Sr. O'Connor's work in formation helped secure the future of Catholic health care

July 2023



Sr. Catherine O'Connor, CSB, tells the story of encountering a maintenance worker in an empty back corridor of a hospital where she worked years ago. She was struck by his diligence on a quiet weekend day, dutifully cleaning baseboards that few people would ever see.

As vice president for mission and sponsorship for Covenant Health, Sr. Catherine O’Connor, CSB, helped develop and implement groundbreaking formation programs that prepare lay leaders to shepherd the ministry. Once Films

"I still remember that man,'' she said in her gentle Irish voice. "He was faithfully doing what he had committed to do. And no one probably knew that, except himself and myself."

For Sr. O'Connor, the man's dedication exemplifies the importance of every employee in fulfilling a health care system's mission every day, no matter their job title.

"I got that value from my parents,'' said Sr. O'Connor, who was born in a small village near Dublin, the middle child of 13 siblings. Her father, a contractor, had several businesses, and she recalls his employees often joining her family for dinner.

"We were always taught to have the utmost respect for them. It was like they were an extended family,'' she said. "It was rooted in my family values that every person is worthy of dignity and respect. There's no point in talking about the Gospel unless we live it."

Colleagues fondly recall Sr. O'Connor's welcoming ways during her tenure as vice president for mission and sponsorship for Tewksbury, Massachusetts-based Covenant Health. She helped develop and implement groundbreaking formation programs that guide lay leaders in deep spiritual exploration and prepare them to shepherd ministries in fidelity to their founding congregations.

She was a co-founder and early leader of the "Collaborative Formation Program for Public Juridic Persons," which started in 2005. She was essential in transitioning the sponsor formation program to CHA in 2015.

"She just brings out the best in people and truly has been a leader in Catholic health care,'' said Elizabeth Keene, vice president of mission for St. Mary's Health System, a member of Covenant Health, in Lewiston, Maine. "She has a way of connecting people, whether you are Catholic or not, with the mission of the health system and the mission of healing and caring for people. She can be humorous and gentle, but she does call you to that higher standard to be the best person you can be.''

Irish charm
Friends say that Sr. O'Connor's gift for storytelling probably helped a wee bit, too.

"My colleagues would come back after attending a session led by Sr. Cathy and tell me, 'I could just listen to her all day,'" Keene said. "And then they would add, 'But, you know, I really do remember pretty much everything she said.'"

Sr. O'Connor was elected congregational leader of the Brigidine sisters in 2016. She returned to Ireland in 2020, after 54 years in the U.S. She continues her service to Covenant as a member of its combined operating/sponsor board.

CHA is honoring Sr. O'Connor's trailblazing efforts in sponsorship and formation with the 2023 Sister Concilia Moran Award, named for visionary health care and ministry leader Sr. Mary Concilia Moran, RSM. Presented at the 2023 Catholic Health Assembly, the award recognizes an individual in Catholic health care who has demonstrated creativity, leadership and breakthrough thinking that advances the ministry.

Passing the torch
Sr. O'Connor was among the forward-thinking women religious who recognized in the 1990s that as vocations declined and their members aged, congregations would have to adopt new sponsorship models that would welcome Catholic laity to guide ministerial works in accord with the heritage and missions of founding congregations. Sponsorship is undertaken on behalf of the Catholic Church.

"I've never been worried about the future because we've got so many wonderful lay people continuing the work we were doing,'' Sr. O'Connor said.

She first witnessed the strength of laity, newly empowered by Vatican II, shortly after her arrival in the United States in 1965. After teaching for several years, she was assigned to work with lay people to establish a new parish near San Antonio.

"It was one of the great experiences in my life,'' she said.

A deep trust
Covenant Health was founded by the Grey Nuns, the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, and it grew through assuming sponsorship of other Catholic facilities and systems. The health care system includes hospitals, skilled nursing and rehabilitation centers and assisted living residences in New England and Pennsylvania.

