By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich
The University of Notre Dame recently announced that Sister Rosemary Connelly will receive the Laetare Medal for her life’s work in helping and advocating for those with developmental disabilities at the university’s spring commencement ceremony.
First established in 1883, this annual recognition is given to a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”
Throughout her more than 50 years of service at Misericordia, a community of care in Chicago that provides homes for more than 600 children and adult residents with developmental disabilities, Sister Rosemary has dedicated her life to serving and caring for some of the most vulnerable members of society.
As President of Notre Dame Father John Jenkins said, “With her characteristic tenacity, grace and genius, Sister Rosemary has ensured that residents of Misericordia – as wonderful children of God – have the quality of life and opportunities they deserve.”
After joining the Sisters of Mercy at 19 years old, earning her bachelor’s degree at Saint Xavier University, and two master’s degrees in sociology and social work, Sister Rosemary began working as the executive director of Misericordia in 1969.
At the time, Misericordia provided a safe and caring home for infants and children up to six years old with disabilities. Sister Rosemary observed that although the children were genuinely cared for, they were growing, and their needs were changing. Children with developmental disabilities at the time did not have access to educational or enrichment opportunities and spent much of their lives in bed.
“Children being in bed all day? Sister wasn’t having it. ‘Let’s get them out of bed and let’s see what they can do,’ she said. And that’s how it started,” Executive Director of the Misericordia Foundation Lois Gates recalled.
Sister Rosemary saw what these children were capable of, the gifts God had given them, and the quality of life that they could live. She set out in search of programs and services that would challenge the children to grow and reach their full potential – but after talking with government and academic experts, found that nothing of the sort existed for children with developmental disabilities.
Unfazed, the determined, strong-willed Sister Rosemary created programs for self-help skills, speech and physical therapy, and recreational activities. In 1976, Sister Rosemary and Misericordia moved to its new, present-day campus, which allowed the community to expand, offer care for a wide range of ages, and provide opportunities for more independent resident living.
Sister Rosemary’s visionary leadership, steadfast courage, and abundant compassion in the ensuing decades have today made Misericordia the “gold standard in community care for children and adults with disabilities.”
Misericordia provides an extensive range of services including vocational training, educational opportunities, social and recreational activities, medical care, and therapeutic treatments. Every person is seen as a child of God and encouraged, empowered, supported, and challenged to live their lives as independently and as fully as possible.
For those who are a part of the Misericordia community, Sister Rosemary’s kindness and care have made a lasting impact on their lives. Known as the Mayor of Misericordia, Terry came to live in the community when he was just over one year old, a few years before Sister Rosemary arrived. Sister Rosemary “made my home a great place to grow up and to have fun and to learn and work with many opportunities for me and my friends,” he said. “She challenges me to be the best independent man I can be, and my life is wonderful because of her.”
At 92 years of age, Sister Rosemary recently transitioned to a new role as chairwoman of the board of the Misericordia Foundation where she continues to advocate for and serve the community she helped foster and grow. “What motivates me? I think the fact that I’m surrounded by wonderful people, including the staff and especially the residents here,” she said. “They challenge us to be our best. They’re loving. They live life beautifully. And they can be models for us all.”
Sister Rosemary Connelly’s decades of care for those with developmental disabilities at Misericordia has left a lasting impact on the lives of those in the community, and her legacy will continue to inspire all who face seemingly insurmountable challenges.