Companions on the journey – Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady welcome St. Dominic into health system

By Joanna Puddister King
JACKSON – July 1 marked a sponsorship change from the Dominican Sisters for St. Dominic Health Services to the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady. With the completion of the transfer, St. Dominic’s became the seventh regional center served by the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System (FMOLHS).
Prior to the transfer, St. Dominic Health Services had been sponsored by the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Illinois, since 1946, when the Sisters purchased the Jackson Infirmary in the center of the city. Following more than 70 years of dedicated support, the Dominican Sisters of Springfield sought to secure the future of the system and its mission, as their numbers dwindled. The partnership with the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System, the largest Catholic health care organization in Louisiana, will preserve a bright journey of continued service to the Jackson community.

The sponsorship change was marked with a celebration at the St. Dominic Medical Mall during a “Companions on the journey” ceremony. Throughout the event, speakers talked about continuing the steadfast mission of providing Catholic health care in the area. Emphasis also focused on the unique partnership between the Dominican Sisters of Springfield and the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady, truly companions over the years on a journey to provide compassionate care blessing the lives of those in need of physical and spiritual healing.
The celebration began with Claude Harbarger, past president of St. Dominic Health Services, welcoming a large crowd. Among the hundreds of people at the event were members of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield and the Sisters of the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady. Harbarger thanked Bishop Joseph Kopacz and retired Bishop Joseph Latino for being on hand and celebrating Mass before the ceremony. He said that Bishop Kopaz provided “a spiritual focus . . . reminding us that the underlying reason for today’s events is to strengthen our collective ability to continue the St. Dominic healing ministry.”
Dr. Richard Vath, president and chief executive officer of FMOLHS, recognized that both parties have had a decades long relationship, as Catholic health care providers have been a close-knit family, united in mission and striving to provide the best care for patients and their families. Dominican Sister Dorothea Sondgeroth and Harbarger worked with FMOLHS serving on the board for many years prior to talks of a change in sponsorship. Lester Diamond, president of St. Dominic Health Services, also served on the board for a short period of time, as the health care systems began discussions to assume sponsorship of St. Dominic.
Vath is delighted in the joining of St. Dominic and FMOLHS and pleased that of Diamond is staying on as president. “We know we do the same work, we know that we have really the same mission, we have similar ministries, we all lead by the Church’s guidance and by Christ’s will. But really to see it come together today is really, really special for us.”
Even though, “FMOLHS itself is taking over operations, we want to make sure we continue the influence, the charism, the word, [and] the mission of the Dominican sisters of Springfield,” said Vath.
Diamond spoke on a positive note saying that St. Dominic has “a partner who will be a guide to even more exciting opportunities.” Optimistic about the changes, he said, “that this is not the end of something great, but … the beginning of something potentially greater.”
Also speaking at the event was Sister Barbara Arcenaux, regional minister of the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady. She shared the story of the day St. Francis and St. Dominic met and reflected on the saint’s beautiful words. “St. Dominic said to St. Francis, ‘You are my companion,” she said. “We will work together supporting one another toward the same end and no one will prevail against us.’”
She concluded her talk directing her own powerful words to her sisters in Christ. “Let us always remember we are companions on the journey,” Sister Arcenaux told the Dominican Sisters of Springfield.
As the event neared its close, Sister Rebecca Ann Gemma, prioress general of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield let the crowd know that “this call [of Christ’s healing ministry] will remain as our sisters continue to be present and our associates and our co-workers carry this legacy into the future.”
Additionally, to share her deep gratitude to the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady, Sister Gemma presented Sister Arcenaux a “gift of grace and remembrance,” a picture of the mosaic in the Dominican motherhouse chapel. The mosaic with small pieces of colored glass, stone and other materials, formed images of Dominican saints, including St. Dominic and St. Catherine with Christ featured at the center. The picture also contained a Dominican blessing.
To close the “Companions on the Journey” ceremony, Sister Gemma reiterated that she and the Dominican sisters had hope in the future. She then offered the Dominican sisters’ blessing. In unison, the sisters sang the blessing. The song was by no means a goodbye song bringing tears of sadness. It was a song of moving forward with the help of God and continuing to closely work together as companions and as healing ministers serving God and his people, a joyful note to the end of a historical day.
St. Dominic Health Services, Inc., which includes St. Dominic Hospital, the Community Health Clinic, St. Dominic Medical Associates (physician network), New Directions for Over 55, The Club at St. Dominic’s, the School Nurse Program, St. Dominic Health Services Foundation, St. Catherine’s Village and Care-A-Van, will join Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady sites across Louisiana, which include Our Lady of the Angels in Bougalusa, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center in Lafayette, Our Lady of Lourdes Women’s & Children’s Hospital in Lafayette, St. Elizabeth Hospital in Gonzales and St. Francis Medical Center in Monroe.