Sister Mary Madonna Ashton honored nationally

| Jessica Weinberger | March 14, 2016 | 0 Comments
Sister Mary Madonna Ashton, 92, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, is one of 16 to receive the 2016 National Women’s History Month award “Working to Form a More Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Public Service and Government.” Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Sister Mary Madonna Ashton, 92, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, is one of 16 to receive the 2016 National Women’s History Month award “Working to Form a More Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Public Service and Government.” Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Sister Mary Madonna Ashton, state’s first female and non-physician commissioner of health, honored nationally

For Sister Mary Madonna Ashton, 92, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, there’s no such thing as a career plan.

“You have to take opportunities as they come along,” she said in her apartment at Carondelet Village in St. Paul. “Don’t decide what you want to do in your future and seal it in, because you never know what opportunities are going to come your way.”

Sister Mary Madonna’s openness to new opportunities — and God’s will — led her to convert to Catholicism in college and join the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet days before her 23rd birthday. She then began her extensive career in health care, later serving as president and CEO of St. Mary’s Hospital (since sold to Fairview Health Services) and then as Minnesota’s first female, non-physician commissioner of health.

For her lifelong commitment to public service, she was recently honored alongside 15 others with the 2016 National Women’s History Month award, “Working to Form a More Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Public Service and Government.” She is the oldest living recipient to be honored and only the second woman religious since the project began in 1980.

She will attend the Women’s History Project award ceremony in Washington, D.C., March 19.

Uncharted territory

Sister Mary Madonna’s career began at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul, where she worked in the new field of medical social work. After earning a master’s degree in hospital administration, she transitioned to administrative roles at St. Mary’s Hospital in Minneapolis and was appointed president and CEO in 1962.

The stress of managing the operations of the entire hospital made her wonder if she could last eight years in the role like her predecessor.

“I spent a lot of time in chapel, I’ll tell you that,” she said with a chuckle.

Twenty years later, Sister Mary Madonna resigned, closing one chapter in hopes of using her skills and passion for health care in a new capacity.

It was only one year later when she began that new chapter in the public sector as Minnesota’s first woman and non-physician commissioner of health. Appointed directly by Gov. Rudy Perpich, Sister Mary Madonna didn’t anticipate the negative reaction to her appointment.

While accepting of Sister Mary Madonna as a female and religious sister, the medical community was not convinced that a non-physician could serve in the highly visible role. They wrote a letter to the governor chiding him for not taking into account their counsel, but Perpich stood firm in his decision, and Sister Mary Madonna turned her attention to the many challenges before her.

For instance, at the start of her eight-year term, there were only four known cases of AIDS in Minnesota, and officials nationwide were working to understand the impact of the relatively unknown disease. Simultaneously, Sister Mary Madonna was tackling tobacco usage in the state and helped pass landmark legislation outlawing smoking in public places and on public property. She spent one week testifying directly against the tobacco industry, and her efforts started a national movement.

“I grew to really appreciate legislators and how hard they work and the difficulties they have with so many propositions being presented to them, most of which are good,” Sister Mary Madonna said.

Health care outreach

When her term ended in 1991, Sister Mary Madonna’s career of service was far from over. She invited Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet from across the Twin Cities to meet to discuss health care needs in the community. She expected 30 sisters to attend, but was greeted by more than 100. Together, they focused on one of the largest under-served populations — individuals and families without insurance who don’t qualify for public health programs.

“There is this group in between,” she explained. “The minute you have any kind of a health problem, you can sink right into poverty and lose everything.”

Using her network, Sister Mary Madonna formed a group of more than 300 volunteer physicians, nurses and support personnel to establish St. Mary’s Health Clinics (SMHC). The first clinic opened in January 1992, and, using spaces donated by churches, schools and community centers, clinics began providing free medical care, outreach and education to low-income, uninsured families and individuals not eligible for government programs.

When Sister Mary Madonna retired in 2000, SMHC operated 11 clinics throughout the Twin Cities, and the nonprofit continues to serve this “in-between group,” believing that health care is a basic human right. The nonprofit has provided more than 105,000 patient visits through nearly 16,000 donated volunteer hours since its founding.

‘Good ol’ sister’

Following her retirement, Sister Mary Madonna served as the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ delegate for religious, working for three years in the part-time role before retiring once again before her 90th birthday.

With a full career behind her marked by spirit-driven opportunities, Sister Mary Madonna pauses to consider her biggest accomplishment. Her work establishing SMHC rises to the top, she said, noting the far-reaching impact on individuals who were falling through the cracks.

After decades as a pioneer in health care, Sister Mary Madonna doesn’t hesitate when reflecting on the legacy she wants to leave behind.

“That I was a good sister of St. Joseph, a good ol’ sister of St. Joseph,” she said.

For more information about the National Women’s History Project, visit http://www.nwhp.org.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect information The Catholic Spirit received after going to press. Although the print version of the story reported that Sister Mary Madonna would not be receiving the award in person, we learned she has since changed her mind and will be attending the March 19 ceremony in Washington.

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