Sister Clare Nolan, the Congregational Leader of the Sisters of Charity, holds a unique position in the Catholic health firmament.
As the leader of her order, she is responsible for 109 Sisters, but she is also the Member Representative of Mary Aikenhead Ministries, which in turn is the owner of St Vincent's Health Australia, Australia’s largest, not-for-profit health and aged care provider. It also includes schools in NSW, Queensland and Victoria among its continuing ministries which togethers it employs more than 20,000 staff.
In her role as Congregational Leader, it falls to Sister Clare to carry the flame for the order which is the oldest in Australia and which for 182 years has been ministering to the marginalised, the poor, and the sick.
Now in her sixth and final year in the role, Sister Clare is reflecting on the changes that the Catholic health sector has undergone. Some things have changed immeasurably, such as co-operation across the sector.
“My heart jumps for joy to hear that all the CEOs are working together to meet the needs of the people. It’s a wonderful healing ministry that we can offer,” says Sister Clare, fresh from hosting a Zoom call for her Congregation (“we thought zoom was a noise made by a motorbike until recently.”)
It wasn’t always that way. As a young registered nurse, trained at the Mater in Brisbane. she first entered the novitiate in 1964. Her first ministry was at St Vincent's Private Hospital in Sydney’s Darlinghurst. At that time, there wasn’t much conversation at her level between the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Charity, and the Little Company of Mary.
“I've loved every minute of the healing ministry of Christ as Sister of Charity, but I'm delighted to see now how Australia-wide that Catholic Health Care is working together building healthier communities for the love of Christ,” says Clare.
The structure and governance of religious orders has also changed to include the laity now invited to become the stewards of those health and education facilities that were once the sole preserve of the orders.
She is part of a generation of older Sisters who realised about 25 years ago following Vatican II that they no longer had neither the inclination to be in leadership or were not suitable to be in it. Such responsibilities inevitably took them further from the frontline of ministry.
“The congregation said, ‘We can't continue doing things the way we're doing them. We either have Sisters who want to be really out there with the poor, and we're asking them to be leaders of schools or hospitals or social work activities. Or we've got people who are not suitable to do it, but we're putting them into these roles, and that's not the way forward.
“Don't get me wrong. We were never, ever perfect, and we never, ever ran a perfect health organization. We're just human beings, but we were totally committed to ensuring that the mission in health and aged care continued.”
Much has changed since the early days of her nursing when at the end of each working day before they knelt in prayer and said the rosary they made sure all the wheels of the beds in the wards (there were no single rooms) were facing in the same direction, and they were always ready to hand the doctor a towel to dry his hands with. The gender divide and hierarchies were as stiff and starched as the nurses’ uniforms.
Sister Clare has herself had a ringside seat to the changes that the ministry of health has undergone as she moved through and up the organisation to take on more senior nursing roles across Australia before finally ending up in what can only be described as “management.”
“Some of us have found it very, very hard because it was all about our identity. Who am I if I'm not Clare Nolan running a hospital or Mary Jane running a school?” she asks rhetorically.
As ministerial public juridic persons became more prevalent (Mary Aikenhead celebrated its tenth anniversary last year) Sister Clare believes more consolidation is needed to ensure the different bodies continue to work together through organisations like Catholic Health Australia.
If part of her role has been to oversee the smooth transition of the congregation’s ministry from the direct control of the Sisters of Charity to the lay then she can claim some success. She has helped select and appointed the trustees on Mary Aikenhead. She says that Trustees must understand Catholic social teaching, the common good, and, yes, they have to be Catholic.
Unsurprisingly for a religious Sister, she wears her Catholicity with ease and feels that those Catholic organisations ministering to the sick should do so more proudly. In short we should not shy away from it, even if society itself moves inexorably towards secularism.
“What disappoints me most, instead of celebrating Catholic healthcare, people look at the things that you can't have in Catholic healthcare. Instead of celebrating the riches of Catholic healthcare, teaching, research, pastoral care, mission and all of that…. [instead they say] because you can't have euthanasia or because you can't have whatever, that you shouldn't go to that Catholic hospital.
“I believe that over the years, energies have been put into Catholic healthcare. People of no faith and people of all faiths are welcoming of Catholic healthcare. And it's how they wish to be treated if they're very, very sick.”
Throughout our conversation she never wavers in her devotion and focus on the sick, the poor and needy, even when the discussion turns to dollars and cents, balance sheets, and property portfolios. The modern machinery and sophisticated technology that is at the heart of a modern hospital might be a far cry from the Sisters of Charity 50 years ago when she was learning the ropes in Toowoomba but the mission remains the same, needed now more than ever.
“Patient care hasn’t changed. It’s more sophisticated but every patient wants you to be there for them, to listen to them, to talk to their families, to be able to explain to them what is happening.”
She ends with a tale told her by one of her counterparts that neatly encapsulates that quest for balance between the healing ministry and the business of modern health that has been the backdrop to her career and those of other congregational leaders, especially in recent years.
An unnamed hospital - now in the hands of a PJP - was considering buying an expensive large MRI machine that was going to cost millions of dollars. As the board was talking about it, the narrator of this tale piped up with the question: “And if we buy this machine, who is going to feel the pinch, what will the poor miss out on?”
Had she been faced with a similar scenario Sister Clare would have asked the same question, or what would Mary Aikenhead do?
And what happened to the machine, what did the board do? “They didn’t approve it. They didn’t go ahead,” she says. “She was asking the question that perhaps no one had asked… is this what we stand for, is this our mission?”