SSM Health Care transitions to public juridic person sponsor model

December 15, 2013


St. Louis-based SSM Health Care has transitioned from sponsorship by its founding congregation, the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, to sponsorship by a public juridic person.

The new body, called SSM Health Ministries, assumed sponsorship responsibilities Nov. 16. The group includes three Franciscan Sisters of Mary and three lay members. SSM Health Ministries members initially will serve staggered terms of one, two or three years, but will be eligible for reappointment for up to two additional, three-year terms after their initial term expires.

SSM Health Ministries members, from left to right, are Sr. Rose Mary Dowling, FSM, president of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary congregation; Thomas E. Hilton, director for Anders Minkler Huber and Helm and president of the board of Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center in St. Louis; Sr. Sandra Schwartz, FSM, a member of the congregation's leadership team; Jennifer Grantham Stein, a board member of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Madison, Wis.; Thomas M. Gunn, president of the Gunn Group, a St. Louis-based marketing consulting firm; and Sr. Susan Scholl, FSM, a member of the congregation's leadership team.


The leadership team of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary selects the members of SSM Health Ministries. The members of that public juridic person also serve on the board of SSM Health Care, an 18-hospital system spanning four states. SSM Health Care's board can have between five and 18 members. SSM Health Ministries can have between five and 12 members.

As Catholic Health World went to press, SSM Health Ministries had planned to select a president, vice president, secretary and treasurer at a Dec. 2 meeting.

SSM Health Ministries is responsible for ensuring SSM Health Care retains its Catholic identity and values, according to the Franciscan Sisters of Mary's leadership team. The public juridic person also is the health system's liaison to the Vatican. According to Sr. Rose Mary Dowling, FSM, president of the Franciscan Sisters of

Mary, the sisters undertook this transition because they understand that the congregation is "coming to completion — we are very conscious that we are coming to an end, and we are doing what we need to do to pass on our sponsored ministries to others." There are 89 congregation members in the U.S., and no one has joined the congregation in about 35 years. The new sponsor model allows for lay involvement in health ministry sponsorship. The congregation also is preparing separately to transition sponsorship of a home for single teen mothers and their babies and a drop-in center for women in crisis.

Sr. Dowling said the congregation has been laying the groundwork for the transition to lay involvement in the ministry since around 1975, when it began "systemically and systematically bringing the mission of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary" to colleagues throughout SSM Health Care. It has been doing so through orientation activities and by incorporating mission-based criteria into colleagues' evaluations, for instance. Sr. Dowling said congregation members feel comfortable with the transition to greater lay involvement in sponsorship because they see that people throughout SSM Health Care have "picked up" the mission and have a passion for carrying on the sisters' legacy.

The Franciscan Sisters of Mary's leadership team, which now is made up of four sisters, had been SSM Health Care's sponsor. That sponsor body applied in June 2012 to the Vatican for approval to transition to a public juridic person model. They received that approval in November 2012, but waited until 2013 to change sponsorship models because they needed time to plan for the transition. They chose Nov. 16 for the sponsorship change to coincide with the 141st anniversary of the arrival in St. Louis of the foundress of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary congregation. Three of the four leadership team members now serve on the public juridic person body.

The SSM Health Ministries members — both the women religious and the lay members — participate in a formation program that includes meetings, readings, videos and reflections on the Franciscan Sisters of Mary's heritage, the sponsor role, the Catholic health care tradition and the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.

Sr. Dowling said through the formation program, the congregation will give the new sponsors insight into their roles, including the need to navigate the tension between testing the status quo and holding the line on Catholic mission and values. She said the sisters "have had practice holding that tension between being prophetic and upholding tradition," and lay sponsors will have to learn to do this as well. She said the sisters have learned to be comfortable with making difficult decisions and saying things that people may not want to hear. Founders of the congregation often "got into trouble" by doing the right things, even though their decisions may have been unpopular at the time, Sr. Dowling said.

"The main challenge will be helping (the new sponsors) to learn the culture that makes us distinctive," she said.

Sr. Dowling said the Franciscan Sisters of Mary have mixed emotions about the transition. While they are gratified by the lay sponsors' dedication to the ministry, "there's a sadness because this ministry is an intimate part of who we are.

"We love the mission dearly, and we love the people" in the ministry, she said.


Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.