A Mission of Compassion

Sister Cornelius O’Connor, RSM Reflects on a Life of Service to our Health Care Ministry

Sitting in her cozy home in Folsom a few weeks after her retirement, Sister Mary Cornelius O’Connor, RSM reflects back on what first called her to leave her home in Ireland and become a Sister of Mercy in California: the opportunity to serve in our health care ministry. “There were 20 young women in my graduating class in high school, and 10 of us chose to go into religious life,” she recounts. Sr. Cornelius was introduced to the Sisters of Mercy in Auburn because they had a recruitment center in her hometown. “Many of my classmates were going on missions around the world and I thought California would be a good place for me.”

Just five years after her older sister joined the Sisters of Mercy, Sr. Cornelius left her home in Ireland to begin her novitiate in California. She attended nursing school at Sacramento City College and graduated in 1965. “After school, I started out as a staff nurse at Mercy General Hospital in various departments, including the Intensive Care Unit and also served as an IV therapist,” she remembers. “My heart was always in nursing.”

After working several more years in the Operating Room at Mercy San Juan Medical Center, she returned to school to get a Master’s degree in social work. With her new degree and a passion for helping others, she was the perfect person to take over management of the hospice program, which at the time was a no-fee service based out of Mercy General Hospital. “We had 20 volunteers and coordinators, and a Chief Medical Officer. My role was to help ensure that everything was running smoothly and that we were giving very good quality care.”

Sr. Cornelius was entrusted with the process of leading the hospice program and merging it with a home health program based out of Mercy San Juan Medical Center. The resulting program, Mercy Home Health and Hospice, continues to serve families in our community to this day. It is a crucially important resource for those who need support during their last days, and also offers expanded care for those who require home health services following surgery or an illness. Sr. Cornelius’ dedication to the mission of compassion helped create a solid foundation on which Mercy Hospice has expanded to serve the Greater Sacramento Area today.

In the 1980’s, a position became available at Mercy Hospital of Folsom for a Vice President of Mission Integration and Sr. Cornelius seized the opportunity. “Although Mercy Hospital of Folsom serves a relatively affluent area, there are still people here who are in need,” Sister explained. She felt called to minister to the patients and staff at the hospital and to bring the mission of the Sisters of Mercy to those who were in need of compassion and help, both within the hospital and the wider community.

In addition to managing the volunteers and the chaplains at Mercy Hospital of Folsom, Sr. Cornelius led the dedicated and caring hospital staff in serving neighbors in need. “The people working at Mercy Folsom were the most generous I have ever worked with,” she said. “We organized Thanksgiving and Christmas drives. Any time we asked staff for help for a cause, they were just great. I loved working with them on the mission-tied work, and also providing individual spiritual support and guidance to them.”

After nearly 20 years of serving as the VP of Mission Integration, Sr. Cornelius decided it was time to step away and look toward her next calling. “I will be 80 this year (2019) and I am now in a period of discernment,” she explained. She will travel to Ireland to see her family and spend time in quiet reflection before deciding what the coming stage of her life will be.

When she bid farewell to the hospital community she has served for nearly two decades, the staff presented her with a beautiful book. It is filled with photos from her time at Mercy Hospital of Folsom and signed by dozens of the team members whose lives she has touched. It is a precious keepsake she will treasure.

Mercy Foundation is truly grateful to Sr. Cornelius for her lifetime of dedicated service to our health care ministry. Together with the compassionate staff at Mercy Hospital of Folsom, we look forward to continuing her legacy of service in the Folsom area. Thank you for your inspiration, Sr. Cornelius!