CSA Ministries, other leaders celebrate Sister Mary Mollison’s legacy

Shelly Haberman
Sister Mary Mollison

More than 21 years ago, as St. Agnes Hospital celebrated its centennial, Sister Mary Mollison - as general superior of the Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes (CSA) - stood tall and proud as the courage and bravery of the Sisters was honored as part of a year-long celebration - “A History of Caring - A Promise for the Future.”

Back then, she wrote, “The centennial of St. Agnes Hospital is a time to praise and thank God for the opportunity to continue the healing mission of Jesus through 100 years of service. Citizens and local physicians of Fond du Lac petitioned the Sisters of St. Agnes ‘to build a hospital for the care of the sick in the city of Fond du Lac and vicinity.’ It was a ‘leap of faith’ to begin St. Agnes Hospital since no member of the congregation was educationally prepared to manage a hospital or provide care to the sick.”

She concludes her celebratory comments with a promise for the future. “We will continue to respond to the challenges and opportunities of these times with vision, innovation and courage.”

Most likely at that time, Sister Mary did not know what legacy she would unfold not only at the CSA as general superior, but as vice president of Mission Integration with Agnesian HealthCare, and so much more. In fact, she brought many contributions in her nearly five decades of service to Catholic healthcare, education and religious life.

Sister Mary’s rich and bountiful legacy is being celebrated as area leaders remember her at the time of her passing on June 30 at the age of 70 following a long struggle with cancer.

The Liturgy of Christian Burial for Sister Mary is scheduled at 4 p.m. on Monday, July 10 at Holy Family Catholic Church, 271 Fourth Street Way. Visitation is set from 2 to 4 p.m.

“Sister Mary has been an inspiration to many and at the forefront of changing Catholic healthcare in this country,” says Steve Little, Agnesian HealthCare president and chief executive officer. “We will be forever grateful for the bold steps she took during her time with us to make us think beyond our four walls and try different roads that ultimately help enhance the overall lives of the individuals and families that we dedicate our service to.”

For the CSA, Sister Mary has been a diligent and enthusiastic leader who knew how to effectively bring organizations and individuals together for the common good - and always with a listening and compassionate ear.

“Sister Mary Mollison can be described as a driving force of energy and creativity in the arenas of Catholic healthcare and religious life leadership,” according to Sister Jean Steffes, CSA general superior. “She has championed mission at all levels in Catholic healthcare, and made charity care and compassionate outreach a hallmark of her ministry. Her work with Catholic hospital systems across the nation and with religious congregations across the globe has provided a lasting impact on these ministries and communities. 

“We in the Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes are grateful for the gifts she has shared through her 50 years with us,” Sister Jean adds. “We especially appreciate the beauty of our Motherhouse and grounds constructed during her term in CSA leadership. We will miss her dynamic energy, devotion to mission and compassionate presence.”

Sister Mary long understood the need to pass ministry leadership to lay leaders, and to properly guide them into fully understanding their purpose and responsibility. She feels that mission is everyone’s responsibility. “We all bring our spirituality to work, and that is how we carry on the mission,” according to Sister Mary.

“She strongly believes in the baptismal call of all to mission, ministry and sponsorship,” says Sister Mary Noel Brown, CSA, executive leader of sponsorship. “Mary inspired and mentored many to become comfortable in approaching their work as a ministry within the context of their own faith tradition and background. She encouraged her colleagues to bring their spirit and soul to work, enabling them to embrace their call and responsibility to keep alive the values of the Gospel, the mission of Jesus and God’s dream for a more abundant life for all. 

“I will always remember Mary for the potential that she saw in others, the ‘what if’ questions she asked, her faith that ‘if something is of God’s will, it will happen,’ and her patience, prayer, and tenacity in endeavors large and small, always keeping those on the fringes at the heart of all considerations,” Sister Mary Noel adds.

Her presence and magnitude of accomplishments was felt by so many that in 2015, Sister Mary was honored with a lifetime achievement award by the Catholic Health Association.

