Called to lead, Sr. Rocklage draws on faith, humor and business savvy

July 1, 2014


Take a quick survey of Sr. Mary Roch Rocklage's closest associates, and they'll characterize some of her outstanding leadership qualities like this:

  • She is completely authentic.
  • She is both passionate and pragmatic.
  • She can be inspirational, yet humble.
  • She has a sense of humor.
  • She is the ultimate multitasker.
  • She epitomizes the values of both the Sisters of Mercy and Catholic health care through her deep spirituality and commitment to a ministry that is dedicated to the dignity of the individual and seeks to heal the whole person body, mind and soul.

Sr. Rocklage is being honored as a recipient of CHA's 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award.

Sr. Rocklage, RSM, is best known for her leadership in forming what is now the Mercy system, based in St. Louis, where she guided the careers of past and current leaders and modeled fidelity to mission for all staff.

A nurse first
Sr. Rocklage, 79, grew up in north St. Louis, the third of eight children. She was well acquainted with illness due to her mother's chronic health problems. After spending the summer of her junior year in high school caring for a doctor's polio-stricken daughter, she won a scholarship to St. John's Hospital School of Nursing in St. Louis.

After her first year of nurses training, she entered the convent of the Sisters of Mercy in Webster Groves, a St. Louis suburb. She received her nursing diploma in 1959, and earned a bachelor of science in nursing from Chicago's Saint Xavier College in 1961 followed by a master's degree in health administration from Saint Louis University in 1963.

By 1964, Sr. Rocklage was working from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. cleaning equipment, packaging supplies, sharpening needles and learning how a hospital runs from her post in the central sterile supply department at St. John's Mercy Medical Center, a suburban hospital that replaced St. John's city hospital.

After two years, Sr. Rocklage was appointed director of nursing services at St. John's Mercy, now called Mercy Hospital St. Louis. She became the hospital's president in 1969 and spent the next 10 years in the post, much of it working to strengthen faith-based health care by exploring ways for individual hospitals to work together on delivery of services and integration of systems to maximize resources and control costs.

Forging a system
In 1979, Sr. Rocklage became provincial administrator of her religious community, a six-year term that included a yearlong discernment period by the sisters that ultimately resulted in the 1986 founding of Sisters of Mercy Health System, now known as Mercy. "At the time, it was a revolutionary but necessary idea — planning for a time when laypeople would take over the ministry we had begun," she recalls.

"Mercy would absolutely not be where we are today without Sr. Roch's vision for the future of our ministry. … She saw and acted upon what others were afraid to address, bringing lay leaders, physicians and other key groups of coworkers together to prepare us for an even stronger future," says Lynn Britton, current Mercy president and chief executive. "Under her leadership, Mercy grew from being a hospital-based system focusing on the delivery of acute care services to a system of integrated delivery networks committed to providing a broad spectrum of care."

Sr. Rocklage served as first president and chief executive of Mercy from 1986 to 1999, the year she accepted CHA's Sr. Concilia Moran Award. From 1999 to 2003 she was Mercy's first full-time board chair. She was both a "moral compass" and "an astute business leader" for the organization, according to Britton. Under her guidance, Mercy worked to standardize information systems, integrate supply systems, confront labor force challenges and more — all while remaining faithful to the ministry and its values of promoting the common good and social justice.

Pitching in
Those who know Sr. Rocklage well also remember that when she ran a health system by day, she still cooked dinner for the sisters she lived with when it was her turn to do so. She sang in the choir at St. Vincent DePaul Parish in St. Louis and taught scripture classes to sixth, seventh and eighth graders. For nearly 30 years, she taught future health care leaders as an adjunct professor of health care administration at both Saint Louis University and Washington University.

Charles Thoele, current board chair of Mercy, has served in a variety of capacities there, working collaboratively with Sr. Rocklage for what he estimates is close to 50 years. "Not much has happened in Catholic health care that Sr. Roch hasn't had her fingers into; she doesn't sit still, let alone rest," he laughs.

The duo was instrumental, for example, in the founding of the Meacham Park clinic in the late 1950s, which provided health care to the poor and underserved in a predominately African-American community in St. Louis County through the 1980s. To this day, the clinic continues with the same mission under the name JFK Clinic at Mercy Hospital St. Louis.

Thoele also points to Sr. Rocklage's work with Nurses for Newborns, a nonprofit organization with offices in Missouri and Tennessee that helps prevent infant mortality, child abuse and neglect through home-based programs that provide health care and teach positive parenting skills. Sr. Rocklage helped organize Nurses for Newborns in the 1990s, served on its board of directors, guided them through the development of one of their first strategic plans and helped them acquire much-needed grant funding. Currently, she serves as a board member and ambassador for the program.

"Sr. Roch has had a remarkable career. But because of her humility and personal sense of privacy, many details of her work are not well-known, even to her closest colleagues," Thoele says.

A stitch in time
One thing everyone who has had contact with Sr. Rocklage is aware of, however, is her penchant for crocheting baby booties — at night, on the weekends, even at times in the middle of board meetings.

"It's a wonderful illustration of her caring, compassionate nature; she always listens to the details of peoples' lives and keeps track of their families, sending cards as regularly as she crochets booties," says Rich Umbdenstock, president and chief executive of the American Hospital Association.

Umbdenstock vividly remembers when Sr. Rocklage was invested as chair of the board of AHA in 2002. "She surprised all the board members at our retreat by inviting them to take the oath of office with her, as a group, in order to show solidarity and commitment," he says. "It was her way of saying this wasn't about her but rather about the combined leadership of AHA. It's so consistent with who Sr. Roch is, how humble she is and her approach to collaborative leadership."

That leadership style — persistent, polite, pragmatic and visionary — helped to guide AHA through its health reform framework and ultimately to produce "Health for Life," a foundational document for the organization, Umbdenstock adds.

Stay strong
In 2008, Sr. Rocklage helped to lead Mercy's transition to a Public Juridic Person form of sponsorship. Mercy Health Ministry, the PJP, provides a sustainable governance structure by allowing lay leaders to serve as health system sponsors. Sr. Rocklage is sponsor liaison with the PJP and is charged with ensuring the continuity of the Sisters of Mercy influence in the health system.

Today, Mercy is the sixth largest Catholic health system in the U.S. based on net patient revenue, with hospitals and physician clinics in Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma and outreach services in three additional states. "We are very much an achievement of Sr. Roch's 1986 vision, taking care of 3 million people annually — 180,000 in hospitals and 2.7 million-plus more in ambulatory facilities," says Britton.

Indeed, when Joplin, Mo., was devastated and Mercy's hospital was destroyed by an EF5 multiple-vortex tornado in 2011, Sr. Rocklage flew back from a meeting in Ireland to help inspire Mercy staff to stay strong. "She toured the site, met with workers, listened to their stories, sympathized with them, tended to them emotionally and encouraged them," remembers Britton. "She is such an inspiring presence that I often tease her that she could read a phone book in front of 1,000 people and get a standing ovation."

These days, she is also a bright spot in the lives of the 35-plus nuns she tends to as Community Life Coordinator at Mercy Center's Catherine's Residence, a retirement home for the Sisters of Mercy in suburban St. Louis, seeing to both the physical and spiritual needs of the residents there.

"My life has been a life of wonderful gifts. I never seek, but am always called forth," Sr. Rocklage says.

"The Mercy ministry is one that is older than we are and will outlive all of us," she adds. "Our biggest achievement has been our fidelity to the struggle."


Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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