By JULIE MINDA
June 29, 2020
Sr. Peggy Martin, OP, retired June 30 as executive vice president of sponsorship and governance for Chicago-based CommonSpirit Health, capping off decades of service to the Catholic health ministry. In an April message announcing her retirement, CommonSpirit Chief Executive Kevin Lofton called her "a true visionary" and "a guiding light in the formation of CommonSpirit Health" and its predecessor Catholic Health Initiatives.
A Dominican Sister of Peace and canon lawyer, Sr. Martin was instrumental in the sponsorship changes involved with the merging of four Catholic health systems to form Catholic Health Initiatives in 1996. The system's sponsor, Catholic Health Care Federation, was Catholic health care's first ministerial juridic person. That entity, whose structure allows for greater lay involvement in sponsorship, has canonical responsibility that had previously been held by religious congregations. The MJP was a model for many Catholic health systems that adopted the new sponsorship structure.
Over her career, Sr. Martin has established herself as a foremost expert on canon law, sponsorship and lay formation. In 2015, CHA awarded her its prestigious Sr. Concilia Moran Award for her creativity and breakthrough thinking.
She reflected with Catholic Health World recently on her many years of service.
What drew you to a life of ministry, and to the Dominican Sisters in particular?
Even when I was really young, I talked about being a sister because I wanted to teach people about Jesus. And as I got older, I never lost that desire to do that.
I did look at different congregations, but the Dominicans, their whole focus was on teaching and truth. And so, the Dominicans were my choice, and it was the right choice. I really feel called. I see my work in canon law as a continuation of that because in canon law what I'm trying to do is to help people find the truth, to be in right relationship and find the right path. That is what canon law is all about, it's very freeing. I think my whole life has been an evolution from the very first call to want to teach people and help people to understand Jesus.
Why did you feel it was so important to have an influence in the application of canon law?
Because priests and parishes were always saying, "You can't do this, canon law does not allow it." But I already knew that canon law did allow it. I already had some knowledge of canon law, but I wanted to get the piece of paper behind the knowledge, because people listen — it's different when people know I'm a canon lawyer.
Also, I learned canon law because I didn't want anybody to step all over the sisters, and I really wanted us to be able to come into our own and for our ministries to continue under the Catholic identity, and I thought I had to have the paper, the degree, behind what I said.
You started out in education. How did you end up in health care?
I was elected to leadership of my congregation, and my particular congregation in Great Bend, Kansas, we owned hospitals. I was the assistant prioress, and because of that, part of my job was to be on the boards of these hospitals and do all kinds of things with hospitals and nursing homes. I was supposed to chair all of these boards. But when I was elected to full-time leadership, I went to my first board meeting and said, "Do you think I want to chair a hospital board? If you think I want to do that, think again." I said I will commit to be on every hospital board and go to the meetings and everything, but I will not chair them. And I said it is time for us to put into action what we have been saying about involving the laity. By then we were a part of Catholic Health Corporation of Omaha, Nebraska, and they helped us to allow our hospitals to elect their own chair for the very first time. (Catholic Health Corporation was a predecessor of CHI.)
Was the effort to have laity chair hospital boards a precursor to lay involvement as sponsors of Catholic health systems?
Yes, somebody has to start it. And when we were in Great Bend we were really women on the frontier. We were not conservative thinkers.
You were instrumental in the creation of early formation programs for lay sponsors of public juridic persons. How did formation evolve to be considered so essential?
Sr. Catherine DeClercq, OP, had started a formation trial at Trinity Health where she was governance and sponsorship head and she asked me to teach canon law. (That program led to the formation of The Collaborative Formation Program for Public Juridic Persons sponsored by five sponsorship entities.)
We got it all together — we were the first. We did it for 11 years. CHA in recent years has taken it over.
Lay formation has blossomed. It is even more necessary now than in the past, as fewer members of religious congregations are available to mentor leaders in the health care ministries. Formation gives laypeople the confidence to bring their wonderful spirituality forward in the ministry. They need us to help them to do that.
How has the transition to ministerial juridic sponsorship gone?
I think it's what it's supposed to be. It's involving more laity. The issue is the historical church has not all kept up with this, and that's a toughie. But the laity have really gotten into it, and it's phenomenal how this has all gone, and I am really excited about it. The church moves slowly, that's historically the way it is. But that's why we need this formation stuff, because we need to keep the laity involved and we need to keep their courage up — for them not to get discouraged. Because they can do the work of sponsorship; there's not a doubt in my mind about that.
What will you miss most after you retire?
I love to see people grow and to learn different things and to get involved with different things, so I'll miss all of that. I will miss the people, definitely. But it is time to let other people lead and to have a different approach. That's very important.
What's ahead for you?
I asked my congregation if I could have a year off and stay in Denver during that year at least, and they agreed to that. Before COVID I was hoping to go see each of my siblings, and to visit an aunt and different friends, but that is not going to be possible in 2020. Maybe in 2021.
I have one more year on one of the hospital boards in Pueblo Colorado, and I'm going to finish that term out. I'll keep my fingers in a few things. And I will consult on canon law.
I'll probably pick up my knitting and I'll read novels more.
To view a video created to honor her upon her receipt of the Sr. Concilia Moran Award, visit chausa.org/about/awards/sister-concilia-moran-award/sr-peggy-ann-martin-op-jcl.
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