From health care to housing to humanitarian work, Sr. Phyllis Hughes makes an impact

July 1, 2018


No one would ever describe Sr. Phyllis Hughes, RSM, as a person who shies away from a challenge.

A career that has taken her from health care administration to leadership of her religious community to affordable housing to humanitarian work on behalf of those with HIV/AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean has led to Sr. Hughes' selection this year for the CHA's Lifetime Achievement Award.

Sr. Phyllis Hughes, RSM
Photo by Chris Ryan/© CHA

Sr. Lillian Murphy, RSM, says her friend of "50-plus years" has "a double-decker brain" but "knows that she does not know it all.

"She's very smart but she carries that really easily," Sr. Murphy added. "She believes in a team leadership approach and has really modeled that."

The two met in the late 1960s and first worked together when Sr. Hughes was an administrative assistant at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix and Sr. Murphy was her boss.

"She was so smart that I thought, 'What am I going to do with her?'" Sr. Murphy said. Because she was a quick study, Sr. Murphy assigned Sr. Hughes to fill in for vacationing staffers in various offices, where some of the old-fashioned systems and business practices "almost drove her crazy.

"It was a fun experience, but she was ready to kill me by the end," Sr. Murphy said.

Formative years
Born in Michigan, Sr. Hughes lost her father in World War II. Her mother remarried when Phyllis was 4 and the family moved to Phoenix.

Sr. Hughes traces her own religious vocation to the Sisters of Mercy who worked at St. Joseph's Hospital, now part of Dignity Health, which she visited frequently as a child because six of her nine siblings were born there.

"Around the fifth grade I decided it would be a good idea to become a sister," she said. "I entered the Sisters of Mercy when I was 17, and it's been a great ride for me. I am very grateful to the Sisters of Mercy for the education and mentoring and nurturing they have given me."

In the early 1970s, Sr. Hughes earned a master's degree in hospital administration at the University of California, Berkeley, then an epicenter of the hippie movement and protests against the Vietnam War. "It was a really exciting time to be at Berkeley," she said. "I walked the straight and narrow so the community wouldn't say, 'We gotta get her out of there.'"

Sr. Hughes tells the Catholic Health Assembly that change is a constant in health care, but "there will always be a need to bring God's love and compassion to all we serve."
Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr./© CHA

Committed to the less fortunate
Throughout her career, Sr. Hughes never lost a connection with the people in the community where she worked. As president and chief executive of Mercy Hospital in Bakersfield, Calif., in the 1980s, for example, she started an outreach program that dug deep to determine the community needs of those in poorer neighborhoods.

"Bakersfield at that time was divided; one side had means and the other side didn't," she said. "A very articulate woman nurse was put in charge of finding out what people in the community really needed and what we could do about it."

Surprisingly, the biggest need identified in one neighborhood was for a basketball team that would keep young people engaged. Sr. Hughes went to her board, got funding for the team and found a volunteer coach. Next, she secured funding for a dental clinic for people unable to afford private dental care.

After she left Mercy Hospital, the hospital created the Sister Phyllis Hughes Grant Program, to provide funds to Kern County nonprofits that meet identified community needs. It continues to this day.

Sr. Hughes departed Mercy Bakersfield in 1987 and spent a sabbatical year that included three months visiting hospitals and clinics in Thailand, India, Nepal, Kenya and South Africa. She took a post in 1988 as a vice president of what was then Catholic Healthcare West in San Francisco, later to be called Dignity Health. Five years into that job she got the call to serve as president of the Burlingame Regional Community of the Sisters of Mercy based in Burlingame, Calif.

"Leadership in a religious community is like no other job," said Sr. Murphy of her friend's four-year experience. "It's difficult dealing with people's lives and future. It's a very hard role, and she did a really good job at it."

"I don't think it's ever anyone's favorite job," added another longtime friend, Sr. Marilyn Lacey, RSM. "But she is always willing to use her gifts where they are needed."

Housing and population health
The next place she was needed was at Mercy Housing's national headquarters in Denver, where she worked from 1997 to 2000 as vice president in charge of Healthy Community Initiatives.

"She brought together some of the mega-resources from health care to the critical problem of the lack of affordable housing," Sr. Lacey said. "She didn't just leave one to join the other; she joined the two of them. Because she was well respected in health care, she could go to systems and say, 'If you want healthy communities, you need affordable housing.' I thought it was brilliant."

Sr. Lacey, who lives with Sr. Hughes at a residence for women coming out of prison, is executive director of Mercy Beyond Borders, which works to empower women and girls living in extreme poverty in South Sudan and Haiti.

During a leave from Mercy Housing, Sr. Hughes served from September 1999 to June 2000 as interim president and chief executive of Catholic Healthcare West. She then completed work at UC Berkeley for a doctorate in international public health, including six weeks of research in Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan.

She put that experience to good use in her next position as manager of international HIV/AIDS outreach for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, where she worked from 2005 to 2008.

The work was "quite different from anything I'd done," Sr. Hughes said. "We had a very, very large grant (from the U.S. government) to deliver drugs for HIV and AIDS in nine countries. That grant was like riding a bucking bronco, but by the time I left we had 250,000 people on the (antiretroviral) drugs."

Her love for health care work in the developing world also took her on mission trips to Peru, Mexico and Guatemala. It led her to link up a rural hospital in Gros Morne, Haiti, with Centura Health in Colorado. Centura helped the Haitian facility meet its ongoing needs. Centura operates under a joint operating agreement between Catholic Health Initiatives and the Adventist Health System.

Stay the course
Throughout her career Sr. Hughes has served on 28 Catholic health care boards of directors and countless other sponsorship councils, task forces, and committees. She's chaired the boards of CHA and CHI.

"Sr. Phyllis is one of the most dedicated, knowledgeable and forward-thinking individuals I've had the honor to work with in my career in health care," said Kevin E. Lofton, CHI's chief executive.

"She embodies the mission, vision and values of CHI — and those of the entire national Catholic health care ministry that she has served so well for so many years," he added.

Even now, in her 70s, she's on "five boards and six committees — or is it six boards and five committees? I can never remember," Sr. Hughes said with a laugh.

In her spare time, Sr. Hughes enjoys hiking and doing puzzles, often applying the latter skill to complex problems raised at board meetings.

"At many meetings she will look like she is not listening because she is doodling," Sr. Murphy said. "But then she is always spot on with her questions."

Sr. Hughes sees challenges ahead for Catholic health care and health care in general during what she calls "the most turbulent era I have been involved with."

Among those challenges are web-based medicine, changing reimbursement patterns, how to confront the opioid and obesity crises and "the bigger issues of what needs to be in a hospital and what doesn't need to be," she said.

She urged her colleagues in health care to "stay the course and keep up their spirits" in changing times. "The mission of Catholic health care is even more critical now than it has ever been."



Copyright © 2018 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.

Copyright © 2018 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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