Better together: Sr. Doris Gottemoeller, RSM, unified hospitals and her congregation

July 1, 2021



When Sr. Doris Gottemoeller, RSM, entered religious life 67 years ago, she was drawn to the Sisters of Mercy by their wide-ranging work in education, health care, social work and foreign missions.

"And I thought, 'Whatever the community gives me to do, that's what God wants me to do,''' she said.

Sr. Doris Gottemoeller, RSM

Sr. Gottemoeller trained to be a teacher and taught high school chemistry and math before being called to congregational leadership. During the 1980s, she guided the Sisters of Mercy and their ministries forward through drastically changing times.

Her vision of uniting 11 Mercy hospitals and 30 other facilities in Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee led to the formation in 1986 of Cincinnati-based Catholic Health Partners, one of the first multistate health systems in the United States. The system changed its name to Mercy Health in 2014. When Mercy Health merged with Marriottsville, Maryland-based Bon Secours Health System in 2018, Bon Secours Mercy Health became one of the nation's five largest Catholic health care systems. It employs more than 60,000 people in 50 hospitals in seven states and Ireland.

Leading with kindness
Sr. Gottemoeller, 84, is still on the job. She is a member of the board of Bon Secours Mercy Health and chair of Bon Secours Mercy Ministries, the system's public juridic person.

Sr. Doris Gottemoeller, RSM, second from right, joins the crew from Bon Secours Mercy Health on the field for a ceremonial first pitch at a 2019 Cincinnati Reds home game. John Starcher, the system's chief executive, gives a thumbs up after delivering the pitch. Sr. Pat Eck, CBS, center, Sr. Carol Anne Smith, HM, and Sr. Gottemoeller represent the three "participating entities" in Bon Secours Mercy Ministries, the system's Public Juridic Person.
Courtesy of the Cincinnati Reds.

For her lifetime of contributions to Catholic health care, Sr. Gottemoeller has been named the 2021 recipient of CHA's Lifetime Achievement Award, an honor she accepts with humility.

"I sort of pinch myself and say, 'Why am I being honored by a health care organization?''' Sr. Gottemoeller said. "I never was a clinician. I never spent time in a sick room. I never worked in a hospital."

Her modesty comes as no surprise to longtime colleagues who describe her as a trailblazer, as humble as she is wise.

"She is just a very kind person, and her kindness and intellectual prowess in combination are disarming,'' said Michael D. Connelly, retired president and chief executive of Mercy Health. "You wanted to work with her."

As a senior member of the Mercy Health leadership team, Sr. Gottemoeller brought perspective and balance to complicated and difficult issues, said Connelly, who worked with her for 13 years.

"She is willing to listen and then process and analyze in her mind,'' he said. "When she did speak, people would listen."

Common good
After being elected provincial of the Cincinnati-based Sisters of Mercy of the Union in 1983, Sr. Gottemoeller saw firsthand the inefficiency of every hospital acting alone.

"We used to deal with each hospital separately. There was no common staff or sense of being 'one,''' Sr. Gottemoeller said of her province's sponsored works. "And there were local loyalties that were difficult to overcome.''

It took two years, but Sr. Gottemoeller persuaded skeptical hospital administrators that, by consolidating resources and leveraging buying power, they could grow their mission of caring for those in need.

"I had the experience of some hospitals saying, 'We don't need a system,''' Sr. Gottemoeller said. "If you wait until you need it, it's not fair. Then you're going to bring an injured or hurting entity into a system. If only the weak ones come together, it will never work. You have to have the strong ones, as well.''

Act from strength
Her philosophy of "better together'' also drove her leadership of the Mercy Futures project, a 10-year process to merge 17 Sisters of Mercy congregations in North America into the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.

When the project started in 1981, some religious orders were beginning to show signs of decline, but that was not the case with the Sisters of Mercy, Sr. Gottemoeller said.

"We acted from strength,'' she said. "Every congregation had something to bring to the table, and those who had more brought more. We agreed early on that we would begin taxing ourselves so that we would have resources when we came together as an institute. And everybody dutifully — from the smallest to the largest — began paying into a central fund."

The merger made sense because there was no longer a reason for the congregations to be separate. They were more alike than they were different, Sr. Gottemoeller said.

"In the days of our founding in the 19th century, travel and communication were difficult, but that was no longer true,'' Sr. Gottemoeller said. "There was nothing to stop us from becoming one.''

She was elected as the first president of the institute in 1991, a position she held for eight years.

Sr. Gottemoeller's leadership style is guided by her belief in the common good, said Sr. Patricia McDermott, RSM, president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.

"One of the things that I so appreciate about Doris is that she builds relationships of trust,'' Sr. McDermott said. "She does that naturally out of her own goodness and her own good spirit."

She describes Sr. Gottemoeller as a visionary but not an idealist when it comes to fulfilling the mission.

"It is always about bringing people together and building relationships that will enhance our response to the needs of God's people,'' Sr. McDermott said. "How can we do better together what we cannot do alone? How can we further our mission, which is to serve the poor, the sick, the uneducated?"

Ensuring the Mercy tradition
Sr. Gottemoeller was born and raised in Cleveland. She joined the Sisters of Mercy when she was 16 after completing high school early. She earned a bachelor's degree from Edgecliff College in Cincinnati, a master's degree in chemistry from the University of Notre Dame and a master's and doctorate in theology from Fordham University.

Sr. Gottemoeller has held governance positions in education, health care, housing and religious organizations. Among them: senior vice president of mission and values integration for Catholic Healthcare Partners, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, delegate to the International Union Superiors General, auditor at the Synod on Consecrated Life, chair of the CHA board of trustees and of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth Health System. She was the 2008 recipient of CHA's Sister Concilia Moran Award for her creativity, leadership and breakthrough thinking.

"The opportunities that would come to me as a result of being a Sister of Mercy — I didn't grasp that for years. Often, I was the only woman in the room,'' Sr. Gottemoeller said. "And I never imagined that I would be working for a health care organization when I was trained to be a teacher."

Sr. Gottemoeller has developed programs, including the health system's Leadership Academy, to train lay leaders to carry on the Mercy healing mission and its emphasis on Catholic principles — human dignity and the common good.

"Going back 40 years, when there were still numerous sisters in hospitals, you took that culture for granted,'' Sr. Gottemoeller said. "People talk as if a sister was in every room, in every corridor. But that wasn't the case. It was the habit they wore that made them conspicuous. If there were seven or eight sisters, it felt like it was a Catholic hospital run by the sisters. That's gone. Instead, we must build a culture of care, a culture of service, a culture of compassion based on carefully prepared and integrated formation experiences. We're doing the same in our educational ministries now. Health care led the way."

Copyright © 2021 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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