Michigan Mercy sister a trailblazer in forming modern health systems

Sr Maurita Sr. Mary Maurita Sengelaub, RSM, holds the ring she received when she first entered the Sisters of Mercy in 1945, bearing the inscription, “All for Jesus.” Over her 73 years in religious life, Sr. Maurita worked with the Sisters of Mercy to expand Catholic health care in Michigan and beyond, forming the precursor to modern-day health care systems. Dan Meloy | The Michigan Catholic

Approaching her 100th birthday, Sr. Maruita Sengelaub reflects on a lifetime of helping others

FARMINGTON HILLS — Sitting in the garden of the Mercy Life Center in Farmington Hills on a beautiful spring day, Sr. Mary Maurita Sengelaub, RSM, can reflect on a lifetime of watching others bloom.

Approaching her 100th birthday on June 28, Sr. Maurita reflected on a lifetime’s worth of accomplishments that have impacted the course of Catholic health care in the United States.

Sr. Maurita still has the ring she received when she entered the Sisters of Mercy in September 1945, inscribed with the motto, “All for Jesus.”

Since making her vows, Sr. Maurita has been a force in Catholic health care, serving as a nurse, teacher, hospital administrator and a health care advocate for people in need.

“Throughout my life, it’s been my faith, my prayer life that has guided be along as a Sister of Mercy and a nurse,” Sr. Maurita told The Michigan Catholic. “To give my life as a beautiful offering of the faith. When I was discerning entering the Sisters’ convent, two angels came to me while I was praying. And three words came to my head: generosity, perfection and love.”

Those words inspired Sr. Maurita to embark on a more than 60-year career in Catholic health care, stretching from Grand Rapids to Washington, D.C.

Sr. Maurita’s journey began in 1918 when she was born in Reed City, Mich., the eldest of four girls. In 1940, Sr. Maurita graduated from the Mercy Central School of Nursing in Grand Rapids in 1940 and continued her education at Saint Louis University, earning a master’s in hospital administration in 1954.

She returned to Michigan to train Sisters of Mercy to become nurses in Grand Rapids and Bay City. She eventually became an administrator Mercy Hospital in Bay City and later St. Mary Mercy Hospital in Grand Rapids, where she worked with the administrator of the other two Mercy hospitals in the area, the beginning of a collaborating partnership that formed a prototype of a health care system.

Sr Maurita Sr. Maurita is pictured in 1985 at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane, Australia, where she worked with the Sisters of St. John of God to establish the first Catholic health care system in the country. Courtesy of the Sisters of Mercy

The future Sr. Maurita’s time as an administrator exposed her to the life of the Sisters of Mercy and their sense of service.

“When I went to the School of Nursing in Grand Rapids, there were three young Sisters of Mercy in the class,” Sr. Maurita said. “There were very sweet, dear sisters and I enjoyed visiting them. My first assignment was to the Sisters of Mercy hospital in Bay City, where I got to know the sisters even more. My time of teaching was coming to an end. It was 1945, the war just ended, but I thought maybe I should go to the military instead of teaching.”

The superior of the Sisters of Mercy had other ideas, suggesting she join the order instead. Sr. Maurita always had religious life in the back of her mind, especially after one of her younger sisters perished in a car accident.

Upon making her vows, Sr. Maurita worked at several Catholic hospitals in Michigan, taught nursing at Mercy College in Detroit, and was administrator at St. Mary’s Mercy Hospital in Grand Rapids.

Her contributions to Catholic health care reached the national level in 1967, while in a leadership position with the Sisters of Mercy in Bethesda, Maryland, she in conjunction with other religious orders, formed the National Migrant Worker Council, to address the health care needs of migrant workers across the country.

“No one at the time was thinking about the migrant workers, so we had the Migrant Health Program, working with other religious communities. We went to these big heads of land in every state, talking to the workers, taking care of their medical needs no matter where they went, getting them treatment at the nearest Sisters of Mercy hospital.”

In 1970, Sr. Maurita was elected as the first  religious woman to lead the Catholic Hospital Association.

“One of my greatest privileges was working for the Catholic Hospital Association with the Jesuits,” Sr. Maurita said. “What we were doing was creating a system of 28 Mercy hospitals in Michigan, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin and working with the national Catholic Hospital office.”

Having migrant workers use Mercy Hospitals as outlets for health care needs, no matter where they moved, laid the groundwork for the modern-day health care systems now ubiquitous in health care today.

Sr Maurita Sr. Mary Maurita Sengelaub, RSM, left, enjoys tea with the nurses at Mercy Hospital in Bay City in the mid-1950s, where she served as an administrator. Courtesy of the Sisters of Mercy

“As an administrator, I was always a big advocate for other admins at area hospitals sharing information and sharing resources; we always did more together,” Sr. Maurita said.

After stepping down from her leadership role with the Sisters of Mercy, Sr. Maurita continued to consult for religious congregations on how better to serve those on the margins. She was a key consultant in Mercy Health Services, forming national and international health networks.

After spending more than 60 years in Catholic health care, Sr. Maurita wants to see Catholic hospitals today maintain the Catholic identity that sets them apart from other hospitals.

“As head of the Catholic Hospital Association, I wanted to continue the work the Jesuit priests started, the ones I learned from at Saint Louis, especially working with the poor,” Sr. Maurita said. “Patients who come to Catholic hospitals have physical needs, but also spiritual needs that need to be address. At Catholic hospitals, patients receive the Blessed Sacrament. They have the privileged benefit of the presence of Catholic sisters in the hospital, and it’s also a benefit to the doctors, nurses and staff there. That’s what it means live out mercy, to say yes to Jesus.”