Sister Marie: The Angel of St. John’s Hospital

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“I’m trying to confine myself to a 12-hour workday,” said Sister Marie Madeleine Shonka, president and chief executive officer of St. John’s Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica. Known simply as Sister by staff and friends, the 60-year-old nun coordinates the activities of the 551-bed hospital, which includes 2,200 employees and 1,000 physicians.

Shonka attributes her high energy level to natural good health and her upbringing. She was born in Chappell, Neb., the last of four children in a family that is close-knit to this day. “We were energetic whatever we entered into,” she said.

But physical stamina alone could not explain Shonka’s tenacious commitment to charitable work. She is a Sister of Charity of Leavenworth, a 125-year-old order with a motto that translates as “the greatest of these is charity.” The 600-member order is descended from the Daughters of Charity, founded in 16th-Century France by St. Vincent de Paul to care for the poor and ill.

Shonka encountered the Sisters of Charity after her graduation as a registered nurse. She was struck by the order’s dedication to serving people, and spent the next two years in the novitiate.

“I always told the Lord that if He ever put me in OB (obstetrics) or put me on nights, He and I were going to have a lot of trouble,” Shonka said. “Well, the first job I got was as an OB supervisor and the second job I got was working nights. So after that I quit telling Him what I wanted. I figured it was smarter that way. Let Him figure it out.”

More Responsibilities

The rest of her career has been a process of accepting more administrative responsibility, guided by the Sisters of Charity. The progression from nursing through 15 years in nursing education to hospital administration occurred, she said, modestly, because “maybe I demonstrated skills in that area. It was really not a process of my own doing.”

She obtained a master’s degree in hospital administration from St. Louis University in 1968 and joined St. John’s as an assistant administrator. Since 1981 she has held her current top spot, one which has been held by a Sister of Charity since the hospital’s founding by the religious order in 1942. St. John’s annually contributes nearly $1.5 million in charitable care and free services to the community.

Shonka spends about 25% of her time on activities related to the numerous boards on which she serves. Several people who have worked with her on these boards agreed that people-oriented business skills are at the heart of her success at accomplishing goals.

“She knows what she wants to get done and she will go about it in the nicest possible way,” said Steve Gamble, president of the Hospital Council of Southern California, who has worked for 10 or 12 years with Shonka on the council, the hospital’s principal fund-raising entity. “Sometimes she is so nice and indirect that you’re missing the point, but she will keep sort of coming back at you with these various indirect responses until you go, ‘Ah, I see what she wants.’ ”

“She’s a determined, disciplined, organized, and very positive person,” said Robert Campion, chief executive officer at Lear Siegler Inc., and chairman of the board of directors of St. John’s. Campion, who was the first layman on the board, has known Shonka since 1969.

One of the projects Shonka helped bring about is the Ambulatory Care Center, which provides many services on an outpatient basis. The $23-million center was planned in the ‘70s and completed in 1980. Though Shonka said only that “we helped it to evolve,” Campion insisted she had a great deal to do it. “She is a visionary. She saw what was happening to hospitals, the impact of changing government regulations, the escalating costs. St. John’s Ambulatory Care Center was the first in this area. Sister was surely an absolute leader in ambulatory care.”

Recent changes in the way hospitals and physicians are reimbursed for care by the government have affected St. John’s as they have all hospitals. Shonka has expressed concern about who is going to pay for good health care for the indigent. She insists it cannot be considered only a health care concern.

‘Social Conglomerate’

“I would try to help society see that health care is only a small part of society’s responsibility,” she said. “Housing and food and health care are all a social conglomerate; we can take care of people who come in here but then they go back out into society and if they don’t have resources out in the community it’s a revolving door concept. I just think the public’s awareness of the total problem is so important. There’s only so much we can do. We can patch, but that’s firefighting in the whole scheme of things.”

Shonka’s concern for people is evident in the way she deals with every situation that comes to her attention. Said Gamble: “She is so people-oriented that if we’re dealing with a problem, if it’s a business problem or a mechanical problem, she always brings people into the equation: ‘But what does this do to the people who are involved?’ ”

Shonka has received numerous awards from such organizations as the Senior Health and Peer Counseling Center in Santa Monica, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and the International Assn. of Lions Clubs. In June she and Sister Mildred, who performs community liaison for the hospital, will be honored at a dinner after the Venice Art Walk, sponsored by the Venice Family Clinic.

“Sister Marie is a strong woman and I think she really has a commitment,” said Fern Seizer, executive director of the Venice Family Clinic. “She’s also a very nice person. . . . She breaks all the stereotypes. She and Sister Mildred are top-quality role models for women.”

In a moment of frankness, Shonka said she thinks most people like her. “The doctors know that I’m purely interested in the quality of care in their work. Or maybe they see someone who is willing to coordinate with them to achieve their goals. I think people know I care for them.”

Some of this caring is evidenced by Shonka’s habit of dropping in on patients. Said Campion, “You can find her on any floor, anytime. You’ll find her in a room asking somebody, ‘How’s the food? How’s the service?’ ”

As long as Shonka’s workday is, she finds time to keep track of sports figures, batting averages, and winning football and baseball teams. She also reads, shops, visits with good friends, and walks around Santa Monica. Though she says she used to be more physically active with tennis and swimming, she indulges little in such pastimes now. As she put it, laughing, “Who’d play tackle football when they’re 60 years old and a nun?”

Shonka lives with 14 other sisters in a convent on the sixth floor of St. John’s. The support she receives from this group helps her deal with the stress that comes with running such a large institution. “I think stress and fatigue can overwhelm anybody,” she said. “But just as people have their homes and their home lives after they leave their jobs, I have a really loving community and a God that’s in His heaven, and all’s well.”