Hospital Chief Lives Nun’s Life of Poverty

Times Staff Writer

She lives a vow of poverty in a tiny, white-walled room half the size of a single at the Holiday Inn. Yet Sister Mary Lucille Desmond spends her workdays deftly guiding a medical corporation with $86 million in annual revenues through an unprecedented era of cutthroat competition and social controversy.

If she weren’t a nun, she could be pulling down six figures and living in a penthouse on the beach.

Instead, the salary she earns as administrator and president of St. Mary Medical Center goes directly to the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word. In 1923, the Houston-based Roman Catholic order turned an old sanitarium into what today stands as Long Beach’s second-largest private hospital, with 540 beds and some of the most sophisticated medical services in Southern California.

And what she describes as her “small but adequate” convent quarters, far from resting on a scenic shore, lie only a block from the central-city hospital at 10th Street and Atlantic Avenue.


“It has a bed, and a chair and some closet space, and a little bathroom,” Sister Lucille said in a soft voice coated with the Irish brogue of her native County Cork. “You’re not free to have an interior decorator come in,” she adds, eyes twinkling behind a pair of glasses.

“It’s very simple, and of course that’s one of our styles of life,” she said. “We have to live our vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. You don’t live in the strict sense of poverty, but you’re sensitive to luxury items.”

With a crown of gray hair billowing from beneath her black and white habit, 68-year-old Sister Lucille is only the latest in a line of nuns to guide the growth of St. Mary. She was appointed in 1976 and recently received notice from the order’s superior general that her term--already longer than the typical tenure--will continue for at least three years.

But no one before Sister Lucille faced so many complicated problems and few performed as effectively, according to colleagues and competitors alike.

The complexities are first financial. Amid increasing federal pressure to cut medical costs, hospitals are being compelled to treat and release patients more quickly. In turn, that has forced them to seek out more patients so expensive facilities don’t sit idle.

Then there are difficult ethical issues of the day, such as intentional sterilization and abortion on demand, neither of which is permitted at St. Mary, although both are commonplace at most competing hospitals.

“Our Catholic philosophy does not allow us to in any way become involved in the abortion issue or anything that in the broader sense would deny respect for life,” Sister Lucille explained. Doctors at St. Mary must sign a pledge never to perform such operations at the hospital, a policy that has led more than a few to practice elsewhere.

Sister Lucille’s ability to cope with the times is praised by Dr. Dominic DeChristofaro, a St. Mary cardiologist for 17 years and current member of its board of trustees.


“Go by the track record,” urged the physician. “We’ve had more innovative growth since she’s been there. . . . She’s been really the most productive (administrator) in my way of thinking, and the easiest to get along with.” (These days, St. Mary is generating “surplus revenues” that are slightly above the nonprofit hospital’s usual range of about 5%, and this fall will christen a $25.3-million medical office building with a parking garage, physicians’ offices and retail medical supply stores.)

Deep Interest in People

Dollars and cents aside, DeChristofaro continued, Sister Lucille shows a deep interest in “human beings and their health” and has been known to follow her heart more than her head when a patient’s well-being conflicts with a financial bottom line. “She’s not going to go against what’s right,” the doctor said.

As one of nine children born to an Irish farm family, Sister Lucille was recruited by the holy order at the age of 16. She calls it a decision “I have never regretted.” Because the order specializes in operating health-care facilities, she was brought to America and directed to study pharmacy--"We were not given a choice"--at Loyola University in New Orleans.


As it turned out, she loved it and was graduated in 1948. She spent the next 28 years at hospitals in Louisiana and Texas, working her way up from staff pharmacist to chief pharmacist and finally to administrator.

“I’m a very organized person, a listening person (with) an ability to work with people,” she said. “I can confirm the fact that they’re absolutely essential for a hospital administrator. If you’re not a good listener you get yourself into all kinds of trouble.”

A typical day for Sister Lucille begins when she rises at 5 a.m. She attends morning prayers at 6, then heads off to represent St. Mary at a community function or attend a board meeting with business leaders or wade through the papers flowing across her well-ordered desk. Her management style is rarely from the hip: “I like to say, ‘Well, let me think about it.’ ”

But when the time comes for decision, Sister Lucille never hesitates.


“She’s soft and soft-spoken, and she doesn’t get riled,” said DeChristofaro, “but nevertheless you know that she’s the underlying force.”

Kind words also come from Jack W. Weiblen, president of Memorial Medical Center of Long Beach, St. Mary’s chief competitor.

“She’s a unique individual and a very able executive,” Weiblen said. “I think the one thing I appreciate about Sister Lucille is her ability to be warm and personable in her relationships with others. Her interest in people, I think, helps her succeed.”

Don’t be fooled by her gentle demeanor and 5-foot-1 frame, Sister Lucille warns. “I’m not all peaches and cream. . . . If there’s an occasion to get angry about things, it happens naturally, and I can get pretty hot under the collar. And I have no reservation about letting people see that side of me, if it’s appropriate.”


But those around her say that side of Sister Lucille is seldom seen.

“The physicians and the personnel here have a great deal of respect for her,” said DeChristofaro, “because she’s so human.”