“We (the founders) believed that farmworkers would listen to (their peers) about healthcare issues,” Sengelaub says on the group's website. “You are always going to have … people working in the fields who feed us. We need to continue to support them to improve their lives. Respect and be grateful for the work that they do and design health promotion programs in holistic ways.”
In an interview with Modern Healthcare, Sengelaub, now 94 and a 2013 inductee to the Modern Healthcare Health Care Hall of Fame, describes the moral compass that drove her long career in healthcare, which spanned six decades.
“I would say the driving point of this is to serve the poor, the sick, the dying and the elderly; all the people in need,” she says. “This is the driving force for all of those in the congregation, for men and women.”
It wasn't only the Roman Catholic Church's mission to serve the poor where she found an outlet for her prodigious organizational energies. During Sengelaub's six-year tenure as head of the CHA, which began in 1970, major ethical questions arose that still confront religious healthcare providers: How should they deal with new medical advances such as artificial insemination and cryogenic preservation, as well as end-of-life care, each of which presented new challenges to traditional Catholic teachings and led to conflicts inside and outside of the church.
To help leaders of religious healthcare institutions wend their way through these potential minefields, she co-founded the Pope John XXIII Medical-Moral Research and Education Center in St. Louis, which provided a forum for Catholic hospitals and other providers to discuss ethical-care issues. It also provided resources and experts. The center has since been relocated to Philadelphia as the National Catholic Bioethics Center.
“Sister Maurita was on the forefront of the issues that society is still confronted with today,” says John Haas, the center's current president.
Whether she was a nursing instructor, hospital administrator or leader of the nation's largest advocacy organization for Catholic healthcare, Sengelaub made education her primary vocation during a career that began before Pearl Harbor.
It was an era that didn't provide easy choices for young women of conscience with career aspirations. When she first started out in the 1940s, discrimination against women in education was pronounced. Opportunities for women in religious orders were especially limited.
“We knew that things could change and so could the institutions,” she says. “They had to, because we would not have enough sisters who were properly trained.”
She crashed through many barriers during her long career, eventually becoming the first nun to hold the CEO's role at the Catholic Hospital Association, the predecessor to today's Catholic Health Association.
Sengelaub's career sprouted from humble beginnings. She was born on a farm in 1918 in central Michigan, near Reed City. She grew up during the Great Depression and money for college was a major challenge for her family.
Her father, who built houses and barns, made $150 one summer and promised the money to his daughter for tuition. In 1937, Sengelaub enrolled in nursing school. Three years later, she entered the nursing ranks at St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich.
She worked as an assistant head nurse at St. Mary's for a year, but then returned home to Reed City Community Hospital as a general staff nurse to be near her family. She moved to Mercy Hospital in Bay City, Mich., to teach medical-surgical nursing, where she remained until World War II ended.
After the war, Sengelaub felt called to become a Sister of Mercy. She took her final vows in 1951. Recognizing her leadership potential, church leaders sent her to St. Louis University for graduate school. Sengelaub expected to pursue a master's degree in nursing education, but her religious order had other plans. Her superiors pushed her to work toward a master's degree in hospital administration.
She didn't question their reasoning. Before her admission, the head of the Catholic Hospital Association at the time, Father John Flanagan, interviewed her. Flanagan became a longtime mentor to Sengelaub, and 20 years later she took over her mentor's former job at the CHA.
Sengelaub took her first management job in 1953, returning to St. Mary's as the hospital's administrator. Sengelaub says she never predicted the transition she would make from nurse to teacher to administrator. But she made it work.
“There were some wonderful accomplishments and successes as a hospital administrator,” Sengelaub says. “I enjoyed and loved it when I was the administrator of our two hospitals in Michigan.”
Healthcare administration was still somewhat of a fledgling academic field at the time. Even while working toward her master's degree, there was little literature available for would-be administrators. The curriculum included courses in accounting, statistics and healthcare management. Effective communication with physicians, board members and other staff wasn't something covered in the classroom.