ROGERS PARK — For half a century, the name Misericordia has been synonymous with Sister Rosemary Connelly.
Connelly, 88, marked her 50th year at the renowned organization that serves people with developmental disabilities this summer to much fanfare.
Movers and shakers from all across Chicago showed up to pay their respects to the nun who is small in stature but seemingly made of structural steel.
The dignitaries honored Connelly for turning Misericordia (Latin for “mercy”) into a powerhouse organization that’s improved the lives of thousands of the most vulnerable with care, compassion and a place to call home.
Connelly said her guiding star through the years has been seeing the humanity in the residents of Misericordia.
“I saw them first and foremost as people,” she said.
Misericordia’s expansive campus at 6300 N. Ridge Ave. in Rogers Park feels like a small town. It houses more than 600 children and adults with developmental disabilities over 31 acres, and its leaders are still acquiring property.
But it wasn’t always this way.
When Connelly first came to Misericordia, then on the South Side, she noticed the quality of care was adequate. But the quality of life for residents was lacking.
Residents were confined to their beds with little to no stimulation or enrichment until Connelly came along and decided to shake things up.
At the time, people told her she was wasting her time. But Connelly isn’t one to shy away from adversity.
“My purpose was to make their days more human and more loving and more normal,” she said.
In the ’70s there were almost no programs, literature or research on how to enrich the lives of the people with disabilities.
“They told [parents] to place them in a home and get on with your life,” she said.
Connelly set about creating programming for residents. And over many years things began to improve.
If you walk through Misericordia’s campus today, it feels like a happy place. The lighting is intentionally warm and not industrial. Brightly colored artwork adorns the walls.
Misericordia is operated by the Sisters of Mercy under the auspices of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, which provided the land for the Rogers Park campus. It receives some state funding for operations. Its programs, renovations and expansions are funded through private donations.
Fundraising has proven to be another area where Connelly is a powerhouse.
Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel once joked how, as a congressman, he arranged for $500,000 in federal funds for Misericordia. Connelly told him it wasn’t enough.
“People think I’m a hard fundraiser, but I learned it right there,” Emanuel said at a 2011 fundraiser for Misericordia.
At the same benefit, Connelly told the crowd how Emanuel over the years had confided in her that she scared him “s-h-i-t-l-s-s,” spelling out Emanuel’s curse.
Emanuel was just one of many politicians over the years who knew better than to cross Connelly. Her list of politicians and celebrities who lend their help, support and time to Misericordia is legendary.
For Connelly, the goal is to make every resident feel like they are in their home, because for most residents, Misericordia will be home for the rest of their lives.
There are those who don’t agree with Misericordia’s philosophy. Critics call the campus too big and too institutional.
“When [government agencies] come to visit Misericordia they’re overwhelmed with how good we are, so they make an exception for us,” she said. “But we don’t think we should be the exception.”
Connelly said isolation is detrimental for people with developmental disabilities. They need community, and it takes a dedicated place like Misericordia to create that community, according to Connelly.
“Community would have been absent for 99 percent of these individuals,” she said.
One of Connelly’s greatest joys is interacting with residents, whom she considers family. She lights up when she tells an anecdote about the “Mayor of Misericordia.”
The title was self-appointed by a resident, who has a severe disability, “but he took the job very seriously,” according to Connelly.
One day, when they were Downtown on an outing for residents, a little girl asked him if he was handicapped.
“Not that I ever noticed,” he responded.
“I thought, isn’t that a beautiful, beautiful gift,” said Connelly. “He’s the happiest and one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met.”
Carol Marin, NBC Chicago’s political editor, is a Misericordia parent who has seen firsthand the benefits of Connelly’s vision.
“She’s a force,” Marin said. “She’s an inspirational leader. She comes from that fabric of leadership where you commit your entire life to the purpose of other people.”
Marin, who has attended and covered plenty of elaborate parties, said at Connelly’s 50th anniversary party, she saw “more bagpipes than at a state funeral.”
“The world turned out for Rosemary,” she said. “[The party] was a testament to what she has built, what she means and how she has fought for the disabled.”
Connelly’s ability to see the humanity in those cast aside by society for so many years has undoubtedly changed the lives of people with developmental disabilities, not just in Chicago, but around the country.
Pioneers like Connelly are responsible for a complete shift in the philosophy of care when it comes to people with disabilities. And with that care comes challenges.
Thanks to places like Misericordia, residents are living full and lengthy lives. Connelly believes that an aging population of residents is the next big challenge on the horizon.
And although she isn’t done with her life’s work, she has begun to think about the day when she will no longer be the organization’s executive director. Luckily, she says things are in good hands.
“I’m surrounded by the best and they’ll be here long after I’m gone,” she said.
Connelly said it’s vital that Misericordia never sacrifice quality of care as it continues to grow.
“We are large and we are big, but we are quality,” she said. “I hope that never changes.”
For now, Connelly will continue to be the driving force behind a place that has changed the lives of Illinois’ most vulnerable residents. Yet, to Connelly, the pleasure is all hers.
“They are beautiful, beautiful, beautiful people and I’ve been so blessed to share a life with them.”
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