Terry M. walks confidently through the main building of Misericordia, a thriving 37-acre campus community on the north side of Chicago dedicated to the care of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
He passes through halls bright with natural light and lined with artwork created by the organization's 600 residents, calling out cheerful greetings to everyone he knows.
And as the self-appointed mayor of Misericordia, Terry knows everyone.
But on this day, he does not linger. He's heading straight to the Greenhouse Inn Restaurant to have lunch with the woman who has become a second mother to him — Sister Rosemary Connelly, R.S.M. — and when he sees her, he beams.
Terry came to live at Misericordia when he was just over a year old, and met Sister Rosemary a few years later when she was appointed executive director in 1969.
When she arrived, Misericordia was a small facility on Chicago's south side, providing custodial care for children with disabilities from birth to 6 years old. The children were well cared for — but often languished in their beds with no real opportunities for learning, play or enrichment. At 4, Terry did not yet talk.
Sister Rosemary soon changed all of that.
Now, after more than 50 years of her tireless efforts, Misericordia is considered a gold standard in community care for children and adults with disabilities. More than 600 residents live in houses and apartments on its campus or in one of 14 nearby neighborhood homes and participate in the organization's myriad programs — including art, technology and job placement opportunities.
Terry’s work through Engage Chicago often takes him into the city to interact with the Chicago community in a meaningful way through visits to museums, local parks and businesses, but he still looks forward to returning home and to seeing the woman who has meant so much to him.
“She's made my home a great place to grow up and to have fun and to learn and work with many opportunities for me and my friends,” Terry said. “She challenges me to be the best independent man I can be, and my life is wonderful because of her.”
In honor of her vision and her compassionate work with the residents of Misericordia for the last 54 years, Sister Rosemary is being awarded the University of Notre Dame's 2023 Laetare Medal, considered the oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics. Established in 1883, the Laetare Medal was conceived as an American counterpart of the Golden Rose, a papal honor that antedates the 11th century. Past Laetare recipients include President John F. Kennedy, Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, novelist Walker Percy, Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House John Boehner.
Sister Rosemary was born in Chicago to Irish immigrant parents who encouraged their six children to work hard, study hard and “to always be grateful for God's many gifts,” she said. After growing up in a loving home filled with Irish culture and music, she joined the Sisters of Mercy at age 19.
“I joined this religious community thinking I would live a nice quiet contemplative life, but I soon learned that God had other plans for me,” she said. “My life has never been quiet. And to this day, even as I slow down, I am still quite busy.”
When Sister Rosemary was appointed executive director, she had no experience in special education or administration — but when she walked in the door, she felt God's presence in Misericordia and in the children she was tasked with caring for.
“I think they have a gift — people with disabilities,” she said. “And of course, we all have disabilities. But for those who couldn't function without the help of good people, they are so gracious and so giving. And you always get back more than you give.”
Sister Rosemary believed passionately that the children of Misericordia deserved a higher quality of life and immediately began searching for suitable programming for them. When she didn't find any, she began to develop her own.
Lois Gates, executive director of the Misericordia Foundation, has worked with Sister Rosemary for more than 50 years and remembers those early days — and Sister Rosemary's determination to help the children lead more independent and meaningful lives.
“She's kind and she's strong and she's compassionate. But at the same time, she's determined,” Gates said. “She wanted a better life for our residents and for the people we were called to serve, and she made it happen.
“Children being in bed all day? Sister wasn't having it. ‘Let's get them out of bed and let's see what they can do,’ she said. And that's how it started,” Gates said.
The children in her care began to flourish with access to primary education and programs for self-help skills, speech and physical therapy and recreational activities. But that was only the first step for Sister Rosemary.
She next turned her attention toward researching the care facilities the children would be transferred to once they aged out at 6 years old. When she determined that the existing facilities would not offer them the same opportunities or quality of life — she simply refused to move them.
Instead, she lobbied for Misericordia to serve a wider age range and began seeking a larger space to house them. In March 1976, she brought 39 children to the newly acquired campus in Rogers Park, with a stop at Lincoln Park Zoo on the way.
Since that day, she and the staff have worked to renovate and expand the facility to meet their residents’ changing needs and to accommodate as many families as possible from their growing waitlist.
“I always felt that God was with me, that God really took care of me. He even spoiled me by always making sure the right people were in the right place at the right time,” she said. “And I don't think that's accidental. The Lord has been more than gracious to me. So I’m thankful to God that we have a Misericordia. It’s a place where the children are respected and loved and the staff is very committed to them.”
As more of the residents have reached adulthood, they’ve added job opportunities on and off campus. On any given day, residents can be found working in Misericordia’s restaurant, in the Hearts & Flour Bakery or in one of six art studios dedicated to painting, ceramics and mixed media projects.
In 2015, Misericordia built four new homes to better serve their aging residents and has just broken ground on 16 additional houses in an area to be named Sister Rosemary Park.
“I can’t imagine what Misericordia would be without Sister Rosemary,” Gates said. “She's just been our visionary and our fearless leader for so many years. … And because of her vision and the belief of her supporters in our mission, Misericordia became a reality.”
For Bob Myers and his wife, Bonnie, the decision to move their son Andrew to Misericordia in 2004 was not an easy one, even though the pair had volunteered there for years.
Andrew's premature birth and heart condition had left him medically fragile and developmentally disabled, and after caring for him for more than 20 years, they struggled with the thought of relinquishing that task to anyone else. But when Andrew's younger brother prepared to leave for college, they felt the time might be right for Andrew to experience more independence, too.
“It’s very difficult to let go of our children ... but we do that. The children grow and get launched on their own,” Bob Myers said. “When Andrew’s brother went off to college, that was a different kind of letting go. But in Andrew's case, it was more complicated.
“Sister Rosemary offers an invitation to families, and she says, ‘Come and see.’ There are beautiful buildings, well-maintained, and the grounds are fabulous. But once you come inside, you see the residents and experience their lives and how glorious they are. Sister Rosemary speaks of how they deserve a life and one that’s worth living on their terms. And it's amazing.”
Sadly, Bonnie Myers passed away five years after Andrew moved to Misericordia, but Bob says she died peacefully, knowing that Andrew would be loved and cared for by Sister Rosemary and the more than 1,200 members of the Misericordia staff — many of whom have stayed for decades.
Bob Myers, too, continues to volunteer at Misericordia three days a week and continues to be inspired by Sister Rosemary's mission.
“Sister Rosemary says, speaking of our residents to our staff and our families, ‘each one is unique — a gift to us today. A loving and loved person made by God with a purpose, no matter how wrapped in mystery that purpose may be. We accept. We believe. And we love each one. Because when we do, we become changed people.’”
Now 92, Sister Rosemary has received numerous honors and awards over the years, including the Order of Lincoln Medallion, the State of Illinois' highest award for lifelong outstanding achievements; the Illinois Entrepreneur of the Year Award from Ernst & Young; and a Caring Institute award, naming her one of the most caring people in America. She also received an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1997.
Though she recently transitioned from her role as executive director to chairwoman of the board of the Misericordia Foundation, she continues to work as much as she can with her beloved community.
“What motivates me? I think the fact that I’m surrounded by wonderful people, including the staff and especially the residents here,” she said. “They’re challenging. They’re loving. They live life beautifully. And they can be models for us all.
“For people who aren’t comfortable around people with disabilities, I believe they’re missing a great deal because just being with them can teach you not to take for granted all the gifts that you have. But it also tells you that people can be very happy with limitations, and they’re not caught up with their limitations as much as they are with being around people who they know love them and accept them for just who they are.”