Sr. Mary Roch Rocklage's visionary ministry spanned more than six decades

September 15, 2022

Sr. Mary Roch Rocklage, RSM, the foundress of Chesterfield, Missouri-based Mercy health system, died Aug. 23, at 87, following a lengthy illness.

Sr. Mary Roch Rocklage, RSM

The health ministry and career of Sr. Rocklage, affectionately known as "Sr. Roch," spanned more than 60 years. It started when she was a staff nurse at a Sisters of Mercy hospital in St. Louis and continued through her pivotal role establishing and leading Mercy.

"This is a tremendous loss for Mercy and all who loved Sr. Roch," said Steve Mackin, Mercy president and chief executive officer. "She inspired us through her visionary and principled leadership and was a constant source of joy to everyone around her."

Sr. Mary Haddad, RSM, CHA president and chief executive officer, said: "Sr. Roch shaped health care in this country at a time when women had little voice. She influenced many by her visionary leadership and passionate commitment to create a strong and vibrant health ministry that would ensure access to quality health care for all."

She added that Sr. Rocklage has left a great legacy that will continue to inspire others to be, in Sr. Rocklage's own words, "a penetrating presence in the world" for years to come.

Lynn Britton, who retired in April as Mercy's president and chief executive officer, said Sr. Rocklage mentored him when he began his career at Mercy 30 years ago. "She was a leader with a formidable intellect and bold vision, and a sister of deep faith and extraordinary compassion," Britton said. "It is no surprise she built a health care system that now serves millions of women, children and men."

Dr. David Meiners, president of Mercy Hospital St. Louis, said Sr. Rocklage's positivity influenced and energized the system's culture. "She was always able to approach things with a very positive attitude and I think that translated throughout the ministry. I never once saw her down. I don't think I ever heard her complain about anything."

Sr. Mary Roch Rocklage, RSM, sports a T-shirt with the logo of her hometown baseball team, the St. Louis Cardinals, during an event in 2014. Sr. Roch, as she was known, had deep ties to the city of her birth, including establishing and leading Mercy, one of its major health systems; teaching at two of its universities and serving on an archdiocesan commission focused on human rights.

Ron Ashworth, a past president and chief executive officer of Mercy, describes Sr. Rocklage as a changemaker pursuing the greater good. "She was always assessing changes that were or were likely to take place in health care and in the Mercy health care ministry. She laid plans for those changes that made a major difference in the ability of the health care ministry to successfully serve."

Born Antoinette Rocklage, she was the third of eight children. She grew up in north St. Louis, helping to tend to her chronically ill mother. After spending a summer caring for a girl with polio, she won a scholarship to St. John's Hospital School of Nursing, a facility run by the Sisters of Mercy. She joined the order at age 19. She told them at the time, "I'm only here to try this."

Sr. Rocklage earned her nursing diploma in 1959, her bachelor of science in nursing from Chicago's Saint Xavier College in 1961 and her master's degree in health administration from Saint Louis University in 1963.

At St. John's Mercy Medical Center in St. Louis, she began as staff nurse and ascended the ranks, including time as director of nursing services. From 1969 to 1979 she was president of the hospital, which is now called Mercy Hospital St. Louis.

She subsequently was administrator of the Sisters of Mercy's St. Louis province. In that role, she led the congregation's discernment that resulted in the formation of Sisters of Mercy Health System in 1986 from hospitals run individually by the congregation. She became the system's first president and chief executive officer.

The system, now called Mercy, includes more than 40 acute care, managed and specialty hospitals, and a network of other services across Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Mercy has additional outreach ministries in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

After departing as system head in 1999, Sr. Rocklage was chair of Mercy's board until 2003. She was the 1999 recipient of CHA's Sister Concilia Moran Award and a 2014 recipient of CHA's Lifetime Achievement Award.

During her career, she played a pivotal role in dozens of organizations, including serving as the chair of the American Hospital Association's board in 2002, the chair of CHA's Board of Trustees from 1984 to 1985 and CHA's liaison to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. She served on the Archdiocese of St. Louis' Commission for Human Rights and Healthcare for the Homeless. She helped to establish St. Louis-based Nurses for Newborns and chaired its board. That safety net organization works with families to prevent infant mortality, child abuse and neglect.

Even while forging her impressive career, Sr. Rocklage was singing in the choir at St. Vincent de Paul parish in St. Louis, teaching scripture to children at an archdiocesan school, and teaching health care administration at Saint Louis University and Washington University.

When she won CHA's Lifetime Achievement Award, Sr. Rocklage was asked to reflect on her accomplishments. She told a reporter: "My life has been a life of wonderful gifts. I never seek, but am always called forth."

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

Copyright © 2022 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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