‘Brought Up on Social Encyclicals,’ First Woman Preps to Lead Catholic Charities USA

Adrian Dominican Sister Donna Markham assumes role as CCUSA president in June as humanitarian aid organizations face new challenges to religious freedom.

Sister Donna Markham
Sister Donna Markham (photo: CCUSA)

Updated March 5, 2015

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA), the national office for Catholic Charities agencies across the country, will soon welcome a new president, Adrian Dominican Sister Donna Markham.

Sister Donna presently serves as the president of the Behavioral Health Institute for Mercy Health. A board-certified clinical psychologist with critical experience in the delivery of mental-health services to the poor, Sister Donna will be the first woman to serve as the president of Catholic Charities USA, and her appointment sparked headlines when it was announced in January.

When she takes up her new role in June, she will engage U.S. lawmakers, influence legislation and provide guidance to diocesan Catholic Charities.

“We looked in the corporate world, academics, nonprofits and within and outside the Church,” Sister Linda Yankoski, chair of CCUSA’s board of trustees and president and CEO of the Holy Family Institute, told the Register.

“Be it interpersonal acumen, a healthy spiritual life, a commitment to combat poverty or an ability to build relationships and influence, Sister Donna’s name surfaced from a number of stakeholders.”

During an interview with the Register, Sister Donna said she was committed to the mission of Catholic Charities USA.

“The primary purpose of our work is to advocate on behalf of those who are poor and marginalized, to bring a voice to the table of power where they are not represented,” Sister Donna said, noting that the organization’s mission is “firmly rooted in the Gospel mandate that we love one another and extend mercy and compassion.”

She succeeds Father Larry Snyder, who led Catholic Charities USA for a decade and will now return to special ministry in his home Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and her appointment drew endorsements from Catholic nonprofit leaders and U.S. bishops.

However, the Cardinal Newman Society published a news story that raised questions about her past involvement with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which has been investigated by the Vatican for doctrinal problems, as well as her role as the prioress general of a congregation that backed the passage of the Affordable Care Act over the U.S. bishops’ objections to the bill’s weak language on abortion.


Advancing Services

Sister Donna received her doctorate from the University of Detroit and was named a fellow in the American Association of Clinical Psychologists. In past decades, she has served in a number of leadership positions, including CEO of the Canada-based Southdown Institute, which treats religious and clergy with addiction problems, before joining Mercy Health, formerly known as Catholic Health Partners. Along the way, she also served for eight years as a member of CCUSA’s board of trustees.

Last year, the Catholic Health Association (CHA), an industry lobby, showcased Sister Donna’s work at Mercy Health, explaining that the network “has re-envisioned how it provides behavioral health services.”

“The system is a year and a half into work to standardize evidence-based treatment across continuums of care. It has increased the amount of group therapy behavioral-health patients receive, so that they may benefit from increased structured time in treatment,” read the CHA story.

Sister Linda, the present CCUSA chair, said that Sister Donna’s successful efforts to expand Mercy Health’s delivery of mental-health services across seven geographical regions could be shared with local Catholic Charities affiliates that face new criteria for obtaining grants, as well as new opportunities to access outside funds for treatment and other services.

Today, she said, Catholic nonprofits are increasingly required to develop grant proposals and services aligned with “evidence-based” research, which helps provide assurance that a program’s stated goals to help the needy are likely to succeed.

“Poor people have a new opportunity to get those services, and her background will help us be ready with the right training and services,” said Sister Linda.

The Affordable Care Act offers federal subsidies for a range of mental-health services, and this will fuel the expansion of treatment programs for underserved groups.

But the landmark federal law also authorized the Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate. The mandate has sparked lawsuits from religious nonprofits, including some diocesan Catholic Charities, which argue that it violates their religious freedom by requiring their employee health plans to cover contraception.

Sister Linda explained that diocesan Catholic Charities operate independently, but at the national level, “we work together with our bishops to deal with issues and tensions that do come up,” including the dispute with the administration over the HHS mandate.


Inspired by Encyclicals

During an interview with the Register, Sister Donna said she would begin her new duties by “getting to know the home office staff and the diocesan directors of Catholic Charities across the country.”

Asked about the new effort to orient Catholic Charities programs around “evidence-based” research, she said, “The broad picture is that in whatever work we are doing we need to show that what we are doing is effective, and we need to develop [mechanisms] that measure effectiveness.”

While Sister Donna will help prepare local affiliates to meet such challenges, she is also expected to oversee formation programs for the largely lay leadership of diocesan Catholic Charities.  

And based on her deep reading of the Church’s social encyclicals, it seems likely that they will be a part of CCUSA-sponsored formation for diocesan directors.

“I was brought up on the social encyclicals,” she said. “That has been a part of my training, background and theology.”

The Adrian Dominican said she was inspired by Pope Francis and his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), where he called for the faithful to get dirty and “bruised” as they work among the poor and others on the “fringes” of society. That exhortation has helped to sustain her own efforts to provide mental-health services to the poor.

“The largest provider of this care is the prison system; we have to do better than that,” she said. “Catholic [services] should expand access to care to the most vulnerable.”


Female Leadership

Pope Francis has also called for more women to take positions of leadership in the Church, and Catholic Charities USA has celebrated the fact that Sister Donna will be the first woman to lead the organization in its 100-year history.

In the past, Sister Donna has been engaged in fostering leadership by women and in promoting institutional change.

