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OSF HealthCare is changing governance structure, but not its Catholic religious identity

The Motherhouse of the Sisters of the Third Order of Saint Francis in February 2023. It is located in Woodford County, just outside Germantown Hills.
Tim Shelley
The Motherhouse of the Sisters of the Third Order of Saint Francis in February 2023. It is located in Woodford County, just outside Germantown Hills.

The Catholic Diocese of Peoria will join with the Sisters of the Third Order of Saint Francis to create a new governance structure for OSF HealthCare.

OSF HealthCare announced Tuesday that a new "diocesan public juridic person" will take on the sponsorship and sole corporate membership of the OSF Healthcare System. What that actually means may be a bit confusing for those not steeped in Catholic canon law and terminology.

The Catholic Health Association of the United States (CHA) says a sponsor promotes and assures the healing mission of Jesus Christ on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church. A sponsor is responsible for "the continued viability of the health care ministry, promoting its ongoing mission, and animating its life."

A "public juridic person," as defined by the CHA's Health Progress, isn't actually an individual. Rather, it's "an alternative sponsorship arrangement that allows various Church entities to share resources, thus strengthening their competitive position."

In this case, that means the Diocese of Peoria and the Sisters of the Third Order of Saint Francis. Both are entities within the Roman Catholic Church.

Sole corporate membership means an entity is responsible for all aspects of the organization. The Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis have owned and operated the health care system since 1877.

Under this new structure, OSF Healthcare Ministries (aka the "diocesan public juridic person") would take on the sponsorship and sole corporate membership of the Peoria-based health care system.

The new OSF Healthcare Ministries board will consist of the five OSF sisters who currently serve on the Third Order of St. Francis Governing Board, and the OSF Healthcare System board that includes both sisters and laity, or non-clergy. Sister Judith Ann Duvall is currently chair of both boards. Robert Sehring is CEO of OSF HealthCare.

"We believe that this is what God is asking of our Religious Community and we believe it is the best possible solution in this situation," Duvall said about the change.

A research article published by the Catholic Medical Association's Linacre Quarterly in August noted that, generally, the makeup of leadership in Catholic health care is shifting heavily towards lay people.

"As the numbers of consecrated men and women have dwindled in these recent decades and the management of Catholic health ministries has been passed on to lay people, ensuring that their charisms [spiritual gifts] and the Catholic identities of their ministries would be preserved for future generations was crucial to these religious congregations," wrote Andrew J. Santos III, the senior vice president of mission integration for CHI Health in Omaha, Neb.

Structures like public juridic persons can ensure the Catholic tenants guiding health care systems are kept intact into the future amid demographic changes.

Bishop Lou Tylka of the Diocese of Peoria described his role as part of the new diocesan public juridic person in an interview clip released by OSF.

"It's not going to change the day-to-day operations of the hospital system. The Sisters are still going to be running the system as the board of the Public Juridic Person," Tylka said. "My job is simply to guarantee — to be the backstop — that if or when others needed to come and be put on the Board in order to maintain the Mission and Ministry of OSF HealthCare, I would be the one responsible for making sure that that continues."

OSF's new governing structure is expected to be in place by fall 2024. A spokesperson says nothing is expected to change for patients, donors, or employees.

"The approach that we're really looking at is the provision of long-term governance for OSF," said Sehring in an interview clip released by OSF's public relations team. "To continue to be connected here in Peoria as our home base, to be very connected to the Bishop of Peoria, and to provide the opportunity for the Sisters to give that ongoing governance and involvement, that engagement of the OSF healthcare system, which has been so important for the last 147 years."

OSF HealthCare employs more than 22,000 people and operates sixteen hospitals in Illinois and Michigan.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.