Sr. Cooney, RSM, visionary leader of Alegent Health

April 1, 2011

Sr. Norita Cooney, RSM, 71, died March 7 at Mercy Villa in Omaha, Neb. She was president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas West Midwest Community and a leader in the Catholic health ministry who was instrumental in the founding of Alegent Health.

In 2004, Sr. Cooney received CHA's  Sr. Concilia Moran Award, an honor given to visionary leaders in Catholic health care. She was recognized for her part in bringing together a Catholic and a Lutheran health ministry to create Alegent Health in 1996, and for raising the awareness among religious communities about the need to act with deliberation to safeguard the future of Catholic health care.

Sr. Cooney served as Omaha-based Alegent Health's full-time board chair for the first six years of the system's existence. When, in 2002, Alegent Health converted to the more typical governance model of a volunteer board, Sr. Cooney took on the post of vice president of mission services and community affairs.

Rick Hachten, Alegent Health's president and chief executive, was among the leaders who worked with Sr. Cooney to form Alegent Health. Hachten said owing to the success of Alegent Health, Sr. Cooney was recognized nationally as an expert in bringing together faith-based entities in a manner that continued their respective faith-based missions. By focusing on similarities in the vision and values of Catholic and Lutheran traditions, she minimized obstacles to the joint venture, he said.

Sr. Cooney retired from Alegent Health in 2006 to assume a post as vice president of the Sisters of Mercy Omaha Regional Community as it prepared to merge with five other Sisters of Mercy regional communities. That merger, completed in 2008, created the Sisters of Mercy West Midwest Community.

Sr. Cooney was elected its first president.

Several years earlier, when Sr. Cooney exited Alegent Health to return to congregational leadership, Hachten told the audience at a farewell gathering that "her spirit is part of the fabric and culture of this organization."

From the executive suite to the patient floors, Sr. Cooney related well with employees. She had said she learned from employees "what it means to reflect God's mercy in the world."

Hachten said Sr. Cooney had strolled hospital corridors and engaged housekeepers and patients alike. "She connected everywhere, down in the kitchen, in the laundry," Hachten said, and she did so to make employees feel valued.

Sr. Carol Keehan, DC, CHA's president and chief executive officer, admired this capacity for servant leadership. "Sr. Norita's capabilities are exceeded only by her commitment to the dignity of every patient and coworker," she said.

Sr. Cooney was a champion of the vulnerable. She worked to improve mental health care services in Omaha. As a leader of her congregation, she supported the formation of Mercy Housing and other affordable housing initiatives.

"She believed in the power of institutions for good and saw the critical link between having a safe place to call home and an individual's overall health," said Sr. Lillian Murphy, RSM, president and chief executive of Mercy Housing.

Sr. Cooney entered the Mercy congregation in 1957, the year she graduated from Mercy High School in Omaha. She received a bachelor of arts in history from the College of Saint Mary in Omaha and a master's degree in sociology from Saint Louis University. She did doctoral work at Michigan State University.

She began her career as a high school teacher. She went on to the sociology department at College of Saint Mary as an instructor from 1965 to 1969 and as department chair from 1972 to 1974. She left teaching to work for the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha. In 1976, she entered leadership of the Sisters of Mercy as a councilor. She served as provincial for the Province of Omaha from 1979 to 1986, when she started in health care administration as chief executive of Mercy Midlands, which was then parent of Bergan Mercy Medical Center in Omaha, Mercy Hospital in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Mercy Hospital in Corning, Iowa. She held this post until Alegent Health was launched.

In honor of her leadership, Bergan Mercy named its chapel Our Lady of Hope Sister Norita Cooney Chapel.

Memorials can be sent to Sisters of Mercy, 7262 Mercy Road, Omaha, NE 68124.


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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