Sisters of St. Joseph find new mission in health care
After 115 years serving Portage County as educators, administrators, caregivers, chaplains and parish and pastoral ministers, the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis (SSJ-TOSF) are poised to take the next step into their future.
And they want to bring Portage County and its residents along.
It may take on a different shape, it may mean more “public” appearances, it may be a big change in the 40-plus Sisters’ lives, but one aspect of the future remains the same: The dedication and devotion of the Sisters and their ministry to Portage County.
“We know we are mission-matched with the county, that’s what started this,” Sister Michelle Wronkowski said. “Our life, because of the Chapter, was to remission the property. We met (the county) at the most opportune time – it was a God send.”
When they founded here in 1901, the Sisters’ 40-acre property on Maria Drive was designed to provide a home for the several hundred Sisters so they could minister to each other as well as the community. With dwindling numbers, but still a drive to minister and serve, the General Chapter, the highest internal body in the congregation, decided the property needs a new mission.
After about three years of study, the Sisters are forming a partnership with two nonprofit organizations dedicated to providing healthcare options to those in need. The venture would be with Milwaukee Catholic Home (MCH) of Milwaukee and Presbyterian Home & Services (PHS) of St. Paul, Minn., and will focus on serving Portage County seniors and elderly who want to remain home as their health declines.
The senior care campus will include 100 to 120 living spaces divided up between independent senior apartments, memory care units and assisted living units. The total project is estimated to cost between $45 million and $50 million.
County offered to be included
The Sisters have offered to include the ailing Portage County Health Care Center in the campus. They have asked for a $10 million contribution for the partnership, which would go toward constructing a 70-bed health care center for skilled nursing care.
The county’s Capital Improvements/Economic Development Committee meets Monday, Aug. 1, following the Finance Committee meeting to discuss the proposed CIP projects, which include the $10 million contribution for 2017.
Should the county reject the partnership, the skilled nursing component would not be built. Should the county agree, the existing, county-run Health Care Center would be obsolete and its current staff and residents transferred into the new facility.
“It’s like when we received $1 for the Pacelli School,” Wronkowski said. “You could say we sold it because we got a dollar. But we wanted to keep the mission alive.
“This is the same thing, but on a much bigger scale,” she said.
The Sisters plan to break ground in mid-summer 2017 with the independent living, assisted living and memory care components. The new nonprofit senior care campus would be called Joseph’s Pine.
Existing Sisters’ property
The Maria Drive property currently boasts acres of lovely towering pines, wetlands in one corner, a cemetery, a meadow with a baseball diamond in which residents and motorists have seen dozens of deer for decades, and the Motherhouse – a brick, three-story – that the Sisters call home – with a chapel inside.
How the property will look once the development occurs is not yet known. Meetings continue to work out design elements, which portions of the property will and will not be used, how the Motherhouse fits in, and how all of the pieces will flow.
The Motherhouse contains two sections joined together at the chapel. Different floors are designated for different areas of living, including independent, assisted and skilled. A lot of space currently is not used.
The Sisters have learned that none of the existing structure can be used for the same purpose in the future complex due to building standards. For example, the 1965 portion of the building cannot be used because, according to standards for assisted living, the hallways are 3/4 inch too narrow; the 1901 building (updated in 1915 and remodeled in 2006-07) that currently is used for independent living is a wooden structure, which would be a fire hazard by today’s standards.
Despite the discrepancy in meeting construction standards, the Sisters still hope to use the building as part of the future complex. In what manner has not yet been detailed as the design phase continues.
The Motherhouse also contains several meeting areas, an area where Sisters gather for rosary, an eating area and kitchen and the chapel which contains beautiful stained glass windows. The Sisters plan to keep the chapel as well, but again, how it would be used has not yet been determined.
Despite the Catholic connection, the Sisters said the new campus would be nondenominational with acceptance to the different living units open to anyone. If the chapel remains, it is possible that different religious services could be provided, but they would not be mandated as part of the living arrangements.
