Meet Sister Rosemary Moynihan
CMMB’s New Board Chair
Rosemary Moynihan, SC, PhD, is general superior of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth, located in Convent Station, New Jersey. Before becoming general superior, Sister Rosemary served as director of ecology and global ministries for the Bon Secours Health System in Marriottsville, Maryland, where she was responsible for their international outreach programs to Haiti, Peru, and South Africa.
She also serves on the Catholic Health Association’s International Outreach Committee. Her ministry history includes several years as manager of community mental health at St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson, New Jersey, working with those affected by HIV/AIDS, and 16 years in social work and social work administration at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. She chairs the boards of the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, New Jersey and Trinitas Regional Medical Center in Elizabeth, New Jersey; and serves on the board of the Yale New Haven Hospital.
Sister Rosemary has been a member of CMMB’s board of directors for many years, including service as vice chair. Sister Rosemary was recently chosen to head CMMB’s board as chairman. We sat down to talk with Sister Rosemary about the Gospel, CMMB’s connection to St. Vincent De Paul, and why all of us should listen to the call to love our neighbors, wherever they may be.
Charity is the cement which binds communities to God, and persons to one another. – St. Vincent De Paul
Catholic social teaching tells us that we are called to put the needs of the most vulnerable first, and that all persons have a right to human dignity. Why should these concepts and values be important to everyone?
Sister Rosemary: If you come out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, every prophet, and then Jesus in his fullness, proclaimed the kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is peace and justice, right relationships, the lion and the lamb. People use the lion and the lamb and they don’t get it. That is the gospel. Everyone has the right to dignity. Everyone has the right to an education. Everyone has the right to a home, to meaningful work, to participation, to a just environment where they’re of value. It’s who we are. It’s what it is. My whole thing is how to help people make the connection between the gospel and what you see every day, whether it’s here in the states, or whether it’s in Haiti, or Peru, or South Sudan. It’s all the same. Man, woman, or child, born and unborn, are created in the image of God. Life is God and deserving of dignity. How do you define dignity? The rights of all the goods of the earth, and right relationships; the right to be in relationship to others on an equal basis.
People don’t understand the social justice concept of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity means that decisions are made at the level at which they need to be made. It means that people who are involved in something, are involved at the lowest level possible, so that everything isn’t done from the top. Subsidiarity means that everyone has a right to participate. So when you talk about justice, when you talk about dignity, think about how you might treat an animal; even animals need to be treated with dignity. An animal will shy away and put its head down; how much more a human being? Especially a child. Never stare a child down, because that child will never forget it. Dignity really comes in the fullness of life experience, as it’s lived in community, wherever that is. Whether it’s your family, or your little town, or the country that you come from, the military group you belong to, whatever that community is, you have that right.
Everyone has the right to dignity. Everyone has the right to an education. Everyone has the right to a home, to meaningful work, to participation, to a just environment where they’re of value. It’s who we are. It’s what it is.
Why did you orignally partner with CMMB and become a member of the board of directors?
Sister Rosemary: I was asked to join CMMB’s board by a friend who was already serving on the board, so I already knew about CMMB. I had worked for the Bon Secours Health System, and I saw what CMMB was doing, in terms of medication procurement and distribution, and the CHAMPS (Children and Mothers Partnerships) program. So when I was asked to participate, I thought, this is a great opportunity because [these programs aren’t] hand-outs. These are medications that give people life, that help people to see, that allow a healthy birth, that deal with all sorts of debilitating illnesses. The CHAMPS programs help people function better. They support the function of mother/child relationships, and that of course affects the family, and the family is the core. The mission of the Sisters of Charity is to make God’s love known in the world. That’s the mission. So for me, it was a wonderful opportunity as a Sister of Charity to participate in something bigger than myself, and something that had such a potential for positive impact on people’s lives.
How can we do that? When the board sits and decides, can we afford another CHAMPS location? Can we reach out to an area that’s experiencing added upheaval, or an added disaster? How can we step in to help communities, not just with food or supplies to meet immediate needs, but how can we help people develop their own way of surviving and growing? [By serving on CMMB’s board,] I see people from all different backgrounds, learning together what it is to bring a just world forward. CMMB’s work is geared more toward justice than to kindness. It’s more geared toward compassion, in the fullest sense of the term. So when we plan as a board, we’re planning for how we can best help these women, these children, these families, achieve what they dream for; to plant their food, to get an education, to integrate knowledge about good health.
For much of your career, you have been involved in international outreach. There are many who say we should focus on the poor here in the United States first. Why is it important to serve the poor in the developing world?
Sister Rosemary: I’ve had the opportunity to be in Haiti, to be in Peru, and that was life changing for me. I don’t think, unless you actually see it, the pictures don’t do it; you can’t even imagine it. In Peru I met a little girl living in a shocking slum. Her mother had a huge tumor and this little girl knew her mother was going to die and she would be on her own. I looked at that little girl and I thought, all you need is a little education, and a couple of opportunities, and you could get out of here.
