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Sister Mary Jean Ryan says the Holy Spirit guided her as nurse, nun and groundbreaking CEO

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 11, 2011 - It was the closing day of this year's annual SSM Health Care leadership conference, and Sister Mary Jean Ryan opened her final conference speech as CEO with a joke about, of all things, a 98-year-old nun who was dying.

The elderly nun was given a last drink of milk, which, unbeknownst to her, was liberally laced with brandy. She drank every drop. Then, to the sisters gathered to hear her final words of wisdom, she joyfully declared, "Whatever you do, don't sell the cow!"

"People expect a stuffy CEO and what you get is, well, what you get is Sister Mary Jean," said Dixie Platt, SSM's senior vice president-mission and external relations.

"Her humor is unexpected. It relaxes people; it allows her to connect to people."

Sister Mary Jean made that connection as the leader of SSM for 25 years. She stepped down as CEO of one of the largest Catholic health-care systems in the nation at the end of July and assumed the role of board chair.

By her own admission, she more or less meandered into a life of grand leadership.

"There is no way, if someone had asked me 25 years ago, I would have said I'd be president of this $3.7 billion corporation," said the 73-year-old nun in her direct manner.

Growing up in Cuba City, Wis., a small town just north of the Illinois border that can hardly be called a city, she never dreamed of being a nurse or of a life devoted to God. No one in her family was a nun or a priest. The town didn't even have a Catholic high school.

"I wasn't encouraged to go on to college," Sister Mary Jean said.

But a friend decided to study nursing and invited young Mary Jean Udelhofen to come along. The two enrolled in St. Mary's Hospital School of Nursing in Madison, Wis.

"It was the Holy Spirit guiding me," said Sister Mary Jean, who began using her mother's maiden name of Ryan after Vatican II modernized some of the Church's practices.  "I really liked it."

The Holy Spirit apparently wasn't quite done.

With a three-year diploma in hand, she expected always to be a staff nurse. Then one of the sisters with whom she had worked put a bug in her ear about becoming a nun.

"I thought, 'I don't want any part of this,'" Sister Mary Jean laughed. "Then I thought about it; I didn't have any other plans. A priest told me if I didn't like it, I could leave. That was very freeing."

Her parents didn't accept the idea so readily.

"They were shocked but didn't try to stop me," she said. "I told my mother I just wanted to help people."

At 22, she entered the Sisters of St. Mary, which later became the Franciscan Sisters of Mary. It was a German order established in St. Louis in 1872 by Mother Mary Odilia Berger, who had been an unwed mother. The nuns soon began ministering in hospitals and setting precedents.

In 1933, the Sisters of St. Mary opened St. Mary's Infirmary, the first Catholic hospital for African Americans in the country, in St. Louis' Lafayette Square area.

In 1946, the order accepted three African-American women, one of whom, Mary Antona Ebo, became a pioneer in the Civil Rights Movement with the full support of her order. Sister Antona trained at St. Mary's Infirmary School of Nursing for Negroes in St. Louis after being rejected at numerous other nursing schools because of her race.

"We have always gone beyond what is legally required," Sister Mary Jean said proudly.

Stepping Stones

Her mother was a housewife who took a job with the local school's hot lunch program when her oldest of four, Mary Jean, reached high school. Her father was a chemical factory worker who commuted to Dubuque, Iowa.

"There was certainly no sophistication about (my upbringing), but it was pretty good, simple living," Sister Mary Jean recalled.

As a nurse, then a nun, she was quite content. But she was destined to move much farther from the simple life she knew.

Her order wanted her to pursue a bachelor's degree. She complied, earning a degree in nursing from Saint Louis University in 1967. She later did post-graduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and received a master's degree in hospital and health administration from Xavier University in Cincinnati in 1974.

Right out of Saint Louis University, Sister Mary Jean became assistant operating room supervisor and then supervisor at St. Mary's Health Center in St. Louis. Four years later, she headed to Madison to attend the University of Wisconsin, working part-time as night supervisor at St. Mary's Hospital Medical Center in Madison.

She transferred to Xavier University, then spent a year in residence at the Dr. David M. Brotman Memorial Hospital in Culver City, Calif.

After receiving her master's degree, Sister Mary Jean returned to St. Mary's Hospital in Madison to serve as assistant executive director. She remained there until 1977 when she became associate executive director of St. Mary's Health Center in Jefferson City for three years.

During her time in Jefferson City, she did a brief stint as acting executive director at St. Francis Hospital in Marceline, Mo.

In 1980, Sister Mary Jean returned to Missouri for good -- except for the winter she spent at St. Eugene Community Dual Hospital in Dillon, S.C., where she again served as an acting executive director.

With a population of around 6,000, the Dillon hospital was approximately three times as large as her hometown, but with only one Catholic diocese in the state, nuns were an unusual sight.

"When sisters first went there, the people would cross the street; they had never seen nuns in habits before," Sister Mary Jean said, her face crinkling with one of her frequent smiles.

Attire notwithstanding, her many assignments were her steppingstones to becoming a major force -- and eventually a rarity -- in the religious health-care system.

For the next six years, she worked in several capacities at Sisters of St. Mary Health Care System-St. Louis, the unified hospital group that was the precursor to SSM Health Care.

In 1986, Sister Mary Jean was named the first president and CEO of SSM Health Care, the newly expanded system of hospitals, nursing homes and health-related businesses.

The system is governed by a board that consists of members of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, SSM's sponsoring congregation, and lay people.

SSM Health Care operates seven hospitals in the St. Louis region: SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center in St. Louis; SSM DePaul Health Center in Bridgeton; SSM St. Clare Health Center in Fenton; SSM St. Joseph Health Center in St. Charles; SSM St. Joseph Health Center in Wentzville SSM; St. Joseph Hospital West in Lake Saint Louis; and SSM St. Mary's Health Center in Richmond Heights. SSM St. Joseph Hospital of Kirkwood was part of the SSM system until it closed in 2009.

The system also includes the SSM Managed Care Organization and a physicians' organization, SSM Health Care-St. Louis Medical Group.

Changing Times

When Sister Mary Jean began her career, most U.S. Catholic hospitals were founded and run by nuns. No more. In fewer than 50 years, the habits are gone, along with religious leadership at Catholic hospitals.

According to Catholic Online, in 1970, clergy or religious oversaw virtually every Catholic hospital in the United States, or nearly 800 hospitals. With Sister Mary Jean's departure, today that number is down to eight of 636 hospitals.

She is the last nun to serve as CEO of a Catholic hospital in the United States. With her departure, only 11 nuns remain at SSM; none is a senior administrator.

At SSM, Sister Mary Jean led a system that now boasts nearly 23,000 employees, including 6,500 physicians serving in 15 hospitals and two nursing homes in Missouri, Illinois, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. Operating revenue quintupled during her tenure.

"I was just willing to do things if I was asked," she said. "The congregation has provided everything in my life from education to experience and I felt anything I could do to repay that, I would."

She did it without ever losing her small town persona.

"Sister Mary Jean is a very simple, humble woman, uncomfortable with some of the trappings of the job," said William P. Thompson, Sister Mary Jean's handpicked successor.

Suzy Farren, SSM's president of communications, concurred. "She would come to meetings with her usual little lunch bag -- yogurt, hard-boiled eggs and radishes she brought from home -- while others were eating the provided box lunches."

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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