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Showing the way in Chicago

County View

An outstanding Mayo social activist who has spearheaded a new dawn in care for people with developmental disabilities was recently honoured at a function in Chicago.
Civic, government and Church leaders gathered to celebrate the career of Sister Rosemary Connelly, of the Mercy Order, born of Mayo parents, who marked 50 years of leadership of Misericordia, the acclaimed leader in the growth and development of services for people with disabilities in the US.
Rosemary Connelly’s father was Val Connelly, from Summerhill, Ballyglass, and her mother Bridget Moran, of Springhill, Ballyvary, both emigrants from Mayo in the 1940s. Their daughter was a young nun when she first walked through the doors of Misericordia in 1969, an institution which for decades had been helping young children with developmental and physical disabilities.
The arrival of the young Sr Rosemary was to prove a turning point not only in the history of Misericordia, but in the entire approach to how services to the disabled could be made more humane, more rewarding, and most of all, more patient centred. Although she recognised that
the staff of Misericordia were genuinely committed to the children under their care, there were no challenges or goals for them. Many of the children were developing into young adults, but there were no structures in place to address their changing emotional, psychological and educational needs.
Rosemary Connelly’s core belief was that people with developmental disabilities not only had a right to life, they had a right to a life worth living. But she was to quickly find that, at official level, there were no services available to meet what she saw as a pressing necessity. She contacted experts, in government, in academia, in state run social services to request help in developing the sort of programmes she felt were needed. At every turn, the response was the same. There were no programmes for young people with disabilities, nor were there likely to be. If she wanted change, she would have to take the initiative herself.
It was a challenge which failed to daunt the resolve of the remarkable Irish woman who to this day proudly parades her Mayo credentials. For the next fifty years, Sr Rosemary set her mind to creating a new vision of help for the disabled, where quality of life would be a
central goal, and where campus residents would be helped and encouraged to reach their full potential.
The provision of accommodation was but the foundation of the Misericordia programme. Village type living, apartments and residential homes were tailor made for the needs of the service users. And, in addition, there came employment, therapy, health and wellbeing, and social and recreational activities.
It would be an understatement to say that none of this would have been possible without the unique and diverse talents for which Sr Rosemary is well known. Tenacious, persuasive, indefatigable, demanding, single minded, charming, she has been the powerhouse behind Misericordia.
“An unstoppable force of nature,”; “Small in stature, but made of structural steel,”; “The terror of city legislators,”; as she has been variously called, her achievements have won her huge respect and admiration.
The street outside the Misericordia has been renamed ‘Sr Rosemary Connelly Drive’ by the city of Chicago; she has been named ‘Chicagoan of the Year’; she became the first ever woman Grand Marshal of the city’s St Patrick's Day Parade; she has received an
honorary doctorate from Loyola University; she has been awarded the Caritas Award of the Kennedy Foundation.
And yet, she remains realistic enough to know where American priorities lie. “The United States is more concerned with being a superpower than it is with human services,” she says.