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Sister Rosemary Connelly, 90, for 52 years has led Misericordia, Chicago’s premier center for people with disabilities. Now, she’s shifting her focus to its newly created foundation. COVID created challenges for her, like everyone else, but she believes she has a reliable ally in God.

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‘I’m overwhelmed with God’s goodness’

Sister Rosemary Connelly, 90, is shifting her focus, but not slowing down.

Sister Rosemary Connelly, 90, for 52 years has led Misericordia, Chicago’s premier center for people with disabilities. Now, she’s shifting her focus to its newly created foundation. COVID created challenges for her, like everyone else, but she believes she has a reliable ally in God.
| Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“The day I walked into Misericordia, I really felt God’s presence, and wasn’t afraid,” said Sister Rosemary Connelly, 90, lunch untouched as we caught up at the venerable Chicago institution — 100 years old this year — where some 600 people with developmental challenges live and work.

That was in 1969, when Misericordia was still on 47th Street. I wondered: why did the archdiocese pick her?

“I don’t know,” Sister Rosemary said. “That’s been a mystery. They always had a nurse in charge. And I had a master’s degree in social work and one in sociology. Maybe that’s why.’”

I’ve been visiting Misericordia since 1994, more than half her tenure. It’s a good story. When I read last week that Sister Rosemary is shifting her duties, now heading Misericordia’s new foundation, a role that “will likely involve public relations work,” I couldn’t help tamping down a smile and phoning her up to point out that PR involves taking media jackals to lunch. She could start with me.

Has COVID-19 been tough?

“It has been,” she said. “Our kids have been wonderful. For a while they couldn’t go home, the ones able to go home. The staff just made it so pleasant for them. It’s been wonderful.”

Notice that pivot Sister Rosemary does: always away from herself, toward others. Always grateful, never complaining, not that I didn’t try to draw complaint out.

But how about her?

”l thought it wouldn’t last this long,” she began, deflecting the question like a matador. “They’re wonderful, the residents. Neil, they have been unbelievable. Because of the staff. They’ve stepped up. They’re extraordinary.”

They’re also in short supply. Misericordia usually has 1,200 employees augmented by two dozen daily volunteers. Now they’re 100 staffers down, and the volunteers have to stay away.

“It’s been hard on our kids, not having volunteers around,” she said.

Projects have been on hold. Their 14th and 15th independent group homes — one on campus, one in Evanston — should have opened by now. By March, Misericordia will open a drive-thru bakery, and if you take away one thing from today, it should be the name “Hearts and Flour Bakery.” Started to impart vocational skills, it grew into a humming commercial establishment that’ll mail 10,000 packages this month. I’ve sent their products to my mother, my sister, friends. Fantastic. The heart-shaped brownies. I can’t recommend it enough.

Sister Rosemary worried our story might leave the impression she’s putting her feet up and nibbling baked goods. Here, she was willing to mention herself.

“We’ve been blessed and I’ve been blessed,” she said. “That at my age, I can still be here, writing letters and thanking people. It’s a privilege, it really is.”

So you are going to be here forever?

“Maybe it will get too hard physically,” she said. “I need a walker now. But I get around, so that’s just fine.”

Otherwise, she’s here, “until God...” she began, realizing she might have to explain it to me.

“It’s nice to have someone above you that you believe in,” she said. “During this time I’ve lost five members of my family” — including her younger sister, Pat Martin. “I really miss them but I do feel that we’re all on the road. I do feel there’s a heaven and they were good people. I do believe there’s something after this world, I really do. It gives me confidence.”

Sister Rosemary Connelly, 90, recently stepped down as executive director of Misericordia to run its new foundation.
Sister Rosemary Connelly, 90, recently stepped down as executive director of Misericordia to run its new foundation.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

There are too many stories to tell: I love the one where, in 1976, they were transferring Misericordia’s 39 residents from the South Side campus to the new home at 6300 N. Ridge Ave., then an abandoned orphanage. If you were engineering that move for three dozen children, some profoundly disabled, would you stop on the way to take them all to the Lincoln Park Zoo? Sister Rosemary did.

I asked if she’s seen people change over nearly a century.

“I don’t think so,” Sister Rosemary replied. “We have been so blessed here. I’m overwhelmed with God’s goodness, through His people. I sit back and I’m just amazed at how good people are. People seem to really be grateful that there is a place like Misericordia, they can believe in it and be involved in it. We are so blessed Neil, we really are. ... Misericordia is a beautiful place. I get a lot of credit for it, but it’s because the right people have always been in the right place at the right time. And that isn’t accidental, according to my belief. I really do believe that it’s God’s work.”

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