US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Women religious and the future of Catholic hospitals

By Elizabeth Lefebvre | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

With the departure of Sister Mary Jean Ryan as chief executive of Sisters of St. Mary Health Care, one of the country’s largest networks of Catholic hospitals, only 11 nuns remain among the organization’s more than 22,000 employees, the New York Times recently reported.

Nuns or priests now serve as executives at only 8 of the 636 Catholic hospitals in the US. However, Sister Mary Jean feels that this is a time to focus not on the demise of religious in the health care field, but instead on the important contributions that she and her fellow sisters have made.

“I mean, yes, we are a dying breed. We are disappearing from the face of the earth and all of that,” she says. “That being said, perhaps this is a moment for people to acknowledge the contribution that has been made by women religious throughout our history in the United States.”

Sister Mary Jean, along with her fellow women religious, has indeed made important contributions to the health care industry at her hospitals. Sister Mary Jean, who says she was trained to see the face of Jesus in every patient, was known also for paying workers decent wages, eliminating plastic water bottles and Styrofoam cups, and creating a work environment with nonviolent, gender-neutral language.

Administrators of Catholic hospitals believe that their values-driven approach that healing is a priority over financial gain sets them apart from secular hospitals. The pledge of SSM promises to in their care “reveal the healing presence of God.”

Interesting to me was also the fact that Sister Mary Jean, in accordance with her vows of poverty, worked as the chief executive of the hospital network for free. While the Sisters of St. Mary were compensated for labor costs, Sister Mary did not stand any personal financial gain in an industry that is dominated by executives paid millions of dollars a year.

As religious orders continue to become "a dying breed," will these same values die out as well? I hope that people not only continue to acknowledge the contributions of women religious to health care, but actively work with their same passion, spirit, and principles.

See also the article from our September issue on modern barriers to vocations and the recent conversation on our website surrounding the permissibility of female altar servers.

Related: When it comes to the environment, the church should seek the wisdom of women religious