By NANCY FRAZIER O'BRIEN
Sr. Mary Dorothea Sondgeroth, OP, wasn't thrilled when the leadership of her order decided in 1963 to transfer her from a teaching post in Illinois to a health care position at St. Dominic — Jackson Memorial Hospital in Jackson, Miss.
"I loved what I was doing, and as a child I always had a dread of doctors and needles," she said. "But I was surprised by the environment and enjoyed working with the sisters here. And I was able to teach in the school of nursing and transfer my skills."
The move led her to a lengthy career in health care and to an enduring influence on the Jackson community that goes far beyond hospital walls. For a lifetime of contributions to the Catholic health ministry, Sr. Sondgeroth was honored as a recipient of the 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award at the Catholic Health Assembly.
Now serving as associate executive director of St. Dominic Health Services Foundation, she was president of St. Dominic Health Services and chaired the boards of St. Dominic Health Services and St. Dominic-Jackson Memorial Hospital from August 1995 to the end of 2011.
"Her greatest accomplishment is a consistent living out of her faith," said Claude W. Harbarger, who has worked with Sr. Sondgeroth for more than 30 years and succeeded her as president of St. Dominic Health Services. "That is not an easy thing to do in this world, and she does it so well."
During her tenure, St. Dominic Health Services grew to include a 535-bed hospital with more than 500 affiliated physicians, a 440-resident continuing care retirement community called St. Catherine's Village and oversight of more than 3,000 employees.
Act justly, walk humbly
St. Dominic is the only Catholic hospital in the state of Mississippi and Sr. Sondgeroth played a pivotal role in building a foundation of trust with community members who were wary of a Catholic ministry delivering health care. "The legacy of Sr. Dorothea and the entire health system bears witness that a Catholic-based health ministry can survive and thrive alongside other deeply held religious faiths," Harbarger wrote when he nominated her for the CHA award.
Sr. Sondgeroth recalls that when she arrived in Jackson in 1963 "there were some strained relationships between the hospital and individuals unfamiliar with Catholics. The tensions were somewhat there, but as people in the Jackson area got to know the sisters, they disappeared. The people here in Mississippi are wonderful," she said.
Asked about her leadership style and personal credo, the Dominican nun quotes Micah 6:8, her favorite Scripture passage. "This is what the Lord asks of you: to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God."
"If we all followed that we would have a great legacy to leave for others," she said. "I try to help others by lifting them up." She describes herself as "a team player" and says, "I don't like to be the lone ranger."
Others, however, see her as a leader whose vision compels them to follow her guidance.
Jim Wilkirson, executive director of the Fondren Renaissance Foundation, recalls Sr. Sondgeroth's strong commitment to revitalizing the neighborhood near St. Dominic's when the effort started in 1997.
"I am really not sure to this day that she even asked anyone about giving the funds to get the programming started," he said. "I think she just said, 'This is what we are going to do.'"
St. Dominic's made the final installment on a $1 million commitment to the foundation in 2005, and Fondren today includes more than 70 restored homes and a neighborhood park that have attracted new shops, restaurants and other businesses.
The neighborhood was "very rundown and we had started to see the effects of this deterioration coming into the ER," Sr. Sondgeroth said. "We got a return on our investment a hundredfold."
Countless other community organizations in the Jackson area have also benefited from her leadership. Find It Fondren, a hyper-local publication, wrote "It may be easier to name the organizations she hasn't been a part of or served in some way."
She has served on the boards of more than 30 local organizations, including the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Junior Achievement, United Way, Rotary Club, Safe City Initiative, St. Catherine's Village Foundation, Mississippi Children's Museum, Metropolitan Crime Commission and St. Joseph High School.
She's a past member of the Preventive Health Advisory Committee of the Mississippi State Board of Health. Known for her fundraising abilities, she has chaired the Mississippi Blood Services capital fund campaign, the Alzheimer's Memory Walk, and the Junior Achievement Bowling Classic, among other events.
"She is recognized across the metro area not just for her business acumen but for the love and caring she has for people," Harbarger said.
"Sr. Dorothea is an individual who just really loves people," he added. "When you have that personality, people enjoy being around you; they feel love and want to give love back in return. You almost want to do anything for sister."
Sr. Sondgeroth takes every opportunity to be hands-on with the community, traveling almost every year to the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center with St. Dominic's Care-A-Van, a mobile screening bus that records more than 33,000 wellness contacts annually with children and the elderly in underserved areas.
At the museum, she teaches the children about healthy eating and hands out gifts such as jump ropes and sidewalk chalk to encourage physical and mental fitness.
"The community each of us lives in has a lot to do with our health and well-being," she said. "Healthy people most often not only have access to medical care but also nutritious food, clean water and sanitary living conditions. Healthy communities offer these things and more, including activities to foster mental health and creativity such as the arts."
Sr. Sondgeroth added that, as one of Jackson's largest employers and as a Catholic ministry, it's incumbent on St. Dominic's to "take a leadership role in lifting up the community."
Sr. Sondgeroth takes pains to deflect attention from herself. Nevertheless, the honors have rolled in. A laureate of the Mississippi Business Hall of Fame, she received the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross, the highest papal honor bestowed on non-clergy, in 2012 for her distinguished service to the Catholic Church. She holds the Jefferson Award, given by the American Institute for Public Service to "unsung heroes" who create innovative solutions to problems in their communities.
She earned separate master's degrees in science and health administration from Saint Louis University and received an honorary doctor of public service degree in 2010 from Millsaps College in Jackson. Members of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Ill., also demonstrated their esteem for her by electing her to their leadership team from 1983 to 1993.
After turning over the reins of St. Dominic Health Services to Harbarger in 2012, Sr. Sondgeroth took a sabbatical that started with a 30-day retreat and continued with visits to family and friends around the country. The journey took her some 27,000 miles through 18 states in a Toyota Camry.
She now works full time for the St. Dominic Health Services Foundation, helping Chief Development Officer and Executive Director Jim Jeter launch a $10 million capital campaign for expansion of the hospital's emergency services. She also hosts a monthly "Tea with Sister D" at St. Catherine's Village, providing speakers on such topics as taxes, estate planning or arts in the community.
Reflecting on her life, Sr. Sondgeroth said it has been blessed by "being able to live a full religious life as a Dominican sister and all the opportunities that I've had in the health care and education fields.
"I started out as a teacher," she added. "That's been a blessing, and I hope it has been a blessing for others too."
Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association
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