UDM Logo

Mercy News Article

Sister Norita Cooney, RSMPlease pray for the peaceful repose of the soul of Sister Norita Cooney, RSM; Sept. 21, 1939 - March 7, 2011

Vision, leadership, compassion, inspiration, commitment, charisma, mentor, friend

These words emerged from the many messages of comfort that poured in following the death Monday, March 7, of Sister Norita Cooney. The messages came from sisters, staff, associates, volunteers, colleagues and leaders from Omaha and around the country speaking to the impact Sister Norita had during her 71 years of life and ministry. Sister Norita died at Mercy Villa in Omaha. She had been a Sister of Mercy for 53 years.

"Norita is a light whose brightness will not be extinguished," said Sister Mary Waskowiak, RSM, president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. "She has been a leader in ministry, in Church and in Mercy. Her commitment to new members is especially remembered."

Whether she was leading a major health system or religious community, advocating for the needy or welcoming new women to religious life, Sister Norita treated everyone with dignity, respect and compassion.

"Through her kind, compassionate, generous spirit, Sister Norita touched the lives of thousands of us across the Alegent system, teaching all of us how to live the faith-based values of our founders and sponsors as articulated in our Mission statement which she helped to create," said Richard Hachten, president and chief executive officer of Alegent Health. "For me personally, she was my most valued mentor and friend over the past twenty years. I am filled with gratitude for my life being forever enriched by my association with her."

"Sister Norita Cooney was a woman of gentle compassion who stood firm with and for persons in need," Said Sister Judith Frikker, West Midwest Community Leadership Team. "As a leader of the West Midwest Community, Norita was a person of insight who understood the challenges of coming together as a new community, of strengthening bonds and of forming new relationships. She called all of us to become, through our actions, a Community of Mercy of today and for the future. Her vision will continue to guide us in the days and months ahead. Norita has graced our lives as a model Sister of Mercy and we will miss her dearly."

In 1980, Sister Norita (whose baptismal name was Patricia) wrote: "I am one of five children born to Dick and Mary Cooney. My twin brother (Mike) and I were born in Grand Island. My brother, Bob, was born in 1940, Jerry in 1941 and John in 1948. I graduated from Mercy High in Omaha in June 1957 and entered the community in September of that year. My life is enlivened by the women in community whom I call "friend." I treasure the Mercys who constantly call me to become more than myself and my world. My God is named Mystery, Faithfulness, Strength and Gentleness."

Sister Norita was most widely known for her leadership in healthcare and with the Sisters of Mercy, but she began her ministry in education. After receiving her B.A. in History at College of Saint Mary in 1962, she taught high school at Mount St. Mary Academy, Grass Valley, Calif. (1962-1963). After receiving her M.S. in sociology from St. Louis University in 1965, she taught and chaired the Department of Sociology at College of Saint Mary (1965-1969 and 1972-1974, respectively) and then headed the Pastoral Development Office of the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha from 1974 to 1976.

In 1976, she served the first of her terms in leadership for the Sisters of Mercy, first as councilor (1976-1979) and then as Provincial (1979 to 1986) for the Province of Omaha.

In 1986, the world of healthcare beckoned, and she was named chief executive officer of Bergan Mercy Health System, which involved overseeing Bergan Mercy Medical Center in Omaha and Mercy Hospital in Council Bluffs. She served in this position for 10 years until Alegent Health was formed in 1995. That year, she was named chair of the board of directors of Alegent Healthcare System of Omaha, consisting of eight hospitals and over 40 healthcare clinics in southeast Nebraska and southwest Iowa. In January 2002, Sister Norita moved into the position of vice president of mission services and community affairs for Alegent. Her responsibilities included hospital chaplaincy services and the chaplaincy training program, ethics center, mission integration throughout the organization, interpreter services and community health initiatives.

During this same time, in addition to her Alegent Health responsibilities, she also served on the board for a number of organizations, including: One World Community Health Center, Our Healthy Community Partnership, Hospice House, Quality Living, Solutionary Inc., and the Health System of the Sisters of Mercy Regional Community in St. Louis, Mo.

She had a fierce dedication to improving mental health care and was a supporter of the Spirituality and Mental Health conference from its inception in 1994. She also saw the importance of good, affordable housing and what it meant for a person's self image. While in leadership, she supported the formation of Mercy Housing, Inc. and other housing initiatives.