In 1995, the Vatican approved the Grey Nuns' request to make Covenant Health Systems a public juridic person and allow for lay participation as sponsor members. In 2007, the Grey Nuns were authorized to entrust their reserve powers to the public juridic person (board) who then became a full self-perpetuating sponsor of Covenant Health, the civil corporation. The civil board is the mirror board of the canonical sponsor board.

Sr. O'Connor joined the Covenant Health corporate leadership team in 2007 to provide strategic direction in the areas of mission and sponsorship, Catholic identity, ethics and social justice.

Thom Morris, who recently retired as chief sponsorship and theology officer for Bon Secours Mercy Health, calls Sr. O'Connor a good friend. They worked together on formation programs in the United States and at Bon Secours' hospitals in Ireland.

"What sets Cathy apart is her ability to walk with another, both in their pain and their joy,'' Morris said. "She is a woman who has faced suffering in her own life, and she has walked along with people who have struggled. Yet, she remains a person of hope.''

He admires her sense of humor and concern for others.

"She's also not afraid to address the hard issues that come up,'' Morris said. "In our sessions, if people asked difficult questions, she didn't shy from it. She also did it in a way that people felt affirmed and cared for.''

Letting go
Sr. O'Connor's knack for facilitating difficult conversations was evident when she led Covenant Health's efforts to adopt a systemwide mission statement and core values.

"The challenge was that we had 22 core values across the system, and each facility had their own mission statement, reflecting the charism of the religious congregation that had entrusted their ministry to Covenant,'' Sr. O'Connor said. "They were being asked to let go of something very precious to them."

After several systemwide consultations, Covenant adopted one mission statement and four core values. Sr. O'Connor also invited each of the 13 Covenant facilities to write heritage statements to honor the hard work of their founding religious sisters. In this way, Covenant facilities retain their individual legacies while sharing a united mission and core values.

'We have to be attentive to the Gospel'
Sr. O'Connor jokes that she learned diplomacy while negotiating with her 12 siblings. She speaks lovingly of her parents and credits them for shaping her life's values. She was still a child when her father became ill. He died when she was 17.

"His death was a profound influence on my life,'' she said. "It gave me a sense of how short life is.''

Although she had been accepted into college, she decided instead to join the Congregation of St. Brigid.

Sr. O'Connor speaks humbly about her years of service, but her resume tells a different story. Among her many diverse achievements: She is a licensed psychologist and a diplomate in the American Psychotherapy Association. She earned a Ph.D. in psychology and religion from Boston University. She completed a cross-cultural study of the Spanish language in Ecuador and Mexico. Before joining Covenant Health, Sr. O'Connor was senior vice president of mission integration at Caritas Christi Health Care in Boston. She developed the Lay Ministry Institute at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio and has administered clinical pastoral education programs.

Preparing for completion
After concluding her term as congregation leader in 2022, Sr. O'Connor remains on the congregational leadership team of the Brigidine Sisters. She is now helping the order plan for its own completion of mission. At its height, 700 sisters belonged to the order. Today, there are 148.

"We are preparing for completion, but we are still doing good work,'' Sr. O'Connor said. "We are preparing to let go gracefully.''

Sr. O'Connor has faith that the mission of the Brigidines will live on beyond the life of the congregation, carried forward by laity.

"We served a purpose for a time,'' she said. "I believe God is still with us, creating something new in the midst of a very difficult time in our world. We can look around and find so many people doing good in countless ways."

Sr. O'Connor points to the success of public juridic persons in Catholic health care.

"I was just at a board meeting at Covenant, and I was so inspired,'' she said. "Many religious congregations have entrusted their health care ministries to lay people, who are committed to the vision and values of Catholic health care. They are continuing the mission and healing ministry of Jesus with great dedication and creativity, in the midst of tremendous challenges."

Citing a phrase from CHA's "Shared Statement of Identity for the Catholic Health Ministry," Sr. O'Connor adds: "The good news of the Gospel is being translated into action as people seek to do as Jesus did, to 'transform hurt into hope.'"


Copyright © 2023 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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