Seton: Even as Daughters leave, their mission lives on

By Peggy Moraczewski

After serving the Austin community for more than 110 years, the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul have made the difficult decision to withdraw from Austin. The sisters currently serving here are part of a restructuring which affects several dioceses and archdioceses across the country. This decision was reached in order to better allocate the current number of active Daughters into the areas of greatest need. They will continue to serve the Diocese of Austin in Waco at several locations, including Providence Hospital and Reicher Catholic High School. 
The relationship between the Daughters of Charity and Seton Healthcare Family, which began in 1902, is changing, but will not cease to exist. In 1999, Ascension Health was formed when the Daughters of Charity National Health System in St. Louis, Mo., and the Sisters of St. Joseph Health System in Ann Arbor, Mich., combined. Seton is part of this health system, which is the largest Catholic health system in the U.S.
Although a future without the physical presence of the Daughters creates an undesired void, Seton associates are determined to carry on the Daughters of Charity’s mission “to care for and improve the health of those we serve, with a special concern for the poor and vulnerable. We are called to be a sign of God’s unconditional love for all and believe that all persons by their creation are endowed with dignity.” Seton continues the Catholic tradition of service established by the founders of the Daughters: Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac and Elizabeth Ann Seton. 
Seton joins a growing number of Catholic institutions operating under similar conditions. Sacred Heart Health System in Pensacola, Fla., faced similar circumstances to Seton Healthcare Family. They successfully transitioned to lay leadership and are continuing to serve in the spirit of the Daughters of Charity who founded that hospital in 1915. As will occur at Seton, the Daughters continue to serve on the Board of Sacred Heart Health System.
Sister Helen Brewer will sit on both the Seton Healthcare Family Board, as well as the Seton Family of Hospitals Board. She has served at Seton for the last 15 years and stated with confidence, “The laity can, and will, continue the mission. Seton will continue to be a Catholic institution. They can do it!” 
Confidence in this transition comes after years of pragmatic planning by the Daughters of Charity and with the important approval of the Vatican. The sponsorship of the Seton Family of Hospitals and Ascension facilities was transferred to the sponsorship of what is designated a non-congregational “public juridic person” in 2011. 
Sister Brewer explained this term, “A public juridic person is a body assuming the responsibilities of sponsorship of the Catholic health systems, ministries and missions of religious congregations, including the Daughters of Charity or other religious congregations. The group – lay, religious or mixed – commits to continue the ministries as Catholic and in the name of the church.” 
Charles Barnett, Chairman of the Board of Seton Healthcare Family, said everyone at Seton knows the importance of the task at hand.
“All of us who are part of this ministry recognize the responsibility we have to continue the Vincentian Family charism, to care for the poor and reach out to the community,” said Barnett.
Continuity of the Daughters’ Mission at Seton has been an ongoing process and includes several Laity Formation and Chaplaincy programs. Over the last decade, 30 Seton leadership team members have completed a two-year formation program taught at the Aquinas Institute in St. Louis. Also, a Local Heritage Pilgrimage is attended quarterly by 40 Seton associates. And a pilgrimage to France is offered every two years, during which Seton leaders, donors and associates walk in the footsteps of St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac. 
Ken Gladish, president and CEO of Seton Foundations, said the entire communities benefits when Seton associates go through these formation activities. 
“Our 12,000 employees carry the mission out into the community. They are active outside of work, internationally, nationally and locally,” Gladish said. In 2012, Seton Healthcare Family contributed $398 million in charity care and more than $340 million in medical services throughout the community. Examples include the Seton McCarthy, Seton Kozmetsky and Seton Topfer community health centers, located in working class neighborhoods serving many patients without medical insurance. This is a long way from the humble beginnings of Seton Infirmary in 1902.
Founded by the Daughters of Charity, Seton began as a 40-bed facility in Austin. Today the Seton Healthcare Family has grown to an 11-hospital system, which includes the only regional Level 1 trauma centers: University Medical Center Brackenridge and Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas; and Seton Medical Center Williamson in Round Rock, a Level 2 trauma center. 
In late 2014, with the groundbreaking of the new Seton teaching hospital, the care and Catholic mission of Seton will continue to grow. The hospital, which will be associated with the University of Texas at Austin’s new Dell School of Medicine, will be situated on what is now a parking lot at the Frank Erwin Center. Jesús Garza, president and CEO of Seton Healthcare Family said, “The new hospital will have the Seton name on it and the facility will include a chapel blessed by Bishop Vásquez.” 
As the Daughters prepare for their new assignments, a pillar of their community, Sister Gertrude Levy, said, “I will miss all of you (in Austin) and will keep you in my prayers.” She has served at Seton Medical Center Austin for the last 40 years and, at 94 years old, still works full time. 
Preparations are underway for a farewell Mass July 11 at 3 p.m. at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Austin. Bishop Vásquez will preside at Mass and all the Daughters who served at Seton over the years will be invited. The public is encouraged to attend and take this opportunity to extend gratitude and prayers to the sisters.
Editor’s note: Information for this article was obtained through several Seton Healthcare Family leaders and sisters of the Daughters of Charity. Watch for future articles on the history of the Daughters of Charity in Austin and their work in Central Texas.

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