Sr. Barbara Moore, CSJ, shepherded historic change in society, ministry sponsorship

July 1, 2016

Watch the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award Video for Sr. Barbara Moore, CSJ


Photo credit: Chris Ryan /© CHA
Sr. Barbara Moore, CSJ

Sr. Barbara Moore, CSJ, is a trailblazer. The first African-American woman to join the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, she participated in the historic voting rights march in Selma, Ala. She began her health care career as a hospital nurse and rose to become dean of a nursing college before leaving academia to work directly with underprivileged women and children.

Later, as a member of the congregational leadership team of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, she helped convince fellow sisters of the wisdom of merging their Carondelet Health System ministry with Ascension Health.

"When she takes on a task, it's usually a pretty big one in terms of how it involves other people," said Sr. Catherine Durr, CSJ, a retired hospital administrator whose friendship with Sr. Moore has spanned 60 years. Sr. Durr said of Sr. Moore: "She does her homework. She really gets into the meat of what the issue is. She's not going to just move in like a bulldozer. She's gentle in how she approaches hard decisions."

For her work in social justice, service to the marginalized and leadership in the development of Ascension, Sr. Moore is the 2016 recipient of CHA's Lifetime Achievement Award.

Southern roots
Sr. Moore, 77, was born in Memphis, Tenn., and raised in a Baptist family in Birmingham, Ala. She converted to Catholicism at age 12, when she moved with her mother and brother to St. Louis. Her early role models were her mother and Cardinal Joseph Ritter, who ended segregation in Catholic schools seven years before the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education declared separate but equal public schools for black and white children to be unconstitutional.

Sr. Moore unwittingly broke a barrier herself in 1955, when she became the first African American to join the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

"At the time, I didn't even know about it or wonder about it," she said. "It was a fact, that's all. I was following what I felt God was calling me to."

She earned her bachelor's degree in 1962 from St. Teresa's College, now known as Avila University, in Kansas City, Mo., where she made lifelong friends, including Sr. Ann Schorfheide, CSJ. The two went to nursing school together, then taught in Avila's nursing program in a time of racial divide in the U.S.

"I remember stopping at a restaurant with Barbara," Sr. Schorfheide said. "We stood there, waiting and waiting to be seated. We knew why. Barbara never complained, and she never told stories about things like that. I can't fully appreciate the things she experienced, but she made the best of whatever situation she was in and flourished in our community."

Social justice training
Her composure under pressure made Sr. Moore the ideal standard bearer for the order when religious nationwide joined the historic 1965 march in Selma for voting rights. One of two African-American nuns on the march, Sr. Moore was schooled in nonviolence.

"The instruction was a transformative experience," she said. "You hold hands, you march with your arms locked, you don't retaliate. It was so powerful to see people from all over, all age groups, ministers, rabbis: the variety of people, not only from Selma, but from all over the country because they felt so strongly."

A year after joining freedom marchers in Selma, Sr. Moore earned a master's degree in nursing from the University of California San Francisco. She became a nursing instructor at Avila's nursing department and after three years she moved to Seattle, where she earned a doctor of philosophy in higher education administration from the University of Washington in 1977. Returning to Avila, she went on to chair the nursing department for six of her 15 years at the college.

"She did a wonderful job," Sr. Schorfheide said. "She charmed everyone, students and faculty."

U.N. in KC
Yet she felt a longing to serve people of color and others in need, and she left Avila in 1988 to coordinate the perinatal care program at Samuel Rodgers Health Center in Kansas City, Mo. "It was like a United Nations," she recalled. "The clients were from Central and South America, Vietnam, Haiti and Afghanistan. We had interpreters, and we helped women raise healthier babies. I really enjoyed it."

Photo credit: Chris Ryan /© CHA
Sr. Moore reviews a patient chart at St. Joseph Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. In the late 1960s, when this photo likely was taken, she was a medical-surgical nursing instructor at Avila College (now Avila University) in Kansas City.

A decade later, she became project director for Kansas City's Healthy Start Program, focused on reducing infant morbidity and mortality.

"We were able to hire teams that included people from the community and gave them opportunities for self-development as well as classes," she said. "When you have people from the area serving people from the area, it helps them all become upwardly mobile."

Sponsor unification
Following her years of community service came a shift to leadership in her order, where she advocated for the merger of Carondelet Health System with Ascension in 2002.

"Ascension's service for the poor and vulnerable and values of creativity and integrity weren't just on paper," she said. "They were in tune with us. They walked the walk."

Ascension formed a sponsors' council, comprised of nuns from the three orders that were part of Ascension at the time. Sr. Moore represented the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet from 2003 to 2008 and served as council chair from 2005 to 2008, when she proposed what Ascension President and Chief Executive Anthony Tersigni called "an amazing idea."

"She championed sponsorship of the whole," he said. "She said to the other historic sponsors, 'We are sponsors of Ascension, not just our historic ministries.' That was a huge moment." Her powers of persuasion and leadership eventually led to Ascension's petition to become a public juridic person in 2010.

"She really was a visionary, taking us from independent historic sponsors worried about just their own ministries to relinquishing all responsibilities to this public juridic person," he said. "That was pretty awesome."

As a member of the sponsors' council, Sr. Moore supported a decision to close an Augusta, Ga., hospital that had been part of the Carondelet system before the merger with Ascension.

"I can't even imagine how painful it was for her with members of her community, but that resonated with the other historic sponsors," Tersigni said. "Up to that point, we hadn't done anything with the facilities of the historic ministries. She said, 'If I can walk away from one of my ministries for the good of Ascension and the good of Catholic ministries, we ought to all have that ability.' It showed true leadership and absolute conviction in the mission of the organization: that it's not about any one of us; it's about all of us."

Said Sr. Moore: "I strongly believe in sponsorship of the whole and what is better for Catholic health care."

Though she officially retired in 2015, Sr. Moore continues to be a guiding force for women of color. She works with Nia Kuumba, a spirituality center in St. Louis for African-American and African women, particularly students at area universities. She also has traveled to Uganda to help Microfinancing Partners in Africa, an organization based in St. Louis that has provided economic opportunities to single mothers and families. She volunteers with mailings and speaks on the group's behalf at fundraisers.

"Too often the poor, marginalized women and people of color do not have a voice when major decisions are made that affect their lives," she said. "I have tried to be a voice that invites and encourages those in positions of influence and power to invite others to the table and to be mindful of their needs."


Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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