Lifetime Achievement Award

July 1, 2015

Sr. Mary Mollison, CSA
Photo credit: Chris Ryan/© CHA

Sr. Mary Mollison, CSA, leads with imagination, prayer and patience

Tension dominated the merger talks between St. Agnes Hospital and the main doctors' group in Fond du Lac, Wis. There was conflict over governance, money and assets. Personality clashes made things worse.

A further complication was an out-of-town equity firm's offer to finance a competing hospital. The Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes in Fond du Lac had established St. Agnes Hospital in 1896 and wanted to preserve it as a Catholic health center.

Sr. Mary Mollison, CSA, the congregation's general superior, invited Dr. Stephen Massick, head of the doctors' group, to meet with her at the motherhouse on the edge of town. After grueling days across conference tables, Sr. Mollison asked Massick to relax with her on the porch.

They sat together on a rocking swing. Massick said Sr. Mollison did most of the listening.

"I was going on about organization and leadership and what we wanted, and I noticed she was quietly nodding in agreement," Massick said. "We were on the same page after all. She had a sense of serenity that made a solution possible. It was almost like talking to my mother. It all sounds simple and, in retrospect, it was.

"I took to calling her Mother Mary," Massick said. "We still do."

The result was the creation in 1996 of Agnesian HealthCare, with three hospitals and other health facilities in central Wisconsin. The doctors' group, Fond du Lac Regional Clinics, is part of the system, and some of its doctors, including Massick, serve on the Agnesian board. Sr. Mollison is the health system's vice president of spirituality and care transitions.

The founding of Agnesian is one of Sr. Mollison's contributions to Catholic health care, education and religious life over nearly five decades. Entering the working world as a nurse at St. Agnes Hospital in 1969, she has managed nursing staffs; helped form and guide Trinity Health of Livonia, Mich.; twice filled in as interim president at her college alma mater and led the Leadership Conference of Women Religious as its president in 2000-2001.

For a lifetime of contributions to the Catholic health ministry, Sr. Mollison, 68, was honored with the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award at the Catholic Health Assembly.

Sr. Mollison said she is guided by a "touchstone" bigger than health care or the charism of her religious congregation: "We talk on about mission, but it's not even our mission. It's the mission of the Gospel, of Jesus. Our job is to always ask, 'How do we keep that alive?'"

Clear guidance
People who have worked with her say she does her part with quiet wisdom, an ability to foster calm and collaboration with a clear sense of the mission. 

Sr. Mollison leads by listening, encouraging deliberation with insightful questions and, when necessary, offering clearly worded guidance. People who have worked with her remember how she often approaches subjects with questions.

Tina Potter, director of the United Way of Fond du Lac, appreciated that skill during Sr. Mollison's six years on the agency board. She said the nonsectarian agency benefited from Sr. Mollison's sense of social justice and service to the needy.

"Sister doesn't talk much about herself," Potter said. "She'd sit back, listen and ask questions. She knows so much about governance and operations. When she'd speak, she could break things down clearly and in regular language. And our reaction always was, 'Wow, why didn't we think of that?'"

Imagining what can be
Sr. Rhea Emmer, CSA, has known Sr. Mollison since they entered the order as young women and has been her roommate in Fond du Lac for 25 years. Sr. Emmer said her colleague's "sense of carrying on God's mission drives everything she does. She strives for vision and creativity. Her guidance often opens with, "I wonder if we could…"

Sr. Mollison grew up in Niles, Mich., with three older brothers. She attended Saint Joseph High School in nearby South Bend, Ind., and wanted to become a nurse. She went to Marian College (now University) in Fond du Lac, which was founded by the Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes. Sr. Mollison graduated in 1969 with a bachelor's degree in nursing.

Recalling her entry into the congregation during her junior year in nursing school she said, "That hadn't been my original intention. God certainly does have strange ways. I learned long ago to quit planning, because everything I plan changes anyway. All of life is about change and imagining what can be, not just what is."

After one year at St. Agnes Hospital, the congregation assigned her to St. Clare Hospital in Monroe, Wis., south of Madison, Wis., where she was a nursing supervisor. Sensing her ability as a manager, the congregation then sent her to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she earned a master's degree in nursing in 1979 with an emphasis in gerontology. She was vice-president of nursing at St. Anthony Hospital in Hays, Kan., for three years before returning to Fond du Lac as corporate director of sponsorship for the congregation. She was in congregational leadership for 16 years until 2001, including eight as general superior, her role during the formation of Agnesian HealthCare.

'Tell me why'
Her reputation in health care leadership led her to Livonia, in 2000, when Holy Cross Health System and Mercy Health Services merged to form Trinity Health. She was the first chair of Catholic Health Ministries, the public juridic person and sponsor of Trinity. That original board had three sisters from each of the orders that sponsored the merged systems. Sr. Mollison became the seventh religious on the board, or the "neutral party," said Sr. Catherine DeClercq, OP, Trinity's executive vice president for sponsorship and governance.

Sr. Mollison also served on Trinity's board and for a time was its chair. Sr. De–Clercq said Trinity benefited from Sr. Mollison's experience in health care, governance and mergers.

"She understood sponsorship and the roles of lay men and women in the ministry of Catholic health care," Sr. DeClercq said. "She is a consensus builder with a great capacity to listen, all the while holding to the center of what is important. She has a wonderful way of approaching an issue through inquiry: "Tell me more,' and 'Tell me why.'"

Sr. Mollison addresses the audience at the Catholic Health Assembly Awards Banquet.
Photo credit: Evelyn Hockstein/© CHA

She said Sr. Mollison also knew when to call a time out whenever a discussion grew too long or testy. "She'd give us time to quiet our hearts and think about the impact of a decision. Then she would call the group back," Sr. DeClercq said. "People were taken by that opportunity to reflect, not just react."

Stacey Akey, vice president of enrollment management at Marian, said Sr. Mollison provided stability to the Catholic liberal arts university of about 1,400 undergraduates when an illness led the university's president to step down in May 2005. She served as interim president for 15 months; she accepted the temporary post again in 2009 while the board searched for a new president.

"Changes in leadership can be very hard on small colleges," said Akey, who has worked at Marian for 25 years. "Sister gave us faith and inspiration to step back, unite and be about our mission."

Lay formation
Sr. Emmer said Sr. Mollison long has understood the need to pass health care leadership to lay administrators, and to properly guide them into fully understanding their purpose and responsibility.

"Formation of the laity can't just be about dogma and doctrine," Sr. Emmer said. "You have to call people to grow spiritually from the inside out. Anyone can become very good at using the right language. The important thing is what guides their decisions."

Sr. Mollison said mission is everyone's responsibility. "We all bring our spirituality to work, and that is how we carry on the mission."

She is confident in the future of Catholic health care. "We have a responsibility to prepare the laity," she said of the sponsoring religious orders. "But this work can be carried on. We all can follow our baptismal call."


Copyright © 2015 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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