There are significant changes on the horizon for the Wheaton Franciscan Sisters in southeastern Wisconsin.

It was announced last week that the sisters will transfer operations and related corporate services of Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare to Ascension Wisconsin, a division of Ascension Healthcare, the largest non-profit healthcare system in the United States and the world’s largest Catholic health system.

On the heels of that news, the sisters also announced the transfer of their housing properties under Franciscan Ministries, Inc. to Mercy Housing, a national housing non-profit based in Denver.

Representatives for the Wheaton Franciscan Sisters declined to be interviewed on the basis that the completion of both transfers is still subject to due diligence, though both are expected to go through in the first quarter of 2016.

In a press release, Franciscan Sr. Pat Norton, chair of the Sponsor Member Board for Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare,
communicated confidence that the transfers will safeguard the 140-year-old mission of the sisters.

“This decision came after a lengthy discernment process by the sisters as we are aging and our numbers are getting smaller in the United States. We wanted to transfer our corporate ministries while these ministries are healthy, fiscally sound, and have a strong sense of mission and values,” she said.

Future of Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare

Wheaton Franciscan facilities that will be affected by this change include All Saints Hospital, Racine; Elmbrook Memorial Hospital, Brookfield; St. Joseph and St. Francis Hospitals, Milwaukee; Wisconsin Heart Hospital and Midwest Spine and Orthopedic Hospital, Wauwatosa; and Franklin Hospital and Midwest Orthopedic Specialty Hospital, Franklin.

Ascension Wisconsin already includes the Columbia St. Mary’s and Ministry Health Care groups in Milwaukee and Appleton, respectively.

After it absorbs Wheaton Franciscan, Ascension will employ over 1,000 medical group physicians and 24,000 associates working at 150 clinics and 27 hospitals in the state, pulling in $3.5 billion of annual operating revenues.

“We believe the addition of associates, physicians, caregivers and volunteers from Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare will allow them to benefit from the scale and expertise of Ascension, while also contributing their expertise to help us lead the transformation of healthcare as we serve individuals in our communities,” said Nick Desien, senior vice president, Ascension Health/Wisconsin Ministry Market Executive, in a press release.

As a Catholic organization, Ascension Wisconsin provided $145 million in community benefit and care of persons living in poverty in fiscal year 2015.

“Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare has a long history of delivering high-quality and compassionate care in Southeast Wisconsin through our dedicated physicians and associates,” said John Oliverio, president and chief executive officer, Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare. “We look forward to our continued discussions with Ascension and the opportunity to be part of an organization that shares our strong commitment to our local communities. We anticipate reaching a definitive agreement and completing the transfer in early 2016.”

The sisters are also transferring operations of their Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Illinois to Northwestern Medicine.
Housing properties to faith-based Mercy

Control of the sisters’ housing properties, held by Franciscan Ministries, Inc., will be transferred to another faith-based organization, Mercy Housing, a 501(c)3 organization founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1981. Mercy is sponsored by eight communities of Catholic women religious across the country.

In addressing the transfer of housing properties, Sr. Pat echoed her explanation for the transfer of Wheaton Franciscan.

Currently, Franciscan Ministries comprises 2,620 housing units, with the acquisition of 1,200 additional units pending in eight other states. Holdings include low-income family and senior communities like Jefferson Court Apartments, Milwaukee; Assisi Homes of Kenosha and Neenah; Saxony Manor, Kenosha; and Marian Housing Center, Racine. Franciscan Ministries also operates assisted living and special needs communities.

Though based in Denver, with a presence in 41 states, Mercy Housing is no stranger to the Milwaukee area – in fact, it already owns two buildings on Knapp Street, the Johnston Center and St. Catherine Residence & McCauley Apartments, just four blocks west of the Jefferson Court Apartments. Mercy is also developing Greenwich Park Apartments on Farwell and Thomas Avenues, which will provide 100 units of affordable housing to residents of the East Side.

Will be stewards of sisters’ mission

Mark Angelini, president of Mercy Housing Lakefront, a subsidiary of Mercy Housing, said Mercy Housing considers itself a “steward” of the Franciscan Sisters’ mission, calling the overlap of the two companies’ missions “almost perfect.”

“We’re very appreciative that the Franciscan Sisters think highly enough of us that they would want to place these assets with us because we know how important they are to them, and it was a key part of their mission, and certainly our intent is to keep carrying that mission forward,” he said in a phone interview with the Catholic Herald. “We very much understand the role of women religious in this country in terms of the mission that they created and effectively dealt with in terms of housing, education, healthcare – and so, very much, we see ourselves as stewards of that mission, and know that we have to manage that in a very professional, sound way.”

Angelini stressed residents can expect no change but could not comment on staffing and administration.

“We certainly have the same approach, and value the residents and their needs, and we, too, are very service-oriented in terms of making sure that each of our properties has attention being paid to what are the needs of the folks, families, individuals that live at those properties,” he said.

Echoing Angelini’s sentiments, Sue Dillberg, president and CEO of Franciscan Ministries, praised the mission of Mercy Housing in a press release.

“We selected Mercy Housing as the ideal organization to assume stewardship of our housing assets because of its reputation as a leader in providing affordable housing and supportive services,” she said. “Mercy Housing will be an excellent fit with our values and mission to provide quality affordable housing in a compassionate environment.”