Instead of calling her “Commissioner”, Mary Madonna Ashton was often referred to as “Sister”. It was the first sign that meetings would be different with a Catholic nun heading a state agency. Second sign: more civilized discourse and less insults.
“You hear a lot more old school people say ‘son of a gun’ when Sister Mary Madonna is in the room,” Governor Rudy Perpich later recalled.
He chose Ashton to be the first woman to lead the Minnesota Department of Health. The St. Paul resident was also the first non-doctor and nun to play the role, both of which sparked controversy in the 1980s.
“She made history…and set a very high standard for those of us who have had the privilege of following her in this role,” said Jan Malcolm, the current health commissioner who also held the position from 1999 to 2003 and considered Ashton a mentor. “Leading with grace and compassion was truly a hallmark [of her leadership.] … She just had a life of service.”
Ashton was a public health pioneer who also ran the old St. Mary’s Hospital in Minneapolis and started St. Mary’s Health Clinics in St. Paul. She died on October 16 at the age of 99.
Born Alberta Ashton, she grew up in St. Paul during the Great Depression, the eldest of three daughters in an Episcopal family. While attending St. Catherine’s University, Ashton converted to Catholicism and decided to become a nun, joining the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in St. Paul in 1946.
Ashton earned two master’s degrees, began a career in medical social work, and rose through the ranks to become CEO of St. Mary’s Hospital in 1962 — a notable achievement before the age of 40, at a time when women held only 2% of the country’s hospital director. works.
“She’s someone who has opened new doors for women in healthcare,” said longtime family friend Matthew Foley of Chanhassen.
After 20 years as CEO, she was called unexpectedly into Perpich’s office.
The governor offered the 59-year-old the top job in the health ministry, a step away from the tradition of having a chief medical officer. Some people worried that Perpich, a Catholic whose election had been backed by abortion opponents, was making a political statement. Others called a serving nun an abuse of power, confusing church and state.
“I wanted someone who was a class A manager, someone who could be tough and fair,” Perpich said in 1990.
During his two terms, Ashton would prove to be both. She had high expectations for the ministry’s 800 or so employees, just as she had for herself.
Ashton has been hailed for her work during the AIDS epidemic, fighting for funding for AIDS programs and for Minnesota to become the first state to make HIV a reportable disease. She also advocated for a ban on smoking in public places, helping set the stage for the state’s 2007 smoking ban, Malcolm said.
“She led with incredible grace and skill during that time,” Malcolm said. “I think she surprised a lot of people, frankly. … She really embraced the scope of public health responsibility and its role.”
Over time, Ashton seemed to win the reviews. Senators voted unanimously to confirm his second term. And when she quit in 1991, a line of employees lined the hallway at her farewell party. She was a humble and effective leader who catalyzed bipartisan support for public health initiatives, said Michael Osterholm, who worked with her as the state’s epidemiologist.
“She was a good leader and would do whatever was necessary to get the job done,” Osterholm said. “She was remarkable.”
After her public duties, she served as CEO of Carondelet LifeCare Corp. and founded St. Mary’s Health Clinics to serve the uninsured. Volunteer doctors, nurses and support staff now serve more than 15,000 people a year.
“His spirit is always what makes the clinics run so well,” said Sister Meg Gillespie, a longtime friend who also sits on the clinics’ board. “She just lived her mission to love God and to love her neighbor without distinction. She was focused on that more than herself.”
She is survived by seven nieces and nephews. Services will be held at 11 a.m. on November 18 at the Chapel of Our Lady of the Presentation at 1880 Randolph Avenue in St. Paul.
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