Sister’s unlikely vocation leads to lifetime of service

| January 29, 2014 | 0 Comments
Sister Carolyn Puccio, left, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet and the new delegate for religious for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, sits with St. Joseph Sister Mary Madonna Ashton, who recently retired as the delegate. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Sister Carolyn Puccio, left, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet and the new delegate for religious for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, sits with St. Joseph Sister Mary Madonna Ashton, who recently retired as the delegate. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Last September, Sister Mary Madonna Ashton retired as the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ delegate for religious.

While she enjoyed her job in support of consecrated life and as a liaison for Archbishop John Nienstedt, the Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet decided that, after three years in the position, it was time for someone else to take over.

“Last August, I wrote to the archbishop and said I think it’s really time for me to retire,” she said.

Archbishop Nienstedt appointed Sister Carolyn Puccio, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, to the position Jan. 15.

At age 90, Sister Mary Madonna’s retirement is well-deserved. But no one would be surprised if she answered another call to serve — as she has done repeatedly during more than 60 years as a religious sister, much of it spent working in the health care field.

She served from 1962 to 1982 as president and CEO of St. Mary’s Hospital in Minneapolis (since sold to Fairview), and as Minnesota’s first woman and non-physician commissioner of health from 1983 to 1991 under Gov. Rudy Perpich.

Sister Mary Madonna was 67 when she left the commissioner’s office, but retirement wasn’t in the offing. The Sisters of St. Joseph saw a need for medical clinics in the Twin Cities for people falling through the cracks of the health care system. From 1992 until 2000, she served as CEO of Carondelet LifeCare Ministries, which operated St. Mary’s Health Clinics.

Archbishop Nienstedt tapped her to serve on the archdiocese’s Strategic Planning Task Force from 2009 to 2010. Then, when she was “comfortably and happily retired,” she agreed to his request to serve as delegate for religious.

Unlikely vocation

Sister Mary Madonna’s journey to religious life and the public service to which it led followed an unlikely path.

She was raised as an Episcopalian by her parents in St. Paul, and when it came time to attend high school, she set her sights on her father’s alma mater — Central in St. Paul, where all her friends planned to attend.

But her mother was convinced the school wouldn’t be a good place for her daughter. She eventually chose to attend Derham Hall — an all-girls Catholic school on the campus of the then-College of St. Catherine — after talking to a neighborhood girl who attended the school.

She didn’t regret her choice. “I fell in love with the place,” Sister Mary Madonna said.

When graduation time neared, she accepted a college scholarship to St. Catherine’s.

“I was always impressed with the fact that the students would stop in at the chapel,” she said. “Nobody ever talked to me about becoming a Catholic. In high school, I was the only non-Catholic in the class.

“I think what impressed me most of all at St. Catherine’s was that they made religion a part of their everyday life,” she said. “It wasn’t just something for Sunday. And, it was the students as much as the sisters.”

She thought seriously about becoming Catholic. She read books about apostolic succession — a topic in which she had a deep interest — and other aspects of the faith. She also sought guidance from an Episcopal priest as well as a Catholic priest and sister.

“One day, I went to the chapel at St. Catherine’s. I just sat there and said, ‘I have got to make a decision about this,’” she recalled. “All of a sudden, I was just sort of peaceful. I just needed to make this change.”

She told her parents she was becoming a Catholic. As time went on, she felt a calling to religious life. She took the advice of the principal of Derham Hall and a priest who said she should accept a scholarship to St. Louis University to get her master’s degree in social work.

“If I had a true vocation, they said it would last,” Sister Mary Madonna recalled. It did — and when she came home for Easter dinner the spring she was set to graduate, she decided to tell her family that she was going to enter religious life.

She waited until dessert and then broke the news.

“Everybody left the table except my young sister who sat there,” she said. “They were just so upset. It was a real crisis. Anyway, be that as it may, I entered the convent.”

Her mother was very opposed to the decision and didn’t accept it for a long time.

But, when Sister Mary Madonna was celebrating her 25th jubilee as a sister, her mother wrote her “the most beautiful letter about how she would not come because she knew she would cry through the whole thing,” Sister Mary Madonna said. “She wanted me to know that at the age of 23 I made the right decision.”

When Sister Mary Madonna retired in September, Sister Mary Heinen, with whom she lived, was diagnosed with cancer. Sister Mary died Jan. 1, and Sister Mary Madonna has been busy the last few months getting her affairs in order.

Once that is completed, might she be ready to retire for good? Or would she be willing to answer another call to ministry?

“We’ll see,” Sister Mary Madonna said with a smile.

Mass set for World Day for Consecrated Life

A Mass marking the World Day for Consecrated Life will be held at noon, Feb. 2 at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul. Archbishop Emeritus Harry Flynn will preside.

The public is invited to the celebration to give thanks to God for the gift of the men and women in consecrated life who are living and ministering in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Attendees who are observing 25, 40, 50, 60, 70, and 75 years of religious profession will be honored in a special way.

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