Sister Sheila Lyne, who headed the city of Chicago Department of Public Health from 1991 to 2000 and was president and chief executive officer of Mercy Hospital & Medical Center for nearly 30 years, died Tuesday at 83, according to friends.
A member of the Sisters of Mercy, she was the only nun ever to run the city health department, according to Cook County Commissioner John Daley. She also was the first woman and the first non-physician to do so, serving in the administration of Daley’s brother, Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Sr. Lyne, who died at Mercy Circle senior living community, had dementia, according to her friend Mary Ellen Caron, the chief executive officer of After School Matters.
A daughter of Irish immigrants from County Kerry, young Sheila grew up on the South Side, where she went to Little Flower grade school and Mercy High School. She joined the Sisters of Mercy in 1953.
In the 1960s, she got a bachelor’s degree in nursing and a master’s in psychiatric nursing from St. Xavier University, according to a biography from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, where she received a master’s of business administration in 1980.
She began her nursing career at Mercy Hospital, which is the city’s oldest hospital and has deep ties to the Daley family. Mayor Richard J. Daley and his wife Sis helped raise money for it. Daley children were born in an older Mercy building. And John Daley has served on its advisory board.
By 1976, Sr. Lyne was president and CEO. She was credited with helping the hospital rebound after it was in danger of closing.
“A Chicagoan to her core, Sister Sheila served God by caring for the city we call home, both in @ChiPublicHealth and through her leadership at Mercy Hospital,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot tweeted.
“She was a strong, strong voice for the under-resourced in health care throughout her life,” Caron said. “She always cared about those who were uninsured or underinsured.’’
“The Daley family has lost a great friend,” John Daley said, “and the city of Chicago has lost an outstanding public servant, someone who was committed to health care for all in this city.”
“She worked seven days a week. She walked the halls,” said her friend Connie Murphy, who worked in marketing at the hospital. “At 77 years old, she would call me at 8 o’clock at night, on the treadmill, to say what needed to be done tomorrow.”
Her role as city health commissioner resulted in her proudest achievement and biggest regret, she once told the Chicago Sun-Times. When she started the job, the impact of AIDS was worsening, she said in a 2012 interview. She worked to increase funding for prevention and promoted the distribution of free condoms.
“I remember the activists marching against the mayor and all that, and that program definitely needed money,” she said. “It had $4 million in funding, which went up to $40 million.”
Her leadership on the issue sometimes “put her at odds with the archdiocese,” John Daley said.
She also was credited with working to reduce infant mortality.
In a 2012 tribute read into the Congressional Record, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, said, “When she started, the infant mortality rate in some poor Chicago neighborhoods was lower than in many developing nations.”
“Sister Sheila recruited two women in the Robert Taylor Homes, a large public housing complex, asked them to find pregnant residents and escort them to one of the department’s eight free-standing clinics for prenatal care. . . . She reduced the city’s infant mortality rate by 39 percent.”
She also won praise for professionalizing a department that had been known as a haven for patronage workers.
Her big regret, she told the Sun-Times, was that so many died during Chicago’s 1995 heat wave. Recent studies place the number of fatalities at approximately 739.
“It was one of the things we missed,” she said. “A lot of people died unnecessarily because we didn’t recognize the difference when this first heat wave came, and it was something we all just couldn’t believe was happening.”
After leaving City Hall, she returned to Mercy.
When she announced her retirement from the hospital in 2012, a Sun-Times editorial said she helped secure the hospital’s future.
“If at times that meant engaging in classic Chicago clout politics, tapping a powerful South Side Irish network to secure key loans and tax breaks, well, it was all for an excellent cause,” the editorial said.
A wake is planned at noon Friday, followed by a 4 p.m. funeral Mass at Mercy Hall, 10044 S. Central Park Ave.
Contributing: Maudlyne Ihejirika