice McClure, a learning specialist for Hospital Sisters Health System — Eastern Wisconsin Division’s People Services Department, said managers are encouraged to make pilgrimages to the motherhouse in Muenster, Germany, for an exhaustive look at the order’s legacy and mission.

“The whole point is to give them an understanding of where we’ve come from and why we are here and to ensure they will provide the same level of commitment the sisters have brought,” Sr. Annice said. “It’s been a very fruitful, nurturing event in their lives.”

As those administrators return to their hospitals, they pass those values and a respect for life down through the system, she said, aided by forums, feast days and “a wonderful chapel down the hall.”

“The emphasis is in the mission and doing it as Jesus did,” Sr. Annice explained, noting that the atmosphere remains very different than in a secular or for-profit hospital. “We give holistic care. Every employee brings a sense of their own spiritual goodness and depth.”

Sisters throughout the Catholic hospital system stressed that while the veils are dwindling, the values are not.

“Our values have grounded us. They are our heritage and our legacy and our mission continues. While the sisters held it in trust, they don’t own it,” said Sr. Lois.

“People have asked me how many sisters we have,” she added. “I say ‘just enough.’”

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