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August 16, 2009

Raising expectations for 40 years

By Pam DeFiglio


It might have been easy for Mercy Sister Rosemary Connelly to let the 132 children and babies with Down syndrome at Misericordia Home back in 1969 continue to lie in their beds day and night. Doctors told her the kids would never amount to anything.

But Sister Rosemary, who had just been appointed by the archdiocese to head Misericordia, felt life had more to offer these children. She called hospitals and universities to see if they had any programs or instruction available for them. The answer: No, but why don’t you develop some?

So she and her staff experimented and brought in new educational methods and speech, occupational and physical therapy. Some of these paid off in children developing more ability to communicate and improving fine and gross motor skills.

These early attempts to raise expectations for the disabled became her life’s work, and an ever-expanding quest.

As Sister Rosemary celebrates her 40th anniversary at Misericordia — and 60th anniversary with the Sisters of Mercy — has developed it into a much-praised, highly rated institution that employs 1,020 people, including doctors, nurses and therapists, to care for 560 children and adults. The sprawling Misericordia campus contains 20 buildings, mostly homes for the residents, and four more are under construction. The Misericordia universe also includes six off-campus homes for supervised independent living, with a seventh in development.

“She’s the most committed person, and the best fundraiser and leader, I’ve ever met, as well as a visionary in the treatment of retarded people,” says Bob Walsh, a longtime advisory board member and former general manager of WMAQ Channel 5. “It’s not just institutional care, keeping them alive — it’s getting them to live life to the best of their ability.”

Sister Rosemary says she’s responding to families’ overwhelming desire to get excellent care for their children with disabilities.

“What keeps me going is the terrible need,” she said. “We don’t have room here, because no one ever leaves. We have to build and expand, because we’re genuinely meeting unmet needs.”

Since the 1970s, Sister Rosemary has worked on fundraising and planning to expand Misericordia and build the various residences. They accommodate people with developmental disabilities ranging from mild to severe. Some also have physical disabilities and serious medical needs, use wheelchairs and require 24-hour skilled care.

Providing day-to-day care for them is extremely demanding, and it helps to have patience and spiritual dedication, she says. But all the residents, even those who cannot speak and can barely move, find ways to reward caregivers.

“It’s beautiful when you take the time to develop a relationship with the person inside the body,” Sister Rosemary said. “They have beautiful souls, and you have to value them as a person.”

Mary Dempsey, director of the Chicago Public Library and a key Misericordia supporter for 20 years, applauded Sister Rosemary’s belief in getting all the residents to work to their highest level of ability, which for some includes jobs in the workforce.

“And those who can’t speak or move are cared for with just as much creativity and stimulation as high-functioning individuals,” Dempsey said.