"Norita was a warm, loving and charismatic leader who had a personal touch that made people feel they were valued and appreciated," said Sister Lillian Murphy, RSM, president and CEO of Mercy Housing, Inc., Denver, Colo. "She believed in the power of institutions for good and saw the critical link between having a safe place to call home and an individual's overall health. She gave her time, energy and wisdom to governance of both the health and housing ministries of the Sisters of Mercy. Norita will be missed by the many, many people she touched in her quest to make this world a more humane place for all."

In 2004, the Catholic Health Association (CHA) presented her with the Sister Mary Concilia Moran RSM Award in honor of her visionary leadership in Catholic healthcare. Then in 2005 she was named a Woman of Distinction by the Nebraska Commission on the Status of Women. She was recognized in a ceremony held at the Nebraska State Capital where Governor Dave Heineman made the presentations.

"Sister Norita served Catholic health care in many roles - as a hospital CEO, a VP of Mission and Community Affairs, a full-time board chair of Alegent Health, and as a Sponsor," said Sister Carol Keehan, president and CEO, Catholic Healthcare Association of the United States. "Sister Norita's capabilities were exceeded only by her commitment to the dignity of every patient and co-worker. Upon receipt of her 2004 reward, she quoted the words of a hymn, 'We are travelers on a journey...we are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load,' aptly expressing her passionate dedication for the ministry."

Of working in healthcare, Sister Norita said, "Most of all, I loved working with and getting to know the people across the system who day in and day out brought our mission to life: the food service staff, the people in the laundry and in environmental services, the maintenance staff, the finance people, the nurses, physicians, and volunteers. I learned so much from these people about what it means to reflect God's mercy in the world."

"Alegent Health, and the Bergan Mercy Health System before that, were blessed to have had Sister Norita's leadership for 20 years," said Marian Standeven, operations leader of mission services/community affairs. "Her dedication and unwavering commitment to the healing ministry profoundly shaped our culture. Her spirit will continue to influence our organization," she added.

In tribute to Sister Norita's years of leadership at the hospital, Bergan Mercy named its chapel Our Lady of Hope Sister Norita Cooney Chapel, and in 2009, Alegent presented to her its Gerald T. Bergan Award created to recognize those individuals, organizations or businesses that have made significant contributions of time and commitment to Alegent Health's Mission in providing excellence in faith-based healthcare.

In June 2006, Sister Norita's community called her back to leadership to serve as vice president of the Sisters of Mercy Omaha Regional Community as it prepared to merge with five other Sisters of Mercy regional communities to form the Sisters of Mercy West Midwest Community (established in July 2008). Four months prior to formation of the new community, vowed members of the six regional communities overwhelmingly voted Sister Norita as the president of the Sisters of Mercy West Midwest Community.

After being named almost unanimously to the highest leadership role in the West Midwest Community, Norita said, "I am so humbled. It takes all of us to accomplish a goal or to create and implement a vision." Prior to the Assembly of Elections, she had said, "I admire the way Catherine McAuley sent her sisters, many of them very young women, off to start new foundations and trusted that they would do what needed to be done. She never saw herself as having to be in control but she willingly and enthusiastically invited others in her community to take the initiative. That, I believe, is an important role in leadership."

Sister Norita took her role as president very seriously. She carried out her presidential responsibilities fully for 2 ½ years, even after being diagnosed with cancer in February 2010. She even worked throughout chemotherapy and radiation treatments, oftentimes returning to the office immediately afterwards. In fact, it took being hospitalized just recently to keep her from putting in a full days work.

Sister Norita always led by example. She once said, "I try to do my part by mentoring young people in our inner city, singing in a gospel choir, living in a mixed racial neighborhood, and trying to model what it means to see every person as equal, not only in God's sight, but my sight."

She was preceded in death by parents Richard and Mary Cooney and brothers John and her twin Mike Cooney. She is survived by brothers Robert (Maureen) Cooney of Omaha and Jerry (Kathy) Cooney of Birmingham, Ala.; sister-in-law Grace Cooney of Phoenix, Ariz.; nieces, nephews, friends and Sisters of Mercy Community.

Funeral Services are:

Memorials to Sisters of Mercy, 7262 Mercy Road, Omaha, Neb, 68124.