Sisters in health care ministry adapt to changing times

When Sister Vicky Segura felt the call to religious life, the Sisters of Bon Secours seemed like a perfect fit. As a trained medical professional with a successful career as a hospital pathologist, she was right at home among a congregation of women who had devoted their lives to health care ministry.

But though the order’s charism remains the same, their work has shifted. When Sister Vicky joined the order in 1979, the majority of her fellow sisters were nurses, hospital administrators or chaplains. Since then, many have moved out of the hospital setting — including Sister Vicky, who, as a hospice physician, now primarily visits patients in their homes or in assisted-living facilities. Nursing has become just one option in the field of health care.

“We have really expanded the meaning of health care,” Sister Vicky said. “It is not just being a physician or a nurse. Health care now is much broader than before.”

Expanding options

For religious orders who were founded to care for the sick, that change in health care — along with changes in religious life and society as a whole — has led them to expand their role into a wider array of ministries. And although they have become much less visible in the hospitals and health care systems they founded, women religious are still living out the mission of their orders in new and different ways.

Sister Sandy
Sister Sandy

“The picture has changed from sisters being highly visible and in very key positions in health care,” said Franciscan Sister of Mary Sandy Schwartz, a member of the order’s leadership team.

At one time, she said, a single hospital may have had 60 to 70 sisters on staff. But as health care became a more complex field, the sisters began to involve more laypeople in their hospital work. At the same time, sisters started to explore new opportunities, and fewer were drawn to nursing.

“Years ago, everybody wanted to be a nurse,” said Sister Sandy. “Now there are so many possibilities that there are less women who want to go into that particular field … So we began to look at other ministries, always with a health care component.”

Those new ministries were designed to address what the sisters saw as unmet needs in the community. In 1993 they founded Almost Home, a program for homeless teenage mothers and their children. They also started Woman’s Place, a ministry to victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence, and are co-sponsors of The Sarah Community, which provides a continuum of care for seniors.

Advocates for change

Sister Mary Shimo
Sister Mary Shimo, right, says women religious now serve as health care advocates. Courtesy of the Sisters of Bon Secours

Another major shift for women religious occurred after the Second Vatican Council. As religious orders began to re-evaluate their missions, some decided to move away from direct service ministries like nursing and to focus on ways that they could make a larger impact in society.

“There was a move to involvement in ministries where there’s a possibility of creating systemic change,” said Sister Sandy. “Where can religious women make the most difference? Is it bedside to bedside, or is it ... creating clinics or health organizations that meet the needs of those who don’t have health insurance?”

Sister of Bon Secours Mary Shimo said that her order experienced a similar change. Although some women still choose to go into direct patient care, the sisters now see their mission of “healing, compassion and liberation” as meaning much more than nursing.

That has led the Bon Secours sisters into a wide range of ministries, from working on issues such as human trafficking and violence against women to initiatives like community outreach and parish nursing.

“The sisters are advocates,” said Sister Mary, who manages volunteers and student programs in a Baltimore hospital. “We are advocates for women in communities, for women who need access to health care, for women who need help getting out of a cycle of abuse. And we all have various options in the ways we serve.”

Continuing legacy

As the sisters’ roles change, they are also keenly aware of the fact that their numbers are much smaller than they once were. As more lay men and women take on roles in hospitals once held by the sisters themselves, it has created another job for religious women who remain in the ministry: ensuring that their order’s mission continues to be carried out.

That is a critical task for the Sisters of Mercy, an order founded to serve the poor through both health care and education. Though some sisters maintain active roles in health care — serving in administration, pastoral care, at clinics or in front office positions — others have taken on more advisory roles, like forming lay leaders in the tradition of the order.

Mercy Sister Mary Roch Rocklage, a former president and CEO of the Sisters of Mercy Health System, now serves primarily as a liaison between the order and the health ministry it sponsors.

“Now our focus has changed,” said Sister Roch. “We have established the institutions to go forward and are keeping them sponsored so that they are true to who we are, why we are and how we are.”

Sister Roch said that the complexities of today’s health care world require that the sisters partner with qualified laypeople to be able to provide the best possible care to patients. As the sisters have become a minority in their health care institutions, they are preparing the lay staff and administrators to provide care in a way that maintains the institution’s Catholic identity and the sisters’ charism.

“From the standpoint of religious, we are not here to perpetuate ourselves,” she said. “But we are obligated to make sure that the footprint of Mercy continues, and we have to pass that on.” 

Scott Alessi writes from Illinois.