Along with the living units, the campus would contain a center hub where a variety of items are planned. Residents potentially could visit the doctor, dentist and other health-related professionals in offices located in the hub.
A variety of food vendors could be incorporated, and small spaces that might include kiosks for art galleries, coffee and pastries, and areas where social services could be offered for citizens of Portage County.
If county joins in plan
If the county does not want in on the campus, the Sisters will move forward with phase one of the project, which includes construction of the independent and assisted living apartments and the memory care units. Should the county be on board or decide at a later date to come into the project, the skilled nursing building could be constructed in a second phase.
If the county comes on board, the health care center would be built with between 60 and 70 rooms, each of which would be private and contain a bathroom. The current average occupancy of the Portage County Health Care Center is around 70.
The size of the health care center is based on two independent professional market studies they had done that concluded the future of health care is in family care, whereby residents will remain at home with care assistance rather than moving into a skilled nursing facility.
“They said moving forward, there will be fewer (needed) because there are more choices,” said Sister Judith Jewison. “The mindset is keeping people home as long as possible so there will be fewer and fewer people needing skilled care.”
Of the 42 Sisters, whose median age is 79 for example, just two are in need of skilled care. Should the Sisters need that type of care, they would follow the same application process and criteria scrutiny as others looking to move into the health care facility, Jewison said, and there is no guarantee they would meet the requirements.
So the potential is if the health care center is full and a Sister applied to be in the skilled care facility, she could be denied because there is no room, the same as any other applicant in the same scenario.
“It is our wish that everyone gets the services,” Wronkowski said. “We hope not to turn anyone back but we can’t say we won’t because that’s not reality. It’s a hard question to answer because it hurts your heart.”
The facility would be constructed in such a manner that should additional skilled nursing be needed, the rooms could be added on, Sisters said.
Why Sisters are moving forward
Every five years, The General Chapter, which is the highest internal body in the Sisters’ congregation, meets to review the ongoing interpretation of the call of God to the Sisters’ mission within the church. That includes responsibilities of protecting the Sisters’ heritage, strengthening the mission, having congregational commitments, electing members of the Central Board and publishing norms that encourage the Sisters’ way of life.
In 2013, the 26th General Chapter was held and one of the commitments that came out of that was to continue the implementation of a property study that took place in the late 1990s. The Stevens Point property was selected as the first.
The existing mission is that the Maria Drive property provide a “home for the Sisters with an environment that nurtures and sustains their life together and provides for their needs … The Sisters residing at the Motherhouse, to the best of their abilities, minister to one another as well as to others.”
With dwindling numbers, the property study and the General Chapter determined that the Sisters’ property needs a new mission.
“Clearly, we want to make an impact that builds upon the last 115 years of service and supports the vitality within this community for the next 100 years,” Wronkowski said.
The 42 Sisters daily wake and pray to live their mission “as women who are a gentle, compassionate presence, opening our hearts, our lives, and our homes to all, and especially to those who are poor,” she said.
“So as we look at our current needs, we have elders who will continue to need supportive living and health care services. Might there be a way to collaborate and work together with the Portage County Health Care Center to dream about offering a nonprofit, new continuum of elder care services?” Wronkowski said.
First, the county’s willingness and mission for the Health Care Center had to be looked at, she said. The Sisters’ found that the county’s mission and the Sisters’ were aligned in these ways: The county does not profit off the Health Care Center, the county and Sisters are mission driven, both have outdated facilities, the Sisters have a growing need for services whereas the county has a growing demand for services, both know they cannot move forward individually, both have a capacity for servant leadership – that is caring for the common good, and both are rooted in Portage County.
“As stewards of the 21st century, what might we do together that we cannot do alone? What are the resources, new energies and influence we might bring together to produce a greater good serving more of the citizens of Portage County, beyond our lifetimes?” Wronkowski asked.
“It’s not what’s in it for us,” she said. “If we did that, we wouldn’t be here. Our existence is not our own. It’s the Spirit that leads us.”
And that journey finds the Sisters ready to move forward, and offering Portage County an opportunity to partner with them, in a new mission of service to Portage County and its residents.