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The Sisters Behind the System

Mar 29, 2018 06:00AM ● By MED Magazine

By Alex Strauss

At a time when the “Me Too” Movement is making headlines and the nation is increasingly focused on gender inequities in business and government, one of our region’s largest health systems continues to be quietly run, as it has been for nearly two decades, by a group of extraordinary women.

Officially, the six nuns of the Benedictine and Presentation Orders (three of each) known as the System Members are “sponsors” of Avera Health. Their job is to nurture Christian mission and values at Avera through orientation and education programs for Avera caregivers as well as through governance of the organization. In other words, no big decisions get made in this massive organization - including more than 330 healthcare facilities in 100 communities - without the input of these six women.

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with two of them and learn more about the integration of faith and management know-how that has allowed these women, both separately and together, to create, sustain, and grow successful healthcare institutions from as early as the 1800s.

Sister Mary Kay Panowicz of the Yankton Benedictines - Sacred Heart Monastery is the current chair of the System Members and is business manager of the monastery in Yankton. Sister Lucille Welbig of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a System Member and the prior chair of the group. She is vice president of the Aberdeen-based Presentation sisters and lives in Sioux Falls.

Q: How did your separate orders get involved in healthcare in the first place?

 MKP: Our founder is St. Benedict, an Italian month in the 5th century. We live by the Rule of St.Benedict, one chapter of which is specifically addressed to care of the sick, so that is a foundation of our ministry, if you will. We got into organized healthcare in this country in 1897. That was when the sisters, who had been recruited to help work on the reservation by the bishop of Dakota Territory, started a hospital in Yankton in what had been a monastery.


LW: Our foundress, Nano Nagle, taught Catholic children in Ireland when they were forbidden to be educated and was known for ministering to the poor and sick in the evening. So that was a part of our heritage, as well. The Presentation Sisters came to Dakota Territory in 1880 to teach, but in 1901, a diphtheria epidemic broke out and they ended up turning their classroom in Aberdeen into a hospital. The sisters were well-educated women who were willing to do the work that needed to be done. They proved to be able administrators and nurses.

The Benedictines’ first hospital grew into Sacred Heart in Yankton and the first Presentation-run hospital became St. Luke’s. Eventually, the Benedictine Sisters were running hospitals in Colorado, Parkston and Tyndall, South Dakota, and Lincoln, Nebraska. They formed their own Benedictine Health System in the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the Presentation Sisters were busy expanding their own healthcare ministry. In 1906, the town of Mitchell, South Dakota asked the sisters to run its newly-built hospital (St. Joseph’s). The group added a third facility in Montana (Holy Rosary)  in 1910 and, in 1911, they were invited to run the new McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls. The Presentation System was formed in 1978. Both systems established their own nursing programs within their hospitals and had sisters working in the hospitals at all levels.

Q: What led your two orders to form Avera Health in 2000?

LW: As times changed and healthcare changed, we realized that we could do better together than we could separately. At the time, we were really competitors with each other in South Dakota. We were both doing good quality work, but we realized that, if we pooled our resources, we could both respond to the healthcare needs in the South Dakota area more effectively.

MKP: We knew that we could not continue to support all of the institutions that we had. So we had already gone through a two-year process of deciding where we could and should put our energies. Then we had discussion with the Presentation Sisters about where they were. It was really John Porter [now President and CEO of Avera Health] who helped the two orders sit down together and discuss this seriously.

Q: Your orders are very different in some important ways. The Benedictines are monastic and live in community, while the Presentations are apostolic. How is it that you were able to come together in this way?

MKP: The gospel of Jesus is what drives our ministry, which is a huge common factor that we share. Also, we both have deep commitments to rural healthcare. Although there was some overlap, for the most part the pieces fit together into a nice puzzle. I think we both could see that bringing the two systems together would create a broader footprint of services.

LW: Our shared commitment to rural healthcare was very important in bringing us together. But it took two years for us to really understand each other’s cultures and to figure out what this new health system would look like and what we could both bring to the table to form it.

Q: Originally, the Sisters were also the hospital administrators. How do you stay connected and exert influence in a health system that now employees 17,000 people?

LW: We retain reserve powers with the nine sponsored hospitals in the Avera health system. We also appoint Sisters to serve on those boards. There are ten to twelve Presentation Sisters and the same number of Benedictine Sisters who sit on the boards of our hospitals, so we we really do have our feet on the ground and know what is going on throughout the whole footprint. We also have mission people within all of these hospitals. We display our mission in everything we do.

MKP: We have good people as presidents and CEOs at the helms in our facilities, so we depend a lot on them. We also attend the Avera Health board meetings and Catholic Health Association meetings to continually stay up to date. And we meet regularly with the President and CEO of Avera Health. While we no longer have as many sisters working in the hospitals, it is wonderful to feel like we are reaching out beyond ourselves to continue the legacy of the sisters who have come before us.

Q: What do you see in the future for Avera?

MKP: We are the premier eHealth system in the country and we are going to continue to use that to reach beyond our borders, which is exciting. Telemedicine has helped us not only save money and improve the quality of care in rural areas, but it has also made it easier to recruit providers into these areas. We are also trying to do more outreach into the reservations, which goes back to what we both did early on in our histories.

LW: We don’t see ourselves merging with someone else and becoming a bigger health system because we are so focused on rural health. If we take on any more facilities, they will be within our five-state area. We see ourselves working in affiliation with other critical access hospitals within our footprint.

MKP: We will continue to look for collaboration with people in this area who are providing or want to provide quality healthcare. It is not an exclusive club. We want to include as many people as we can to share in our mission. It’s about Christ serving the world through us.