Franciscan Sister Marie Cecilia Irwin, who for nearly two decades led what is now the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, died Aug. 17 at Assisi House in Aston, Pa., the Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia. She was 89.
Known for her warm bedside manner and dedication to innovation, Sister Marie Cecilia served as president and CEO of St. Joseph Hospital from 1975 to 1994. During her tenure, St. Joseph Hospital became the first community medical center in the state to perform open-heart surgery. She also oversaw the creation of the hospital’s Digestive Disease Center and the International Center for Skeletal Dysplasia.
“Sister Marie Cecilia was a pivotal influence on the culture of loving service and compassionate care that imbues the work we are doing,” said Dr. Thomas B. Smyth, the president and CEO of UM St. Joseph Medical Center. “Her luminous spirit and gentle, loving demeanor, coupled with an unwavering commitment to clinical excellence, transformed the hospital during her 19-year tenure and firmly established St. Joseph as a tertiary care community medical center.”
Born in 1930, Elizabeth Anne Irwin was inspired to become a nun while attending Catholic schools in Trenton, N.J. Although her mother tried discouraging her from religious life, she became a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia in 1949 and professed her first vows in 1951.
“Role models inspire. My models were the Sisters of St. Francis in grammar school and the Sisters of Mercy in high school. My mother used to say I was brainwashed by the sisters, but it was who they were and what they did more than what they said,” Sister Marie Cecilia told The Evening Sun in 1994.
Sister Mary Louise Burchell, a childhood friend who joined her as a Sister of St. Francis, said nurses were in great demand at the time and Sister Marie Cecilia heeded the call.
“She was a very personable, very humble person and very affectionate. And she was well-liked,” Sister Mary Louise said.
Pursuing a service in nursing and hospital administration, Sister Marie Cecilia graduated from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., with a bachelor’s degree in nursing and a master’s in nursing education. Before she joined St. Joseph Hospital, she worked as a nurse in Pennsylvania and an administrator of a rehabilitation center in New Jersey.
At St. Joseph Hospital, she spearheaded several programs that benefited her workers, including an employee assistance fund. She also established positions for employee advocates. Although the hospital, which moved from East Baltimore to Towson in 1965, primarily served wealthier suburban patients, Sister Marie Cecilia stressed that the hospital was there to serve everyone.
“We are really blessed. We’re in an affluent area, but that doesn’t mean we are not taking care of the poor,” Sister Marie Cecilia told The Evening Sun. “Our decisions are driven by the values that we profess. The reason we exist is service to the sick and injured and underserved.”
When she retired in 1994, the hospital renamed a road leading to the medical center after her and it named its daycare center in her honor.
After several decades apart, Sister Marie Cecilia and Sister Mary Louise reunited in retirement at Assisi House, where Sister Marie Cecilia was known for being a skilled and prolific seamstress.
“She took up quilting and became quite wonderful at it. She made all kinds of beautiful things,” Sister Mary Louise said.
Sister Marie Cecilia is survived by her sister, Kathleen Maiorano, her nieces and a nephew.
A private funeral will be offered Aug. 25.
Email Tim Swift at tswift@CatholicReview.org
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