People of Faith - Sister Karin Dufault

  • Written by Greg Magnoni
  • Published in NW Stories
Sister Karin made her final vows in 1967, the same year she accepted her first nursing assignment at St. Vincent Hospital in Portland, Oregon. Sister Karin made her final vows in 1967, the same year she accepted her first nursing assignment at St. Vincent Hospital in Portland, Oregon.

Free to Say Yes

Sister Karin Dufault's dual vocation to consecrated life and Catholic health care ministries has been anything but confining

As a high school senior  at St. Joseph Academy in Yakima, Karin Dufault was a member of Sodality and attended a summer School of Catholic Action program in San Francisco. “It lit a fire,” she said. “I think that was kind of a turning point for me, and how we were really encouraged to participate in the social life of the church, the social action of the church.” The flame ignited that summer has been burning for nearly 50 years.

Inspired by the Providence sisters who taught her at St. Joseph Grade School and the Academy, Dufault entered the religious community in 1959 in Seattle at Mount St. Vincent, where she received the holy habit.

Early on she considered teaching — one of two vocation tracks, along with nursing, available to women in formation at the time. “I had absolutely no experience with health care,” she said.

Today, Sister Karin is general superior of the Sisters of Providence international congregation headquartered in Montreal. Her faith journey has called her not only to a lifelong vocation in Catholic health care, but to multiple leadership positions in the Northwest and far-flung mission fields cultivated by the Providence sisters and their collaborators around the world.

Along the way she has been a hospital nurse, provincial superior of the Mother Joseph Province in Washington and Oregon, board chair of the Providence Health System (now Providence Health and Services) and the Catholic Health Association.

Through it all, and despite her father’s misgivings at the outset of her life as a religious, she has maintained an open ear to hear her call and the “interior freedom” to make a disciple’s response.

 “I felt called, especially after a retreat my senior year, to at least be willing to respond if it was my call. It was not an easy decision, because my father especially did not understand that I could possibly be happy as a sister,” she said. “He saw it as a very limiting and confining life, and it has been anything but that.

“My father came to understand that very well, and could not have been more supportive of me as time went on,” she said.

A new direction

Sister Karin’s main inspirations for her dual vocation to consecrated life and health care ministry were the sisters she encountered in school and as a candidate and novice. “I saw in them the spirit of loving service, and I also saw in them a great joy in their relationship with one another, and with the students and with the parents,” she said of the sisters who taught her.

“When I entered the Sisters of Providence, I presumed that I would be an educator,” she said. But as a candidate she shadowed a sister nurse at St. Vincent Hospital in Portland and recognized in her a new direction for her own vocation.

“I really saw that providence in her actions, and I saw the difference that it made in patients and family and staff to whom she ministered, especially those in greatest need.” In the care given to those who were dying, homeless or receiving bad news, “I saw her really restore faith and hope and just radiate God’s love for each person that she saw,” she said.

“I never had thought about being a nurse, but after that September with her, I really felt called to follow in her footsteps.”

Sister Karin graduated from Seattle University with degrees in social science in 1964 and nursing in 1966 and later earned a master’s degree and doctorate focused on oncology and gerontology respectively. In 1967, she returned to St. Vincent’s (now Providence St. Vincent Medical Center) for her first experience as a registered nurse, and made her final vows in Seattle.

As a religious sister and health care professional, she assumed leadership roles locally, nationally and internationally.

She was executive director of a palliative care coalition of 21 Catholic health organizations located throughout the U.S. and was twice chairperson of the board of the five-state Providence Health System, as well as its acting president and CEO for a year. She has been chair of the Washington State Hospital Association, a hospital administrator and a university adjunct nursing professor.

Discernment advice

As congregational leader of the Sisters of Providence, Sister Karin leads nearly 600 professed sisters serving in nine countries: Canada, the United States, Chile, Argentina, El Salvador, Haiti, Cameroon, Egypt and the Philippines.

What would she tell someone considering a vocation to consecrated life today?

“I would say truly take time to pray and time to listen to God speaking to them. And speaking to them through others. Take advantage of retreat opportunities and vocation gatherings, maybe through a ‘Come and See’ experience. Then go to see with interior freedom.”

Interior freedom, she said, is important when discerning a vocation, whether it is to consecrated life, single life or marriage. “All baptized Christians are entrusted with the mission of Jesus.”

Christian disciples discerning their vocation should not “feel a sense of pressure from outside or inside that one needs to make a decision prematurely.”

“One must feel the sense of peace,” she said. “Of course there may be fears and apprehension, but the sense of ‘Yes, I want to say yes. I’m called to say yes. I’m free to say yes, knowing I’m free to say no. I am open to respond to God,’ and there is no wrong answer.” 

Congregational leader of the Sisters of Providence international community in Montreal, Sister Karin Dufault has been the recipient of numerous honors and awards. Earlier this year she received a lifetime achievement award from Seattle Business magazine.

IN HER OWN WORDS . . .

Sister Karin Dufault, general superior of the Sisters of Providence international congregation, was interviewed by Northwest Catholic on May 13 as part of our coverage for the Year of Consecrated Life.

On consecrated life

“We are really drawn to the poor. So we consecrate our life to live in a particular way with the three vows [poverty, chastity and obedience]. Hopefully with a single-heartedness, of availability to others, and using the goods of the world sparingly and without attachment.”

On modern challenges

“While we are fewer in number, God is sending us vocations from other countries, from other cultures. Within our community, we have been in the process of becoming much more than a multicultural community. We are intercultural, international, intergenerational and interdependent. So how can we find the ways to embrace our differences, to be in communion, be models of communion and community, within our polarized world?”

On What ‘Catholic’ health care is

“Our mission flows from the Gospel, and so really we are to be the face of our provident God. It’s really Jesus’ ministry of caring and healing, and bringing love to every single person in need.”

On Catholic health care today

“We are much more involved today … with seeing the social determinants of health, housing, education, poverty, nutrition, and their influence on what we’re seeing in the hospitals.”

Northwest Catholic - July/August 2015