I’ve also seen very serious poverty here in the states. I spent nine years in downtown Patterson, New Jersey, working with very poor people, multiply-diagnosed people. And you realize that poverty here is very different from poverty in other places. Poverty here has to do with a whole, complex configuration of problems, over generations. Whereas poverty in the developing world, people are stuck in a situation where society hasn’t evolved. So you’re dealing with two different things, but you have to deal with both.
Why is investing—for the long-term—in the health of remote, marginalized communities in the developing world important?
Sister Rosemary: CMMB’s long term commitment gives people opportunities for getting out of their situations, bettering their whole situation. It’s not just feeding them for a week, or for a month. It’s helping them to develop ways to feed themselves, ways to get educated, ways to care for their families that are more healthy and more productive. So for me, the long-term commitment means that if you can get a generation through, you change that whole section of the country.
How do you reflect on your role, as a female religous, leading an organization dedicated to healthier lives for women and children?
Sister Rosemary: I’m really honored to do this. I pray that I can bring my little piece to this work. I think that as an organization, CMMB has evolved [in its mission] toward women and children, and it has moved toward us, but there have also been women on CMMB’s board, working toward this for a long, long time. So, I stand on their shoulders, and on the shoulders of some very good men, who have been very supportive of this. I’m a little in awe, because being a religious, I’m standing on the shoulders of all these lay people for over 100 years, who have really kept working at evolving the work of CMMB. And here I come, from a little different lifestyle, but bringing 400 years of Vincentian tradition.
I’m a Sister of Charity, a Daughter of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, who was American, who brought the rule of St. Vincent De Paul to the United States, really to North America. The founder of CMMB, Dr. Flagg, was a physician from St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City, an iconic health institution, on the front lines through its whole existence. So I thought, isn’t it wonderful that I’m able to make that connection. Dr. Flagg was at the beginning, this doctor from St. Vincent’s, and I’m here now, bringing another Vincentian, 100 years later, to maybe restate that mission again, to bring that dimension to the mission of CMMB—that we come out of a Vincentian tradition, which is asking those with resources to share with those without, so that we can make society a better place for everybody.
“You will find that charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the kettle of soup and the basket of bread. You are the little servant of the poor, the maid of charity. They are your masters, but the uglier and dirtier they are, the more unjust and bitter, the more you must give them of your love. It is only because of your love, that the poor will forgive you the bread you given them.”—Advice of St. Vincent De Paul to Sister Jean, Daughter of Charity, making her first visit to the poor.
Why are women religious such an important part of CMMB’s legacy? What is their role today?
Sister Rosemary: So much good has been done by so many people. I think female religious usually arise in society where there is a need for service, and because we are a vowed religious, we make ourselves available. The vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, in a sense, take us out of the family unit and give us a little more freedom and focus. However, we could never accomplish our work without our lay colleagues. I mean, look around you. While there may have been 1,800 Sisters of Charity in New Jersey, there might have been a million employees, colleagues, and friends who walked with us. Women religious can spearhead something because we have the time and effort to do it, but I think probably the most unique piece is our availability. Today, we see the laity—from very young people, to people my own age—coming into their own. This is the fullness of the laity in the church as was described in Vatican II. The laity is coming into its own, and they are taking over. They have always been there, but they just haven’t been as recognized.
The role of the religious now, is to do what we can because we’re available, get it focused, and partner with as many people as we can to continue the work. I see a lot of faith in people. The Sisters of Charity have programs here for young interns, college age, and when they find us, many are unchurched. And we say, why did you come to our internship program? And they say, we saw your values and we wanted to be a part of it. Some are Christian, some are not, some are nothing. But what they have in common is that sense of other, of something bigger than themselves. And I think, way down deep they have a longing for a connection with the holy. So I think we have to listen today, to listen and encourage people—especially young people—in that sense of faith. Today, I think faith is differently articulated and differently lived. It’s something that needs cultivation in a whole new way, because ultimately, when you come down to life in its most complex and difficult form, you need something to ground you.
Why should donors trust CMMB? How would you describe the value of a donation to support CMMB’s programs?
Sister Rosemary: People donate to CMMB because they believe in helping others. They believe in loving your neighbor as yourself. They may only have $10, or they may have $500. Those donors should know that every time the board meets, we ask how is the money being used, what’s the overhead, how much is getting directly to the people, to the service? Every effort is made to make sure that the largest percentage possible is getting to direct care, to direct services, to people. I feel confident in that. I feel that the board and the staff are working very hard and very meticulously on that. It’s difficult because CMMB is moving large amounts of medication, and large numbers of people around, all the time. But I think there is a very intentional system of strong checks and balances in place.
In most of the Catholic charities I know—certainly Caritas Internacional, CMMB, Catholic Charities USA—the mission is clear and there is attention to detail, there is an honesty. We have worked very hard, the Church and the people in the Church, have worked very hard because this is part of the Gospel message. It’s not a business. It is not a business for any of these groups. People are not making their fortunes on them. We are all called, the Catholic and Christian communities are called, to serve those most in need, and they do that. That’s why there is a validity to the work, and most people would tell you that.
Go to the poor. You will find God. – St. Vincent De Paul