Her biography page at Mercy Health notes her previous efforts to advance “global peace initiatives directed toward building bridges of ... collaboration among international women leaders” and notes her published book, Spiritlinking Leadership: Working Through Resistance to Organizational Change.

Adrian Dominican Sister Rosa Monique Peña, who was vicaress general of the congregation when Sister Donna was prioress general, described her leadership style as “creative, visionary and no-nonsense.”

She “knows how to team up with thinkers and doers able to bring projects to completion,” said Sister Rose in an email message, which noted that there are now 734 sisters in the congregation.

“As head of the Adrian Dominican congregation, she maintained an open and transparent communication with the sisters.”

Sister Donna served as prioress from 2004 to 2010, a period that saw the initiation of the Vatican’s apostolic visitation of U.S. religious institutes of women. Yet she effectively “collaborated with the investigation without compromising the integrity of our identity, lifestyle and ministerial occupation,” recalled Sister Rose.

Now, Catholic Charities USA has provided a compelling opportunity for the Dominican sister to apply her leadership skills at the national level.


Some Questions

However, this milestone has prompted scrutiny as well as celebrations.

The Cardinal Newman Society raised questions about Sister Donna’s qualifications for leading the national office, given her record on the Affordable Care Act and the LCWR.

In March 2010, near the end of Sister Donna’s service as prioress general for the Adrian Dominicans, two members of her congregation, including “Kathleen Nolan, OP, Adrian Dominican Sisters Office of the General Council,” signed a letter that endorsed the ACA “pro-life” provisions over the U.S. bishops’ objections to the bill’s weak language on abortion and conscience protections.

During her interview with the Register, Sister Donna was not asked about her congregation’s endorsement of the ACA. But after the Register’s story was posted, CCUSA contacted the reporter to clarify that the signatures did not reflect Sister Donna’s official position or that of the Adrian Dominican congregation.

“This letter was signed by two members of the Adrian Dominican congregation as a sign of individual support,” stated an email message from Maureen Varnon, a CCUSA senior vice president for communications.

The 2010 letter, distributed to members of Congress and the media by “NETWORK, a national Catholic social-justice lobby,” stated that the signatories represented “the heads of major Catholic women’s religious orders in the United States; we represent 59,000 Catholic sisters in the United States.” Later, NETWORK corrected that statement, noting that only one signatory, the LCWR president, represented the 58,000 sisters.

CCUSA confirmed that Sister Donna did not issue any statement of clarification following the letter’s release because “no public comment was deemed necessary.”

But with respect to the HHS mandate litigation — which arises directly from the ACA’s requirement that all employee health plans include contraception, sterilization and abortifacient drugs — she seemed unaware of the issue.

“I am not on board yet, so I don’t know those things,” she said.

Sister Donna’s appointment has also prompted questions about her involvement with the LCWR, which has been under the scrutiny of the Vatican, in part for its approach to Catholic teaching on issues like abortion and homosexual relations, as well as the appearance of heterodox speakers at the group’s annual conference.

Sister Donna served as the LCWR president in 1991, well before the Vatican launched its investigation, and she told the Register that she is not a member now. But during her years as the Adrian Dominicans’ prioress general, she was active in the LCWR.

At a 2013 College of the Holy Cross forum, “The Vatican and the Nuns,” Sister Donna acknowledged that some past speakers at the LCWR’s annual conference had stirred controversy and “ticked” her off.

She contended, however, that such missteps did not justify an investigation of the LCWR. “Investigate the speaker!” she said.

During the LCWR’s national assembly in St. Louis in August 2012, Sister Donna was one of three LCWR members delegated to serve on a panel discussing the assessment. Asked how the LCWR sisters had coped with the “hurt and pain” caused by the assessment, Sister Donna responded that, initially, she felt “extremely hurt” and “betrayed by my Church,” to the point that it took “everything” to attend Mass the following Sunday.

But the words of the priest celebrating the Mass, praising the witness of religious sisters as good shepherds, had helped ease the hurt, she added. And in response to another question, Sister Donna stressed the need for the LCWR to seek reconciliation.

“The thing I don’t think we ought to be risking is further splitting our Church and getting into more and more fragmentation. … We have to figure out: How are we going to get through this together in a way that is respectful of the integrity of both parties?”


Spiritual Pilgrimage

Sister Donna’s remarks at the Holy Cross forum also noted the touchstones of her own spiritual pilgrimage.

“I grew up in a parish that was alive with the spirit of John XXIII, with a very forward-thinking pastor,” she said.

“We never studied the Baltimore Catechism; we studied the Scriptures and social encyclicals of the Church.”

Later, as a young adult, the assassinations of President John Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. left her torn between joining the Dominicans or the Peace Corps.

Now, Sister Donna will be working more closely with the U.S. bishops to address policies that threaten the religious freedom of local affiliates. In late February, the USCCB raised concerns about a new interim final rule, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, which would require Church agencies that receive government funding to assist undocumented minors to also provide emergency contraception and abortion referrals.

Yet, even as she prepares to address such challenges, Sister Donna clearly relishes the opportunity to work with affiliates who share her desire to help the needy access programs that will benefit their lives.

“I have spent much of my life dealing with people who are struggling,” she said, reflecting on her life as a woman religious, a psychologist and a health-care executive.

“I hope that, in any way, I can — at a personal and systemic level — alleviate their suffering. I am excited to join with diocesan directors in that great effort.”


Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.

Editor's Note: A clarification regarding Sister Donna's and the Adrian Domincan's offical position on the ACA was made at the request of CCUSA.