Remembering a legacy of work by two Sisters

This summer, the Covenant family lost two mentors and leaders with a profound presence who left a lasting impression on all they encountered.

Sister Marguerite Letourneau passed away July 14 at Youville Home at age 90, and Sister Mary Ellen O’Neill, 86, died July 30 at Providence Centre.

Through their actions and words, these women planted lessons about life and service in the hearts of many — in Covenant, in Alberta and across Canada and the world.

Sister Marguerite Letourneau, who held graduate degrees in nursing and education, served as the Superior General of the Sisters of Charity (Grey Nuns) for a decade that included the opening of the Grey Nuns Community Hospital in 1988. During her 68 years of religious life, she held various leadership roles, serving in Canada and Rome before returning to lead the Grey Nuns in her home province of Alberta.

Sister Mary Ellen O’Neill’s life of service with the Sisters of Charity of Notre Dame D’Evron spanned 58 years and included a range of roles, including a nurse, healthcare administrator and board member. She served as provincial leader for her order and made significant contributions during 31 years in Bonnyville, where she worked with the community to bring two hospitals together to establish the new Bonnyville Health Centre in 1986.

Both Sisters are featured in a video celebrating the legacy of the founding congregations of Sisters whose pioneer work helped to establish Alberta and our healthcare system. 

Sister Marguerite Letourneau

Vision and hope

“The mission of the Grey Nuns to respond to unmet needs and a belief in human dignity were always at the forefront for Sister Marguerite,” says Mary Pat Skene, who worked with her for several years in Alberta. As the Grey Nuns grew older and fewer in numbers, Sister Marguerite led with vision and hope.

“She taught me that we always have to read the signs of the times and respond with purpose and resolve.”

Sister Marguerite believed in and supported those who were carrying the mission into the future. “She was a leader who made extraordinary things happen. She believed in process and teamwork to bring about change,” says Mary Pat, a former Covenant Health board member and retired nurse.

“She always said that leadership is bringing forth the best in ourselves, and when the leader inside is liberated, wonderful things happen.”

Cec Marion, senior director of operations for Youville Home, experienced this mentorship when she worked with Sister Marguerite to set up suites to care for the Sisters as they aged. These same suites became Sister Marguerite’s home in her final years.

“She was based in reality and very forward-thinking. She didn’t skirt around an issue. She taught me that life is not static. Look to the future and the part you are called to play. Do it with hope and trust in Providence and see the bigger picture.” 

Compassionate presence

Sister Marguerite was an encouraging leader who exuded warmth and a sense of humour. And she listened to others before making a decision. “She believed you had to hear people and then think about it, to discern what was most important,” said Mary Pat. “It was important that people felt heard and valued.”

At Sister Mary Ellen’s memorial service, people gathered to honour a “legacy that will remain rooted in the walls for all time.”

“I didn’t have to look for Sister in the building. I just always knew she was there,” said Alex Smyl, who served as site administrator at the Bonnyville Health Centre before his retirement. “She was a calming presence and created a feeling of security in this building — like you were being hugged when you stepped in the door.”

Sister Mary Ellen’s leadership was marked by wise discernment, acting from the heart. “She was a woman of few words. She walked the floor, and she made sure people were recognized for living the mission,” said Sheli Murphy, senior operating officer for rural health. “She was very frank, but she was kind in her frankness.”

For Alex, each day with Mary Ellen was a lesson in walking the talk. “She always said that if you live what you believe, people will see it and follow you.

“She taught me to be patient, to take a second look, to put myself in other people’s shoes,” he said. “Sister always wanted to know the other side of the story.”

Sister Mary Ellen was an innovator and advocate. “She was never about the status quo,” said Sheli. “She always wanted to do better and to do everything in a meaningful way, respectful of those we serve.”

Sister Mary Ellen had a special place in her heart for those vulnerable — staff who were struggling, people who lacked access to health care, those at end of life. She rolled up her sleeves on the gala committee and raised funds for a mission in Peru. She worked to advance cancer care and palliative care in her community and to meet the health needs of the First Nations and Métis in the region.

“When there was a need, she was an advocate extraordinaire,” said Sheli. “She would work with physicians and talk to MLAs, mayors and community leaders to make things happen.”

Sisters Marguerite and Mary Ellen were part of a long legacy that will continue to be the foundation for our culture and shape our work.

“Like the Sisters before them, Sister Mary Ellen and Sister Marguerite inspired us to be our best and do more,” says Covenant CEO Patrick Dumelie. “Their wisdom and insight are a blessing that will continue in the compassionate work of our teams, our strong mission-inspired culture and our vision to transform the health system.”

“I hope that every single generation of caregivers understands the importance of the spirit of collaboration and the promises kept by the Sisters and their commitment to the ongoing care of those most vulnerable,” says Sheli. “We now have it written in our hearts; the mission continues because it is in our hearts.”

Remembering a legacy of work by two Sisters

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