Health care has changed during Sr. Mary Patricia Barrett's years of service, as has the size and structure of Sisters of Charity Health System. But Sr. Barrett's commitment to Catholic values has never wavered.
"Through everything, that has been a nonnegotiable part of how the health system operates," said Thomas Cecconi, president and chief executive of the system's Mercy Medical Center in Canton, Ohio. "If anybody would question how bricks and mortar can be Catholic, sister would be the first to jump up and say it's not the bricks, it's the spirit, and she embodies that spirit."
Sr. Barrett, CSA, is a recipient of CHA's 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award. She retired in March from her full-time post as special assistant to Sr. Judith Ann Karam, CSA, president and chief executive of the Cleveland-based Sisters of Charity Health System.
Sr. Barrett helped lay the groundwork for the formation of the health system 30 years ago when she accepted the newly created position of health care planner for the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine. She had just finished an eight-year term as major superior when she turned her attention to the congregation's health ministries. Based on the findings and recommendations of a committee she chaired, the congregation incorporated the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine Health & Human Services, the precursor to the Sisters of Charity Health System.
Sr. Barrett led the system for seven years; she welcomed her lay successor in 1989 and moved into a dual role as chair of the board and vice president of mission and ministry for the system. In all those roles, she was a frequent visitor to system hospitals, helping to problem solve and encouraging employees as they delivered care to the poor, a deep commitment for the system and its sponsors.
She implemented annual mission audits at every system ministry.
"We felt it was extremely important to have standards," said Sr. Barrett. Sisters of Charity Health System operates four
hospitals: St. Vincent Charity Medical Center in Cleveland; Mercy Medical Center in Canton; and Providence Hospital and Providence Hospital Northeast in Columbia, S.C.; and jointly owns St. John Medical Center in Westlake, Ohio. It also manages three foundations, which distributed $10 million last year, and 12 other innovative health and human-service and education-related organizations in Ohio and South Carolina. These ministries include the Early Childhood Resource Center, which offers comprehensive programming, resources and support services to families in Canton, and Healthy Learners, which provides vision care, dental care, hearing evaluations and assistance with prescription medications to South Carolina children. Sr. Barrett cites these programs as making a meaningful difference in their respective communities. She believes outreach efforts like these — not just cutting-edge medical technology — must be the cornerstone of Catholic health care.
"It's about being people-centered," Sr. Barrett said of the mission and meaning of ministry. "I remember many years ago, a nurse in the emergency room called me and said, 'We have a young woman who is about to give birth. Please help us get her in an ambulance to Saint Ann Hospital' (the maternity hospital). I helped her, and six years after the baby was born, I received a donation with $10 or $20 to pay for the ambulance. It's this kind of care, you realize, that is really important to people."
Sr. Barrett's religious life took an untraditional path. She was born on St. Patrick's Day in Cleveland and felt an early connection to the Sisters of St. Joseph. As a sophomore at Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio, Sr. Barrett decided to join the Sisters of St. Joseph, going so far as to complete her application and take her physical. Her father, however, did not approve of her joining a congregation until she completed her undergraduate degree and was at least 21 years old.
"He said, 'You have to finish what you start,' and he was very wise," said Sr. Barrett, who is now 85.
She earned her graduate degree in social work from Boston College and went on to work as a caseworker for Catholic Charities of Cleveland.
"Since I was dating a young man at that time, one of the nuns said to me, 'Either take the male or take the veil,'" said Sr. Barrett with a laugh. "I was 30 years old, but I realized then I had a religious vocation."
Sr. Barrett's first caseworker assignment was at St. Vincent Charity Medical Center. She was new to medical social work. There was much to learn and she learned quickly, soon becoming director of social services at Parmadale Children's Village, and then going into administration for her congregation. She later chaired a planning committee to determine how best to continue the health care ministry of the congregation, and that work led to the creation of the Sisters of Charity Health System. Today it boasts 8,000 employees and approximately $1 billion in assets.
Sr. Barrett shepherded the system through some significant choices, including its 1995 decision to develop three joint venture partnerships with the investor-owned health system Columbia HCA. (The two Ohio partnerships were dissolved in 1999 and were replaced with two not-for-profit joint ventures with University Hospitals Health System. The South Carolina joint venture was restructured in 2001, and the Sisters of Charity Health System became its sole owner.)
The Sisters of Charity Health System's current board president, attorney Terrence P. Kessler, represented clients who opposed the initial partnership with HCA, yet Sr. Barrett approached him after the deal closed to recruit him to the health system's board.
"I think that says something about sister as a collaborator," said Kessler. "She encourages people to express themselves and believes we can disagree without be disagreeable. Her hallmark is getting everyone at the table to move together towards consensus in the service of our greater mission."
Putting people first
Sr. Karam calls Sr. Barrett a mentor. She is inspired by Sr. Barrett's strong relationships with employees, volunteers, doctors, board members and members of the community.
"She is very people-oriented, writing thoughtful notes to thank, remember or share in what's happening in a person's life," said Sr. Karam. "Relationships are most important to Sr. Mary Patricia. She teaches me every day how to live in a faith-filled way and be a leader in Catholic health care."
Outside of her professional responsibilities at the health system, Sr. Barrett enjoys crossword puzzles, the Cleveland Indians and University of Notre Dame football.
Quiet, humble and deeply spiritual, she brings a joyful presence to various ministries where her spirit and humor are always welcome. "It adds another level of excitement if she's there for (a facility) opening because of all the long relationships she's had," said Cecconi. "She is our bright light."
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