Celebrating 50 years of Misericordia and Sister Rosemary Connelly

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Sister Rosemary Connelly, executive director of Misericordia, shares a light-hearted moment with a resident in the Arts and Crafts Studio in this file photo. Misericordia Home is celebrating Sister Rosemary’s 50 years of leadership. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

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When Mercy Sister Rosemary Connelly walked into Misericordia Home in August of 1969, it was a facility for children up to age 6 with developmental disabilities on the South Side of Chicago.

It offered what was called “custodial care,” Sister Rosemary said, keeping the children clean and safe, but offering no programs to educate or even entertain them.

“The staff that were there, they were mostly people from the neighborhood, and they loved the children, they really did,” Sister Rosemary said. “They were always dressed and all the ribbons … but they wanted to keep them safe, and keeping them in bed was safe.”

That wasn’t unusual at the time.

“There really were no programs for children with disabilities,” she said.

But Sister Rosemary, who came to the job having been a teacher and social worker with no experience in special education, fundraising or administration, didn’t see it that way.

“If we value their lives, we should give them a life worth living,” said Sister Rosemary, 88, who was honored for her half-century of leadership at a dinner with nearly 1,500 guests Aug. 25. “They were all in bed, and I wanted them out of bed. That staff didn’t like me much, I can tell you.”

Now, Misericordia is home to 600 children and adults with developmental disabilities, most living on a 31-acre campus on Chicago’s North Side. There is a continuum of care, with everything from homes in nearby neighborhoods to skilled nursing for residents with complex medical conditions to senior housing for an aging population. Another 200 people with disabilities participate in Misericordia’s outreach programs.

Sister Rosemary said Misericordia recently acquired some adjoining property, in the hope of making room for some of the hundreds of people on the waiting list.

The organization employs 1,200 people, and is funded by a combination of government payments and private donations.

In addition to homes, there are recreational facilities and programs; space for speech, physical and occupational therapy; and businesses that employ residents.

The residents’ families also are part of the Misericordia community.

“We have the best family organization and best sibling organization in the country,” Sister Rosemary said. “They know their loved ones are living happy lives, with dignity and respect and challenge.”

For Sue Hartemayer, whose son, Kirk, 33, has lived at Misericordia for more than 10 years, “it’s a piece of heaven on earth.”

“For him, it was a really easy transition because his younger brother was going to college at the same time,” Hartemayer said. “So we told him it was like his college. We bought sheets for Robbie, and we bought sheets for Kirk. He was actually pretty excited.”

Kirk loves soccer, loves to participate in Special Olympics, and loves music, especially country music. Though he has difficulty expressing himself verbally, he enjoys being around people who talk to him, and being part of a group.

Hartemayer first heard about Misericordia when her family was living in Kansas City, she said. She told a neighbor the family was moving to Chicago, and the neighbor said she should check out Misericordia. After they moved, a new friend told her the same thing. So she did, and ended up volunteering for several years before Kirk aged out of public special education at age 21.

“It’s just been such a gift,” she said. “They provide a safe place for him, a healthy place for him. He has a place to call home, a place to work. He has friends.”

Father Jack Clair, assistant executive director and chaplain at Misericordia, said he feels the same way about having his sister live at Misericordia. She moved there about 10 years ago, he said, after living in other institutions.

“She’s a happy person now,” Clair said. “She says this is like heaven.”

Sister Rosemary, Clair said, was ahead of her time in her advocacy for people with disabilities, and her insistence that they should be allowed to develop their abilities and their gifts to whatever extent they can.

While that idea is no longer revolutionary, Misericordia has found itself fighting criticism from the other end of the spectrum, from people who say that people with disabilities should live in homes in the community, not in large institutions.

Misericordia has been able to answer its critics by making friends among local, state and national politicians, and by offering to show the campus to people who want to see the work it does.

“Even though we are big, every person is unique to us,” Sister Rosemary said. “When people come and take a tour, they all say they can feel the love here.”

Clair, who leads many of those tours, agreed. Sometimes visitors are afraid of what they will see, he said, and sometimes people who live at Misericordia have conditions that people don’t want to see.

What he impresses on staff members is that all those people deserve to be treated with compassion.

“I ask them to put themselves in that person’s shoes,” he said. “And I tell them to imagine when that person dies, and they go to heaven, and God asks how you treated them, what are they going to say?”

For Clair, keeping up with the changing conditions of the residents — a population that once included many children with Down syndrome now has many more medically complex people and people with autism — and finding funding will always be challenging. But finding enough good staff members is also challenging, he said, especially with an aging population making personal caregivers more in demand.

Clair said he remains in awe of what Sister Rosemary has accomplished. It will take the concerted efforts of new leaders to keep it going.

“It’s not like she’s going to ride off into the sunset, and everything will stay the same,” he said.

Sister Rosemary said she isn’t worried.

“The moment I walked into Misericordia, I felt God’s presence, and I knew I’d never have to walk alone,” she said. “And I was right. The right people have always been in the right place at the right time, and they make me look so good. People have been so generous to Misericordia and to me.”

She has no plans to retire, but, she said, she knows that God could have other plans.

“I’m in God’s hands,” she said. “And I know that I could leave town tomorrow, and the people around me would know what to do.”


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