Our Lives are about Service

Our Lives are about Service

Mary Kelly's classmates at U-M SPH found out pretty quickly that she was a nun when, as a doctoral student in the school's On Job/On Campus program—which then met on-campus one weekend a month—Kelly, DrPH '01, skipped eight a.m. classes on Sunday mornings. Her colleagues took notes for her.

This August marked Kelly's 50th anniversary as a member of the Catholic order the Religious Sisters of Mercy. While the combination of a public health career and life in a religious community may strike some as odd, Kelly sees her life as a spiritual whole. Her order is, after all, a group of practical women who work to reduce disparities in health and education, particularly for women and children. Kelly earned an MBA when the Sisters of Mercy asked her to oversee the order's finances; she sought a degree in public health when asked to help govern the order's health system (now Trinity Health) and she realized she needed health policy expertise. Today, Kelly, a tenured associate professor, teaches health policy at University of Detroit Mercy.

She's also an active member of her order who meets regularly with her community members for meals and prayer, flies to Guyana several times a year to volunteer at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Georgetown, and is researching the role of Catholic nuns in the development of U.S. hospitals—with an eye toward correcting the historical record. (Recent findings appear in the fall 2014 issue of American Catholic Studies.) "There was a point at which nuns ran 50 percent of the U.S. hospitals," Kelly says. "It irks me that history doesn't recognize that."

On the overlap between her life in public health and her life with the Sisters of Mercy, Kelly told Findings:

"There's a quote in scripture that says 'in God we live and move and have our being.' So whatever I do, or whatever I collaborate with other public health professionals in doing, it all seems to be related. My absolute favorite thing is channeling resources from those who have them to those who need them. Those things feel spiritual to me because I understand that my life is about making the mercy of God real today. Here and now on earth."

And to those who question the relevance of nuns today, Kelly said:

"Being a nun is a privilege, because our whole lives are about service. The invitation I would extend is: Work with us. And lots of people do—we have thousands of collaborators in our ministries. The number of nuns is decreasing dramatically every year, and our average age is going up, but the works are growing. It's marvelous. We started hospitals, we started schools, we advocate for the poor, especially women and children, and the reason the work is continuing today is because there are these great people with good hearts and generous spirits who understand Mercy ministry and carry it forward."