She was guided by a “touchstone” bigger than healthcare or 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 the Gospel alive?’” 

Here are but a few of Sister Mary’s many accomplishments:

  • Led the creation of Agnesian HealthCare with the partnership of St. Agnes Hospital and the Fond du Lac Regional Clinic in 1996. She met personally with Dr. Stephen Massick, head of the doctors’ group, to discuss the merits of such an affiliation. “She was much more than a dreamer and doer like me,” Dr. Massick recalls. “She had the wisdom and vision to bring diverse parties to a realistic solution without creating lasting conflicts.”
  • Sister Mary served as acting president for 10 months at Marian University, and later accepted the temporary post again while the board searched for a new president. She provided stability to roughly 2,000 undergraduate, adult and graduate students. “Changes in leadership can be very hard on small colleges,” says Stacey Akey, vice president of alumni, institutional partnerships and career services at Marian for 26 years. “Sister gave us faith and inspiration to step back, unite and be about our mission.” Carey Gardin, who served as Sister Mary’s executive assistant at Marian, notes that Sister Mary was recognized by the board of trustees as one of the few people who could step in and lead the university during its times of need. “Despite being from a different industry, Sister Mary was accepted by and became well-respected by other university presidents as they recognized her innate ability to lead.” 
  • Actively engaged in the design of the St. Agnes Chapel, advocating for sacred space that artistically embodies the Catholic faith-based ministry of Agnesian HealthCare. With the help of artists Yan and Francoise Rieger, the chapel was designed to reveal the beauty of nature created by earth, wind, fire and water. A walnut-inlaid labyrinth in the oak floor of the chapel signifies the journey of life in which joy, sorrow, growth, defeat, grief and celebration are encountered.
  • Led efforts to address Fond du Lac high school students risk for suicide through YScreen program, screening ninth grade students for depression and mental illness. More than one million teens in the United States suffer from depression, yet less than one third of those teens receive help. For some, depression is so severe that it leads to suicide, the third leading cause of teenage death.
  • Served as chair for one year and subsequently as a board member of Healthy FDL County 2020; led the board in analyzing the results of a community health needs assessment and in determining the mission, vision and priority focus areas to improve the health of county residents; and instrumental in securing a significant contribution from Agnesian HealthCare to fund preventive dental care for adults in need. 

Sister Mary grew up in Niles, Michigan, with three older brothers. She attended St. Joseph High School in nearby South Bend, Indiana, and wanted to become a nurse. She went to Marian College (now University) of Fond du Lac. She 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.”

Entering the world of ministry as a nurse at St. Agnes Hospital in 1969, Sister Mary has managed nursing staffs, helped form and guide Trinity Health of Livonia, Michigan, one of the largest multi-institutional Catholic healthcare system in the United States, served on the board of Hospital Sisters Health System of Springfield, Illinois, twice filled in as interim president at Marian University, her alma mater and was president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, located in Silver Springs, Maryland from 1999 to 2002.

After one year at St. Agnes Hospital, the congregation assigned her to St. Clare Hospital in Monroe, Wisconsin, south of Madison, 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, Kansas, 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.

“As a young nurse at St. Clare Hospital, I remember Sister Mary as a nurse on the surgical unit,” says Paula Elmer, Monroe Clinic vice president/chief nurse executive. “She set high standards for the practice of nursing, always looking at her patients as a whole person and caring for them in mind, body and spirit. As she progressed into leadership roles, she applied this same approach to the organizations and the communities in which she served.”

For Ron Spielman, special projects advisor and previous St. Clare Hospital board member, Sister Mary has left a lasting impression. “Sister Mary gave lay board members the feeling that their participation was valued and their contributions important to the success of St Clare Hospital. I lack the appropriate words to describe the appreciation and respect I carry for the leadership of Sister Mary Mollison.”

Portions of this article were reprinted with permission from the Catholic Health World.

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