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Sr. Mary Caritas Marks a Century of Being a Leader and an Inspiration

Celebrating a Legend

Sr. Mary Caritas

Sr. Mary Caritas

Sr. Mary Caritas, SP turned 100 on Aug. 22. It was a day to be celebrated in almost every respect, with one sad note, if it can be called that.

She decided that would be the day she turned in her driver’s license (it expired then, actually), saying goodbye to at least the driver’s seat of the Toyota RAV4 that she had come to know and love, and a small SUV that gave her something she’s never really had throughout her long and remarkable life — a break from being vertically challenged.

“All my life I’ve been looking up at … everything,” said the diminutive (in physical size only) Sr. Caritas, called ‘Little Sister’ by some in the Sisters of Providence over the years. “In that RAV4, I’ve been sitting on top of the world, looking down at everything; it’s been such a blessing.”

When asked why she gave up her license, she said simply, “I’m going to be sad about it, but it’s the time to do it,” and then elaborated a little.

“My balance isn’t as good as it used to be, my gait isn’t what it used to be, and my reaction time isn’t what it used to be; at 100, what do you expect?” she said in summing up her decision.

Maybe her balance is slipping, but her sense of humor, one of many enduring qualities, is as sharp as ever. Indeed, when she talked about her longevity and juxtaposed it against the knee replacement she underwent at age 97, she said matter-of-factly, “I need to live long enough to get my money’s worth.”

No one doubts that she will.

While she has given up her driver’s license and no longer sits on any external boards — “they all want younger boards these days, and I skew the age higher … much higher” — the dynamic Sr. Caritas, born Mary Geary, remains active on many levels.

She’s active with the Sisters of Providence, with matters for the diocese, such as deciding the fate of some of the buildings on the former Brightside complex still to be repurposed; on the golf course — although she’s not playing as much as she once did because others are having health issues — and as a mentor to many.

“The word that comes to me is indefatigable — no matter what the problem is, the task, or the role, she engages herself and gathers others around her.”

And if you watch Jeopardy! or the nightly news, you might catch her in a TV ad reciting the track record of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, who is one of several candidates jockeying for votes in the primary coming up later this month. “I’m not out there holding signs for anyone,” she said, adding that she can’t even vote in Springfield. “But if someone asks me my option of Mayor Sarno, I’ll give it to them.”

And if you keep watching, you might see her in one of several different testimonial ads for car-dealership owner Gary Rome. “Someone put a camera in my face, asked me what I thought of Gary, and they made it into a commercial.”

She’s in these ads, presumably, because she’s extremely well-known and possesses a name, and a voice, that people trust. And when she talks, people listen. She’s earned that trust, and that willingness to listen to what she says, through roughly eight decades of service and involvement in this region, often at the highest levels.

Indeed, over the years, Sr. Caritas has been asked to do lots of things — from managing Mercy Hospital to solving the odor problems at Bondi’s Island. She’s rarely said no — when given assignments by the ministry, she really couldn’t say no — and has almost always succeeded with the task she’s been given.

In many respects, she’s risen to legend status, one of few in the 413.

“Sr. Caritas has been called a legend in her time, and that’s rare,” said Sr. Kathleen Popko, SP, president of the Sisters of Providence, who has served beside her colleague in many capacities for decades now. “From my perspective, she’s coached, inspired, and facilitated the growth of so many people and organizations. Her résumé is astounding, and the number of awards she’s received is amazing. She’s amazing.

“The word that comes to me is indefatigable — no matter what the problem is, the task, or the role, she engages herself and gathers others around her,” Sr. Popko went on, using the present tense, as we will throughout this piece. “Just think of her nickname, ‘Sr. Sludge,’ and how she dealt with the Bondi’s Island odor problem.”

For this issue, BusinessWest sat down with Sr. Caritas on the occasion of her 100th birthday to talk about her life and career — and where she found all the energy that drove her, and continues to drive her today.

Century Unlimited

On the door to Sr. Caritas’s apartment at Providence Place in Holyoke, there’s a cloth sign hanging on a hook that reads “Golf suits me to a tee.” Below that, there’s another sign featuring the ‘golfer’s prayer’ — “May I live long enough to shoot my age.”

She certainly has lived long enough, but, by her reckoning, she’s never accomplished that rare feat. Indeed, golf has always been a hobby, and sometimes a time and place to get work done. But, by her own admission, she’s never been very good, although, as most everyone knows, she has a hole in one to her credit, at the 10th hole at East Mountain Country Club in Westfield.

While golf has been a constant in her life and something that helps capture who she is, to understand her life and what she has meant to the region, one needs to take in another piece of art hanging in her apartment.

It’s a framed print of an editorial cartoon published decades ago in the Republican. It features a much younger Sr. Caritas (she was 66 at the time), then president of Mercy Hospital, sporting boxing gloves and a sweatshirt that reads, “I love a good fight! Knock out Dukakis.” Explaining the image, she said then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis was not supporting the state’s hospitals to the degree that she and others thought he should, and the difference of opinion had turned into a real battle.

‘I love a good fight’ is not a phrase one would likely attach to a member of the Sisters of Providence, but in this case, it fits. Sr. Caritas has never backed down from a fight she thought was important, whether that involved the governor, Congress, making sure hospitals in this region were adequately reimbursed for Medicare, or her lengthy battle to win approval from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health for a cobalt unit for cancer treatment at Mercy Hospital.

