Providence leader with local ties discusses vocations to consecrated life, Catholic health care

  • Written by Greg Magnoni
  • Published in NW Stories

Providence Sister Karin Dufault entered religious life in 1959 in Seattle at Mount St. Vincent. Her vocation has taken her around the world as she assumed multiple leadership positions for the Sisters of Providence and in Catholic health care.

Sister Karin

Today, Sister Karin is general superior of the Sisters of Providence international congregation headquartered in Montreal. She has been a hospital nurse, board chair of the Providence Health System (now Providence Health and Services) for more than a decade, board chair of the Catholic Health Association and provincial superior of the Mother Joseph Province in Washington, Oregon and California.

She 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.

She was executive director of a palliative care coalition of 21 Catholic health systems 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 a hospital administrator, chair of the Washington State Hospital Association, and a university adjunct nursing professor.

Winner of numerous awards and honors, Sister Karin received the Leaders in Health Care Lifetime Achievement Award from Seattle Business magazine earlier this year. Northwest Catholic interviewed her on May 13 as part of our coverage for the Year of Consecrated Life.

Q. Consecrated life is poorly understood even among Catholics. What is unique about the vocation to consecrated life?

A. Our life probably was more readily known through our teaching ministry, given our many schools and through our presence in health care. Our ministries are different today. All baptized Christians are entrusted with the mission of Jesus. We [religious] live our particular mission and charism in the spirit that is taught to us by Jesus in the Gospels and the example of our foundress. We do so within the context of living in and belonging to our religious community. We have also chosen to make public vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. As Sisters of Providence, our motto is “The charity of Christ urges us,” and we are really drawn to be with and for the poor in prophetic solidarity as was our foundress, Blessed Emilie Gamelin. So we consecrate our life to God to serve others and to live in community. The three vows call us to live with single-heartedness, with availability to others, with interdependence and with a simple lifestyle that uses the goods of the world sparingly and without attachment.

Q. What was the main inspiration for you when you entered religious life?

A. I would say that the main inspiration was the example of Sisters of Providence who taught me in both grade and high school. I saw in them the spirit of loving service, and I saw the compassion in them for persons in need. I also saw a great joy in their relationship with one another, and with the students and with the parents. So I was attracted by the way they reached out.

I felt called, especially after a retreat my senior year, to at least be willing to respond if it was my calling by God. It was not an easy decision, because my father did not believe that I could possibly be happy as a sister since he saw it as a very limiting and confining life. It has been anything but that. My father came to understand that very well. Once he saw that I was happy, he could not have been more supportive of me and our community.

Q. You mentioned that in years past women in consecrated life served primarily in schools and hospitals. What are some of the areas where women in religious life are being called to serve today?

A. Now our sisters are involved in diverse ministries including spiritual direction, retreat ministry, counseling, service on boards, teaching English as a second language, ministry to immigrants and refugees, prison ministry, legislative advocacy and ministry formation. Some have roles in parishes, providing pastoral support, visiting the sick or the elderly, leading liturgy committees or discussion groups as well as various other roles. Also sisters serve in low-income housing ministry and support for the elderly in other settings besides the hospitals or the nursing homes. Sisters minister in other services that are directed toward women and children, and especially those who are homeless or who have been in situations of abuse or trafficking. Others serve as missionaries in developing countries responding to unmet needs.

And we're involved in collaborative ministries with other communities of men and women. For example, in the Northwest we cosponsor the Intercommunity Peace & Justice Center. With IPJC, we've been very involved in the campaign to stop the demand for human trafficking. We are also using our resources to help support other organizations that have a similar mission and values.

Q. What are some of the biggest challenges that orders of religious women like the Sisters of Providence face today?

A. While we are fewer in number, God is sending us vocations mostly from non-North American countries, from many 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? That's one of the areas where I think we are challenged in a very positive way to accept the gifts of all. We are called to discover how we are to do that in today's world. I think Pope Francis is helping us with that communal discernment by his words and example and by his call for us to "Wake up the World" and be a transforming presence.

Another challenge is to help people understand the call to religious life today and see it is a viable life-giving option. We have many different kinds of presences in our world. We want to continue to be in close touch with people and support them in their spiritual journey, helping them to discern their own vocational call, whatever it might be. We have many different modes of communication today. We need to adopt those technologies that help our story be known, and help us walk with others on their life journey.

Q. What would you say to someone who might be considering consecrated life?

A. Well, I guess one of the first things I would say is to truly take time to pray and to listen to God speaking to them directly and through others. I think it is very important to seek a qualified spiritual director with whom the person feels comfortable, and from whom they can gain feedback as they discern their call.

I would also encourage taking advantage of retreat opportunities and vocation gatherings and learn about a number of religious communities and their missions, maybe through a "come and see" experience that includes community living and ministry. Then come to a place of interior freedom which is very important in the discernment of a vocation, whether to consecrated life or to married or single life.

