Their story is our story.
A visionary in motion
She’s been called a visionary, but more than once Sister Catherine Hellmann was sure they had the wrong woman for the job.
The seventh of 15 children growing up on a farm in Indiana, she entered the Sisters of St. Joseph at the age of 20 expecting to devote her life to prayer, to serving the community and tending the farm the order had at Tipton, Ind.
She ended up shaping a hospital, and the very nature of rural health care half a continent away.
Hellmann stepped down as chief executive officer of St. Charles Medical Center in 1989 but continued as president emeritus even after returning to her native Indiana in August 2001.
Before that, she propelled St. Charles from a quiet local hospital to a regional health center. She dreamed it one day might be a “Mayo Clinic on our side of the mountains.”
Being a visionary leader is not something Sister Catherine went looking for, or even wanted. Rather, she answered when called, and she did so again and again throughout her career.
The daughter of German Catholic parents, the tradition of service to Christ, church and community was strong in her family. One uncle was a priest and three aunts were nuns. Yet her decision to join the Sisters of St. Joseph came without family pressure – she arrived at it after praying at a shrine to the Blessed Mother for guidance.
Shortly after joining the convent the mother superior called young Sister Clement, which is what Hellmann was called before nuns were allowed to use their birth names.
“The superior wanted me to study nursing when I went to the convent, and I said, ‘Oh no, I’ll never make a nurse,’” Hellmann told the mother superior.
“Mom (her birth mother) said I’d never make a nurse because I cried when my little brothers were hurt or anything. So (the mother superior) said ‘We need nurses. Will you give it a try?’ I thought, ‘well, I came to serve people who needed to be served, so I’ll give it a try.’”
She graduated from nursing school in 1947 and went to work in a hospital the Sisters of St. Joseph owned in Kokomo, Ind. But her next call to serve was not long in coming. In 1948 the mother superior needed nurses for the order’s hospital in Bend.
“I thought, ‘no, you can’t volunteer’ because my daddy was an invalid,” Hellmann said. “He’d fallen from the haymow on the farm and they didn’t give him too much time to live. And I thought, ‘if I go out and have to stay 10 years before I go home, I’ll never see Daddy again. I can’t do that.’ But I came to the convent to serve people where I’m needed. So I raised my hand, knowing I’d never see Daddy again.”
St. Charles Hospital sat on the rocky “Hospital Hill,” in downtown Bend. With a 25-bed addition built by the U.S. Army during World War II, the hospital had 60 beds. But Bend was a growing town.
Driven by jobs at the giant Brooks-Scanlon and Shevlin-Hixon lumber mills, the population would hit 12,00 by 1950. When Sister Catherine arrived to become head surgical nurse in 1948, crowding was becoming a problem.
Despite the growth, the community was poor and the hospital was not well-equipped. It had one portable X-ray machine. Sometimes it lacked medication and even money to pay the employees, Hellmann told The Bulletin in 1999. But the sisters and the hospital made do as they had from those very austere beginnings in 1918.
In addition to her duties as head surgical nurse for the hospital. Sister Catherine was put to work helping to design surgical facilities for a new hospital that would open in 1951. But it was a facility she would see little of.
Shortly before the dedication of the new building, also on Hospital Hill, Hellmann received a letter from her ailing father. He was praying to see her one more time before he died. Hellmann kept quiet about it and didn’t ask permission to go home.
But the day of the dedication, May 12, 1951, Sister Catherine received word she was being reassigned to her order’s hospital in Kokomo. She left the next day and arrived in time to visit her father before he died.
“If there is something down deep that you truly need, God is more aware of it than you are,” she said in the 1999 Bulletin article.
For 18 years, she served as surgical supervisor in Kokomo She was hoping a more restful assignment might come her way, not knowing her biggest challenge lay ahead. One day, the mother superior called Sister Catherine in and said she wanted Hellmann to return to college to become a hospital administrator.
“I said ‘you’re out of your mind. I am not one of those things,’” Hellmann said.
“She said ‘I hear you spend half your time in the administrator’s office (advocating for patients).’ I said, ‘I know, he doesn’t understand the family … and he doesn’t understand the patients’ needs.’ And she said, ‘I know. You would.’”
“I thought, ‘gosh, if I’m at the top, I won’t have to go to anybody. I’ll just do what my heart tells me.’”
After graduating from St. Louis University in 1969 with a master’s in hospital administration, and serving a nine-month internship in Colorado, Sister Catherine was sent back to Bend. Though it again meant leaving friend and family behind, it also meant returning to the mountains she loved, and to the little hospital she helped design.
Bend had grown, reaching 13,710 people by 1970. A remodeling project would boost the facility to 99 beds in 1971. Yet the hospital had limitations that concerned Sister Catherine.
“We didn’t have any specialists. We had general practitioners, just a few. And sometimes a doctor would come from somewhere else to do some therapy. But if we had head injuries, automobile injuries, we put them in an ambulance and drove them to Portland. Some died on the way. But we couldn’t take care of them.”
Sister Catherine was convinced Central Oregon needed not just a larger hospital, but a medical center that could provide the latest health care for the growing region.
There was not enough land at the existing hospital site for the kind of expansion she envisioned, so Hellmann looked east of Pilot Butte. That area was farmland and desert then, and she endured and overcame skepticism about building “halfway to Burns.”
She formed a board of directors. In it she sought to pull together a group to represent the needs and values of both the hospital and the community. Ironically, Sister Catherine oversaw the transition of St. Charles from a Catholic-owned hospital to a private, non-profit corporation. The Sisters of St. Joseph transferred their interests to the newly formed St. Charles Medical Center, Inc. to help raise the needed money for the project. Though it would no longer be owned or managed by a Catholic order, St. Charles would continue to follow the Catholic philosophy and Catholic health directives. The Baker Diocese continues to recognize it as a Catholic hospital.
When it was dedicated in 1975, the new St. Charles Medical Center had 160,000 square feet of floor space, 164 patient beds, a coronary unit, an emergency room and an intensive care unit.
But Sister Catherine’s vision didn’t end there. Under her leadership, the medical center added the Central Oregon Cancer Treatment Center in 1982; the Central Oregon Regional Laboratory, the outpatient SurgiCenter and Air Life of Oregon in 1985.
In 1986, it joined with local physicians to open an Immediate Care Center near downtown Bend, and in 1987, an open heart surgery program was started. The St. Charles Rehabilitation Center opened in 1989 to care for people recovering from strokes, head injuries and other debilitating conditions.
Though Sister Catherine stepped down as chief executive officer in 1989, she didn’t really retire. She earned a second master’s in spirituality from the University of San Francisco. She became president emeritus in 19993, but remained on the board until 2001 when she moved home to Indiana.
In 1999, St. Charles Medical Center awarded Sister Catherine its highest award for leadership, the Northstar Award.
“Explorers before us looked to the North Star for direction, guidance, a way to navigate through uncertainty, troubling times or perhaps more often, just uncharted waters,” Lussier said in presenting the award. “All are apt descriptions of the health care environment in which Sister Catherine has led St. Charles.”