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When Sister Rosemary Connelly sees need, she acts — and resources follow. Her vision and determination as executive director of Misericordia/Heart of Mercy for 47 years have been instrumental in growing the residential community for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities on Chicago’s North Side into an extraordinary place where people are accepted, challenged to do more, and encouraged to embrace life to its fullest.
It’s nearly impossible to say “No” to Sister Rosemary when she sets her mind to something. Not only is her heart in the right place, she’s also a brilliant strategist. She knows who to ask, what to ask and when to ask. Fueled by a deep appreciation for the blessings found in each and every resident, their families, staff members and generous supporters, her ability to address the problems and challenges she encounters moves other to help too.
The first seven years of Sister Rosemary’s tenure were spent on Chicago’s South Side, where Misericordia was originally located. On a cold, wintry day 40 years ago, she moved 39 children with developmental disabilities who were in her care and 36 staff members to Misericordia’s current location, the home of a recently closed orphanage.
Since then, Misericordia has grown into a beautiful 31-acre campus of more than 20 residences and buildings. It also includes 10 Community Integrated Living Arrangements (CILAs) in the neighborhood that house more than 60 adults. This loving, caring environment — the hallmark of Misericordia — provides a full continuum of residential care, continuing academic learning experiences, job training and work opportunities, social and recreational activities, and opportunities for spiritual growth to children and adults with a wide range of intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Love permeates the whole.
Early on, Sister Rosemary understood Misericordia’s vulnerability in relying solely on public funding and government-dictated policies to care for its unique population. So, in addition to receiving much-needed government support, over the years she has developed a broad base of private support to fund a variety of life-enriching programs for Misericordia residents.
“Every time we saw an unmet need,” she explains, “we grew a new program.” Today, Misericordia offers on-campus work opportunities in places like the Hearts and Flour Bakery, Greenhouse Inn Restaurant and HeART Studio and Workshops; a range of physical, occupational and speech therapies; health and fitness resources; singing and dancing groups; and so much more. “We’re blessed to share these programs with more than 600 residents and 1,000 staff,” she says.
Misericordia now stands as one of the nation’s leading communities for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities — and continues to evolve to meet the changing needs of its residents. When Sister Rosemary began her work 47 years ago, a child born with an intellectual or developmental disability did not have a long life expectancy. Today, with improved medical care for the population it serves, Misericordia is addressing the growing needs of its aging adults. Earlier this year, it opened four warmly furnished homes custom designed for seniors to meet their increasingly complex medical and nursing needs.
Misericordia’s support includes a broad cross-section of prominent Chicagoans — from former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews and Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon to the city’s savviest corporate leaders and politicians across the state. Every year, Misericordia is part of the Chicago Auto Show’s First Look for Charity. And, in recognition of her enormous accomplishments, Chicago Magazine named Sister Rosemary a 2014 Chicagoan of the Year.
In this era of divisive politics, Sister Rosemary is a unifying force, generating bipartisan support and inspiring others to lobby our Illinois state government so Misericordia and other programs serving individuals with a range of disabilities can continue to operate effectively. “Going through any government process is demanding,” she admits, “but one of the truly great joys has been the wonderful bipartisan support of Misericordia from our government officials. Both elected and appointed officials have taken time to tour Misericordia’s campus, including Governor [Bruce] Rauner. All have been impressed and have become our friends.”
The Misericordia community is most vibrant during its annual Family Fest, held this year on Sunday, Sept. 11. A day also set aside to celebrate Misericordia’s 40th Anniversary at its North Side location, more than 15,000 attendees will enjoy entertainment, games, food and drink, and family fun. Leading businesses, organizations and individuals across the Chicago metropolitan area join together as sponsors to support the Fest — and Misericordia’s residents so they can truly live productive, meaningful and happy lives. All are welcome. For more information, click here.
Make It Better is grateful to be a media sponsor of Misericordia’s Annual 2016 Family Fest. More importantly, we hope you will be inspired by Sister Rosemary and supportive of the Misericordia model of care. Both offer examples of well-lived lives, social impact and the opportunity to make a profound difference for others. To learn more, please watch this video from the Chicago Magazine 2014 Chicagoan of the Year Award.