Q. Can you elaborate a little bit on what you mean by interior freedom?

A. When one is discerning, it's very important not to feel a sense of pressure from outside or inside that would lead one to make a decision prematurely. One must feel the sense of peace. 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. I think it's coming to that point, that grace, where one can say “Yes, I feel this interior freedom.”

Q. What attracted you to nursing?

A. Well, when I entered the Sisters of Providence, I presumed that I would be an educator, because I had absolutely no experience with health care. While in college, I had two September ministry experiences. One was an experience at St. Vincent Hospital in Portland, where I shadowed a sister nurse whose presence with the patients and the staff was truly inspiring for me. I really saw that providence in her actions, and I saw the difference that it made in patients and families and staff to whom she ministered, especially those in greatest need, those who were dying, those who were homeless or those receiving bad news. And I saw her restore faith and hope and just radiate God's love for each person that she saw. I never had thought about being a nurse, but after that September with her, I really felt called to follow in her footsteps.

What are some of the things about Catholic health care that are the same now as when you began your vocation as a health care professional?

A. Well, some things are the same including the mission and values that flow from our Catholic identity, especially the attention to the poor and vulnerable, to those most in need. Another is the importance of dedicated, competent, compassionate caregivers, and the spirit of a caring community among the providers of health care. I think there has also been a focus on ethical decision-making processes and prayerful discernment. Those are things that have been an important part of health care since I began in 1966. Even more emphasis is placed on them today.

Q. What are some of the things that have changed?

A. When I started, there were sisters in every single department. They were supervisors. They weren't necessarily giving direct care though they had earlier. There was only one lay administrator when I started. Now there are no sister administrators in any of the facilities that have Providence in their name. But what has happened is a great deal of effort goes toward ministry leadership formation for all levels of leaders within the organization. The formation includes a focus on call, on heritage, on the importance of Catholic teaching, the importance of ethics, the importance of advocacy.

Another difference is the whole area of lay mission leaders on senior teams, positions previously held by religious. The mission leaders are also involved with the grassroots, helping everyone to truly embrace and live the mission and values. In addition, there is expanding concern for global health in collaboration with other health care organizations. Outreach includes providing containers with medical supplies and equipment that go to various parts of the developing world, and providing mission service opportunities for both the clinical staff and the administrative staff. In the case of Providence, experiences have been in El Salvador and in Guatemala.

Another thing that is different is technology. When I started, we used electric typewriters and then came word processing on the computers in their ancient form. And now all the technologies that are available have advanced clinical care, but also have advanced administration processes. I think another difference is the growing complexity of ethical issues. With the legalization of physician-assisted suicide, and with the emerging advanced technologies, new questions are being raised. The questions of what technologies are appropriate to be used for whom, when, how, why and under what conditions require not only scientific data but also ethical discernment. We need to work our way through the issues. Our health care ethicists in collaboration with interdisciplinary health teams are there to help and our Catholic teachings are a great resource. We need to be able to help patients and families with their decision-making processes.

Catholic health care systems have been pioneers in the hospice movement, but also in advancing palliative care in many settings before hospice is needed. How is it that we support people, body, mind and spirit, to deal with advanced illness and live fully until death? Another growing area is the focus on community benefit indicators. Promotion of healthy communities is important, and that calls for recognizing the social determinants of health including housing, education, poverty, nutrition, and their influence on conditions we're seeing in the hospitals.

I think there's much more focus by health professionals on the spiritual dimension of health care. No matter what faith community people may or may not belong to, they have spiritual needs that require attention especially during their illness or that of a loved one. Caregivers also have spiritual needs. And how do we help nurture the spiritual life and foster hope, especially for those facing suffering, whether it be illness or other forms of suffering.

Another area of increasing emphasis, I think, is advocacy. The amount of energy that goes into advocacy for affordable, cost-effective, efficient, quality, person-centered care delivered in the right place at the right time has escalated with the Affordable Care Act debates. We see the impact of government, on the local, state and the national level, and its potential to improve or to threaten the health of individuals and communities.

Q. What are the differences between Catholic health care and other health care systems?

A. 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 and of helping to transform hurt into hope with special concern for the most vulnerable.

There also is a different emphasis. There are services that are the same, but there are also services considered essential by Catholic health care that are non-reimbursable such as the degree of importance placed on mission leadership activities and chaplaincy services across the continuum. And chaplaincy departments serve the spiritual needs of all patients, not just those who are Catholic, and are available to staff in many places. Clinical staff is supported in identifying and meeting spiritual needs. Resources are put into numbers of programs and services provided to staff that help them to understand our heritage stories, our spirituality, our ethics, our Catholic social teachings, which strengthen the motivation for serving with respect, compassion and excellence.

Another example is found in emergency departments with special outreach services to help homeless people. Because of our Catholic social teachings, we're always looking for root causes. What are the root causes of what we're seeing in our emergency room and elsewhere? And how can we have an opportunity to address them in partnership with collaborators? But we aren't satisfied with just the Band-Aid. We need to go deeper than that — always with this sense of underlying compassion, love, a thirst for justice and meeting some of these needs.

This interview has been condensed and edited.