SSM Health St. Mary’s employees determined to carry-out Catholic healthcare mission



“It’s easy to be Catholic in a Catholic hospital,” the priest told the congregants. “It’s harder to be a Catholic in a non-Catholic hospital. We have a new challenge before us.”

Fr. Finder was offering the regular Thursday noon Mass on Aug. 16.

SSM Health, a Catholic entity based in St. Louis, had just announced that it had entered formal negotiations for transferring ownership the SSM St. Mary’s Hospitals in Jefferson City and Mexico to University of Missouri Health Care.

Sister Kathleen Wegman SSND, the diocese’s chancellor and its liaison for healthcare, believes the staff of the SSM St. Mary’s hospitals in Jefferson City and Mexico are more than equal to the challenge Fr. Finder presented.

She sat in on information sessions for hospital employees and listened to them double down on their commitment to reveal the healing presence of God through their work.

That is the mission of Catholic healthcare. 

“They want to be sure that the mission will continue to be carried out,” said Sr. Kathleen.

One longtime St. Mary’s employee told her, “they might be able to take the crucifixes in the rooms down, but they can never take the mission out of my heart.”


Dedicated to the mission

“Continue courageously for God!” was a favorite phrase of Mother Mary Odilia Berger, foundress of the religious congregation now known as the Franciscan Sisters of Mary.

Sisters from that congregation established what became SSM Healthcare and what is now called St. Mary’s Hospital‒Jefferson City.

Monsignor Otto J. Hoog, who was pastor of St. Peter parish from 1876-1904, helped convince members of that congregation to establish a hospital in the Capital City.

From a hilltop overlooking the Missouri River, that first St. Mary’s spanned the gulf between infirmity and health for four generations. For many, it was a doorway into this world; for some, it became the holy bridge into the next.

Bishop Emeritus John R. Gaydos blessed and dedicated a new hospital, the current SSM St. Mary’s Hospital-Jefferson City on Mission Drive, on the Solemnity of All Saints in 2014.

Sister Rose Mary Dowling FSM, who was president of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary at that time, said the same community of sisters who established St. Mary’s in 1905 had maintained an active, physical presence — first as nurses, lab technicians, administrators, pharmacists, dieticians and members of the pastoral care staff.

Beginning in the 1970s, the sisters began instilling in the laypeople at the hospital the values and mission the sisters had received from God through their foundress.

“So it’s not just about what each one does here,” said Sr. Rose Mary. “It’s about who each one is, as she or he goes about doing their given skill.”

John Landwehr, serving as a member of the hospital’s board of trustees, said the people were gathered there to dedicate more than a building.

“We’re dedicating ourselves, and what we’re being dedicated to is a mission,” he said.


A humble path

The priest’s side of the altar in the St. Francis Chapel in St. Mary’s Hospital-Audrain bears a wooden medallion depicting the basket Mother Mary Odilia and her sisters carried door-to-door to raise money at the beginning of their ministry in the United States.

The sisters later bought homes and turned them into infirmaries and eventually began building hospitals in many communities.

Bill Thompson was CEO and president of SSM Health in 2013 when that organization assumed ownership of what is now SSM Health St. Mary’s‒Audrain in Mexico.

He stated at the dedication ceremony that as a Catholic ministry, SSM is committed to promoting and defending human dignity; attending to the whole person; caring for poor and vulnerable people; promoting the common good; acting on behalf of justice; and being wise stewards of our resources.

“Remember that we follow in the path of our founding sisters, who started from humble beginnings to build SSM into what it is today,” he told dignitaries and the hospital’s staff.


“Saints in our midst”

The largest stained glass window in the chapel of SSM St. Mary’s‒Jefferson City depicts the “Pieta” — Mary holding Jesus’ lifeless body after His death on the cross.

That image was designed to encapsulate the radical compassion that defines Christ-centered healthcare at all stages of life.

While dedicating the hospital in 2014, Bishop Emeritus John R. Gaydos spoke of suffering and healing, of life, death and rising, and of “saints in our midst.”

“We realize,” said Bishop Gaydos, “that the great mission of healthcare is to help us all recognize God’s hand, His providential care and the power of Jesus, His victory over all sin and even death itself — and how this manifests itself especially in the important activities that are carried out in a place like this, day in and day out.”

Sr. Kathleen said the people of St. Mary’s in Jefferson City and St. Mary’s in Mexico have their work cut out for them throughout and beyond this time of transition.

“But I see in them a determination to carry forward the mission of Catholic healthcare in our communities and to continue courageously for God,” she said.