These fights have earned her a number of honors and accolades over the years — too many to mention in this space — including several from BusinessWest. Indeed, she and the other Sisters of Providence were honored with a Difference Makers award in 2013, while Sr. Caritas was the first to earn a Healthcare Heroes award in the Lifetime Achievement category in 2017. And last year, she was honored by the magazine as a Woman of Impact.

The awards offer testimony to not only her fighting spirit, but other traits as well, from perseverance to entrepreneurship to innovation, all of which were on display in many settings and in many posts, most of which, as she’s fond of saying, were not of her choosing.

One that was of her choosing was nursing school, specifically the one at Mercy Hospital, this after her parents had convinced her that the best path was to become a secretary — she went to school for the vocation, but failed at it (one of the few times she’s really failed at anything) and went into nursing instead.

She started in that field in 1945 at Mercy — she was going to become a nurse in the Navy, but World War II ended before she could enlist — earning $48 a month. After joining the Sisters of Providence, she was sent to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester as a nurse. But upon making her final vows after her fifth year, in 1949, she was sent back to Mercy Hospital, a move she was thrilled with until she learned that, instead of nursing, she would focus on dietary services.

After receiving a master’s degree in nutrition education at Tufts University and undertaking a dietetic internship at the Francis Stern Food Clinic at the New England Medical Center in Boston, she was assigned to be administrative dietitian at Providence Hospital in Holyoke.  After seven years in that role, she was told she would become CEO of St. Luke’s Hospital in Pittsfield, where she would eventually oversee a merger with Pittsfield General to create Berkshire Medical Center. And just as she settled into that role, she was elected to be president of the Sisters of Providence, a role she served for eight years before taking the helm at Mercy Hospital.

“Every role I’ve had in the community is the best role I’ve ever had,” she told BusinessWest. “It always came about as a surprise, and not a happy one. But it always turned out to be the best time I had.”

Sr. Popko agreed.

“She oftentimes says that we understand God’s providence only in the rearview mirror,” she said of her colleague. “She had her plans, and life, meaning God’s providence intervened. She took on those roles, she educated herself and learned how to do them, and then moved on with her own personality, courage, daring, energy, and enthusiasm, and made a success of herself — and them.” 

Still a Driving Force

Sr. Caritas told BusinessWest she had no real plans for her 100th birthday — beyond retiring her driver’s license.

There was a large party for her, hosted by members of the Tremble family (owners of Valley Communications) early this month, and hers was one of the August birthdays celebrated at Providence Place on Aug. 16. Another party will take place at Mercy Hospital in September. It will take the form of a benefit for establishing a nurse’s scholarship in her name.

“How could I say no to that?” she asked rhetorically, noting that she didn’t want a party. “Nursing was my first love.”

And it still is, some 70 years or so since she left that role to become a dietitian. There have been many positions and many settings since, but as she turns 100, Sr. Caritas displays only a few signs of slowing down. Her driver’s license is one, but that won’t keep her from being active, especially with the Sisters of Providence and its many initiatives; she currently serves as vice president of the congregation and is actively involved with the redevelopment of the former Brightside property, already home to Hillside of Providence, a low-income elderly-housing facility, where residents are part of the PACE (Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly) initiative.

There are several ‘cottages’ left to be redeveloped, she said, adding that their condition is deteriorating and, thus, their fate is uncertain.

“We’re in the process of selecting an architect, and hopefully we’ll be redeveloping those buildings because the walls and the roofs are fine; hopefully, we can salvage them and recondition them.”

While looking ahead, Sr. Caritas (that name translates to ‘charity’) looked back on her career and her contributions. And while noting that most everything has changed within the broad spectrum of healthcare, the most basic things haven’t. She referred to her first love, nursing, to get this point across.

“When I was at Mercy, I always used to remind people that they’re more important for who they are than what they do,” she said. “Nursing comes from the word ‘nurture,’ and you have to remember that. Even though all kinds of things have changed, the basic belief, and basic sense of being, is all about that — a nurse is not someone who does something to you; a nurse becomes part of you and becomes part of your recovery process and assists you in things you can’t possibly do for yourself.”

And while she talked specifically about nursing, she said this mindset applies to everyone who works in healthcare, a message she has tried to impart to others throughout her career.

Looking back on that career, she noted that, while she has given much, she has received much in return, especially the opportunity to work with others to change lives and improve quality of life. She said she’s grateful for being given the opportunity to use her time and talents in ways that benefit others — even now, at 100 years old.

“God has been good to me in terms of intellectual energy, and my memory is still pretty good,” she told BusinessWest. “There’s some things I forget, but … I’m blessed.”

People in this region — and well beyond, for that matter — can say the same, for her tireless use of that intellectual energy, and all her other gifts, in many consequential ways.

Make a Wish

When asked how she would get around now that’s no longer licensed to drive, Sr. Caritas said she’ll probably rely on Uber.

She joked that area business leader, philanthropist, and good friend Harold Grinspoon — a bit of a legend himself — sent her a check for $500 so she could start her own account, a check she quickly tried to divert Providence Ministries. (He told her to keep the one he sent and wrote another one of the same amount to the ministry). “All I have to do now is learn how to Uber.”

If she ever does need a ride, there are probably … oh, only a few thousand people in that broad ‘friend’ category she could call and ask for a lift. And they would all be willing to help.

That’s the kind of respect — and, yes, love — she’s earned over a century of caring.

Indeed, while Sr. Caritas celebrates a milestone birthday, the region is celebrating her — and what has truly been a wonderful life.

She’ll have to sit in the passenger’s seat now, but she will always be a driving force for progress in this region.